An arduous quest to find Turkey’s favorite Kurds in Syria
Following last week’s high-level meetings, it seems that the Trump administration managed to temporarily halt bleeding in the U.S.’s relationship with Ankara, which has been badly affected by the war in Syria. But the momentum is still too fragile to suggest that an ultimate consensus between Washington and Ankara will be possible over the next phase in Syria. A precondition for Turkey remains the withdrawal of the key U.S. ally in northern Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), to the east of the Euphrates River, a promise by former President Barack Obama that Washington has failed to fulfill since.
Bilateral meetings with U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis were important in U.S. efforts to calm Turkey, which has been threatening to attack Manbij to wipe the YPG out of a historically Arab-majority town, but most of the work was done by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Ankara.
The reason why Tillerson accepted President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s request to meet without the presence of a translator or a note-taker on the U.S. side at such a tense time is likely explained by his 40 years of corporate experience in the oil company Exxon. He probably knew his judgment would be questioned by some even within his own administration for bending over for a leader like Erdoğan who has of late earned a very poor reputation in Washington.
But whatever the reaction is on the American side, such gestures do seem to matter for Erdoğan. And at the end of the day Tillerson was the one signing up for the burdensome task of re-gaining the long-lost trust of an angry ally.
Optics aside, in reality none of the major problems between Turkey and the United States were solved in last week’s meetings. The agreement that the two sides would no longer work separately in the Syrian theater, pledging to work out differences in three working group meetings was simply an elegant way of recognizing that tough bargains lie ahead.
It is no secret that the U.S. is not prepared to completely give up on its partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which was initially heavily composed of militants of the YPG - the Syrian affiliate of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But key officials in the Trump administration are working on a new strategy to re-structure allied forces on the ground. Indeed, recruiting more Arab fighters to the SDF has been underway since the battle of Raqqa, though the leadership has mostly remained composed of YPG figures.
The U.S. will probably first decompose the existing structures and then start recomposing them, taking Turkey’s objections into account. This process is likely to start in Manbij, which has turned into a kind of Gordian knot with the start of the Turkish offensive in Afrin. The Americans are faced with the difficult task of taking the YPG out of the equation in Manbij without completely antagonizing the Kurds and pushing them further towards the Russians.
The Manbij Military Council will present a test case to see how Ankara will be incorporated within a new vetting process in northern Syria. According to sources familiar with the meetings, the U.S. side openly asked the Turks in Ankara whether they should not work with Kurds at all in Syria. The Turkish side responded that their only red line is the PKK and its affiliates, prompting the Americans to request they specify which Kurdish groups they can work with. This looks like it will be an interesting exercise to watch: Finding Turkey’s favorite Kurds in Syria.
Representation of the Kurds in Geneva or wherever the political future of Syria is determined must eventually be part of the U.S.’s bargain with the Turks. But this is not yet the talk of today, so Ankara will have to start adjusting to this reality with more creative and realistic proposals, rather than simply ignoring the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria.
Having managed to put a possible Turkish attack on Manbij on the backburner, Washington will possibly now try to persuade the Turks not to pursue their declared goal of pushing for the fall of the city center of Afrin. After all, wars are fought one battle a time.