Sidelining Turkey from the Syria equation

Sidelining Turkey from the Syria equation

The Pentagon describes the dispute between the U.S. and Turkey over the Syrian Kurdish group the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as an “ongoing topical conversation.”

Telephone conversations between Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, and later between Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Barack Obama over the past two weeks have not been able to solve the dispute.

The Turkish government continues to stress that the PYD and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are Syrian branches of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an armed campaign for Kurdish independence against Turkey for over three decades, claiming more than 40,000 lives so far. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu say that as the U.S. and the EU recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization, they should consider the PYD-YPG a terrorist group as well.

Erdoğan’s statements on Feb. 24 about excluding the PYD from the Syrian truce deal reached between the U.S. and Russia - to be effective as of midnight on Feb. 27 – may well be in vain, but they reflect Ankara’s persistence on the issue. It is unlikely that the U.S. and Russia will exclude the PYD-YPG, which is fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), from the truce and thus legitimize Turkish operations against it. The truce, like the Munich framework on Feb. 11-12, is based on U.N. Resolution 2254, which clearly singles out ISIL and al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra as terrorist targets for all parties.

It is true that Turkey was among the contributors to the Munich framework. But two days later Turkish artillery started to open “reciprocal fire against YPG and Syrian army positions.” Neither Biden nor Obama could stop that. On the contrary, right after his 1 hour, 20 minute phone call with Obama, Erdoğan said on Feb. 20 that Turkey had the right to hit terrorist targets in Syria and elsewhere. 

Turkey accuses the YPG-PKK of executing the suicide bomb attack in Ankara on Feb. 17, which killed 29 and injured many others. It also accuses the Bashar al-Assad regime of being behind it. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a dummy organization used by the PKK, claimed responsibility for the attack, but for Ankara they all amount to the same PKK.

Davutoğlu said on Feb. 24 that the PYD’s real aim was not fighting against ISIL but actually securing an autonomous Kurdish corridor next to the Turkish border, opportunistically taking the help of the Russians too. British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond also expressed a similar concern on Feb. 23, pointing out the coordination between the Syrian regime, the Russians, and the PYD.

U.S. officials certainly have all the information showing the organic link between the PYD and the PKK, but even if the YPG claimed responsibility for the Ankara attack, it would have been difficult for Washington to admit the link as the U.S. needs a fighting force on the ground.

Following Turkey’s shooting down of the Russian jet last November, it is not at all likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin would consider any Turkish suggestion on Syria. He would definitely not make changes to the truce deal based on Turkish demands. 

That truce deal was only reached by almost effectively sidelining Turkey. However, it may not be realistic to expect any truce or political deal in Syria can last if Turkey is sidelined. After all, Turkey has cultural and social links in common with Syria, as well as a 910-km border; it will also still be here when the Americans and Russians decide to go home one day. The importance of Turkey in the Syria equation is particularly true when considered alongside the migration dimension, which has become a real headache for the EU.

Sidelining Turkey in these deals may bring a short-term success to sell to the U.S. and Russian publics, but such success may last no longer than a few weeks.