How serious is Ankara in reacting to the US on Syrian Kurds?
Photos showing U.S. troopers on Syrian soil bearing the insignia of the armed forces of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – which is deemed a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and Turkey - prompted a harsh reaction from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on May 27.
“It is unacceptable,” said Çavuşoğlu. “This is double standards and hypocrisy.” Turkey made a diplomatic protest in both Ankara and Washington DC against the photos.
Earlier in Washington, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters that wearing the insignia of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the PYD was a “common practice under such circumstances … Special operations forces, when they operate in certain areas, do what they can to blend in with the community to enhance their own protection, their own security.”
But in response to the strong criticism of opposition parties in parliament, ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) spokesman Naci Bostancı took a less strong line than Çavuşoğlu, one that was actually closer to Cook. “It might be a part of strategy for camouflage,” Bostancı suggested.
There are a number of inconsistent factors in the whole picture that should be discussed.
First of all, the insignia on the right shoulder of the American soldier does not belong to the YPG, but rather the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), a military unit consisting of women militants only. This suggests that the camouflage may not actually be against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DAESH with Arabic initials, but rather to make it known to Turkish public opinion (and others) that the U.S. is indeed fighting together with the PYD forces, despite insistent objections from the Turkish government. It was also like a public message to the Turkish government that if Turkish army artillery hits PYD forces, as it does from time to time, U.S. soldiers among them might also get killed.
It is not only the Turkish government that is uncomfortable with this situation. U.S. officials like Robert Ford (a former ambassador to Damascus) also openly acknowledge that the PYD is the Syrian extension of the PKK, against which the Turkish governments have been fighting an anti-terror struggle for the past three decades.
Still, it was none other than General Joseph Votel, the commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), who emphasized a “first things first” approach during a visit to the front line in Syria on May 20. The YPG is the only major force that the U.S. can cooperate with in Syria against ISIL, and thinking about the next political phase in Syria is not today’s worry. Votel’s next stop was Ankara, where he met Deputy Chief of Turkish General Staff Yaşar Güler.
Votel had also been in Baghdad on May 19, talking to American and Iraqi forces there about a combined military operation against ISIL in both Iraq and Syria. That was only one day after a telephone conversation between U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. Their conversation focused on the anti-ISIL struggle in Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s right to hit the PKK, and protecting the borders. Right after that, Turkish jets - led by Air Force Commander General Abidin Ünal himself - staged massive sorties against PKK positions in Iraq, while anti-ISIL jets took off from the strategic Turkish base of İncirlik, pounding ISIL positions in Syria near to the Turkish border.
It is obvious that there is tension between the U.S. and Turkey over the PYD. But it is not only the U.S. Turkey’s National Security Council (MGK) stated after a May 26 meeting that the PYD’s newly opened offices in Berlin, Paris, Stockholm and Prague were not in line with “anti-terrorism solidarity” among allies. Those issues were also discussed during a visit of the new (SAECEUR) commander General Curtis Michael Scaparrotti’s visit to Ankara on May 25, when he met Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar.
Meanwhile, the militaries of the U.S., Turkey, the U.K., Germany, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Poland, Pakistan and Azerbaijan have been carrying out major military exercises near İzmir in western Turkey, testing coordinated action in combined operations.
It is not possible to consider all of these events independent of the telephone discussion between Obama and Erdoğan on May 18.