Is it worth fighting Turkey, Mr Trump?
The U.S. statement on Jan. 14 that a “border security unit” of around 30,000 troops in Syria will be established along the Turkish and Iraqi borders, half of which will be composed of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has drawn a strong reaction from NATO ally Turkey.
Following a prompt statement by Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın on the evening of Jan. 14, President Tayyip Erdoğan called on the U.S. to “take down its flags in Syria protecting terrorists if [the U.S.] doesn’t want [Turkish troops] to take them down and deliver to them [to the U.S.].”
He was referring to the U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM) protection given to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) - which is the backbone of the Washington-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) but also the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) - as the ground partner in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda affiliated groups.
The PKK has been waging an armed campaign against Turkey, aiming to carve out an independent state, for more than three decades, and is also designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. It was actually thanks to the CIA that the PKK’s founder, Abdullah Öcalan, was found and arrested by Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT) as he left the Greek Embassy in Kenya back in 1999.
Despite Turkey’s offer to cooperate through the Free Syria Army (FSA), the U.S. opted to partner with the PKK’s affiliate, the YPG, as a ground force against ISIL.
Erdoğan has asked U.S. President Donald Trump to end that cooperation a number of times, saying it “is not right to cooperate with one terror organization to fight another one.” The answer from Washington has been that the cooperation was strictly limited to the job at hand and will come to an end as soon as ISIL is defeated. As a result of the partnership ISIL has lost many strongholds, including its Syrian headquarters in Raqqa.
Amid demands from Ankara for the U.S. to “keep its word,” U.S. Secretary of State James Mattis vowed on Jan. 13 that Washington would “not let an ISIL 2.0” to emerge. That was the correct message to give, but Ankara suspects that it will be used as a pretext to extend the U.S.’s cooperation with the YPG/PKK.
Raising such concerns, Erdoğan said on Jan. 14 that “despite everything” Turkey is ready to cooperate with its NATO ally the U.S. if it ends its partnership with the YPG. He added that Ankara will not recognize the U.S.’s partnership with the SDF, which is simply a fig leaf to conceal cooperation with the PKK-affiliated YPG.
Hours after Erdoğan’s call on the U.S., a statement from the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition said a Border Security Force (BSF) of 30,000 troops will be established, half of them consisting of already-trained SDF soldiers.
Erdoğan then said on Jan. 15 that the coalition statement was an “affirmation that the U.S. is founding a terror army,” vowing to “crush it before it is even established.” He also said Turkey would start an operation against the YPG/PKK in the Syrian towns of Afrin and Manbij near the Turkish border, which are currently under the protection of U.S.-backed forces.
Before Erdoğan’s remarks two other strongly worded criticisms of the U.S. stance were made. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the U.S. was “trying to divide Syria” by forming an army among the Kurds, while the Syrian government had previously denounced as “traitors” all Kurds joining the YPG in order to serve the Americans.
Now a number of questions arise for Mr. Trump. Is the U.S. army ready to open fire on the Turks if the Turks open fire on forces that the U.S. also once recognized as terrorists?
Who is going to protect Turkey and Iraq against the border force? And which part of it is to wipe out ISIL?
Is this not a move that could lead to a de facto division of Syria and open another Cold War-era style politics, Mr. Trump? Do you really think a buffer zone state will exist there after the U.S. military leaves Syria? Is this not playing with fire? Is it really worth losing a U.S. ally, which has been a key ally since the Second World War and the Korean War?
Although furious, Erdoğan still left a door open for Trump, saying he was not sure whether the U.S. president personally gave the order for the border force step. That line was also repeated by Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım.
So is it really worth it, Mr. Trump? Is it really worth it?