Trump, Putin, Erdoğan and the Kurdish problem
Soon after a meeting in Beijing with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a press conference that he would maintain Russia’s contact with the “Kurdish formations” in Syria that are fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or DAESH, despite Turkey’s objections. By “Kurdish formations” he meant the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militia of the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), the Syria extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has been waging an armed campaign against Turkey for more than three decades.
But, Putin added, Russia would not seek to provide the PYD with more arms, since there are other sources from which they could find weapons. Putin was implying U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last week to approve the sending of more and heavier arms to the YPG for the military operation to take Raqqa from ISIL.
The Russian president said it was not Russia who Ankara has to worry about, pointing his finger at Turkey’s NATO ally the U.S. If Turkey’s ally is supplying arms to an armed group which Turkey designates as terrorists, why should Russia refrain from being in contact with them?
As Putin was diplomatically teasing both Turkey and the U.S., Erdoğan had already left Beijing for Washington for his May 16 appointment with Trump.
In a way, Putin was sending a public message to Trump before Erdoğan arrives in the U.S. to not leave any door open for Erdoğan regarding the YPG which could be used as a bargaining chip regarding Trump’s Syria policy – something that Erdoğan said he hopes to change.
That makes Erdoğan’s job further difficult in the White House meeting. As of May 15, it is clear that Russia and the U.S. have united in protecting the YPG against Turkish attacks as long as the fight against ISIL continues and the YPG (or the PKK) is ready to die in the fight against ISIL where the U.S. doesn’t want to send its own infantry. And it’s not only PKK militants. A left-wing Turkish militant with a long police record against him was buried in Istanbul with hammer-and-sickle flags over the weekend after being killed by ISIL militants near Raqqa as he was fighting in the ranks of the YPG. It is sad in a way for a communist militant to die under the command of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), but it is the realpolitik of the 21st century.
Perhaps that is the point which Richar Ford, the former American ambassador to Ankara, wanted to make in his article in The Atlantic magazine, where he backed Erdoğan’s persistence in his line that it was wrong to try to defeat terrorists by cooperating with others and that the U.S. would regret that in future.
It is the same realpolitik which makes Erdoğan complain that those beltway bureaucrats from the team of Barack Obama who are still in charge are trying to influence Trump on his Syria policy against Turkey.
Speaking of regret, what would Erdoğan do if it were possible to rewind the time to July 2015, right after the June 7 elections, when the PKK resumed acts of terror and abandoned the three years of dialogue with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Would he do the same over again, or would he try to contain the situation and try to resume dialogue which would have perhaps not caused all the subsequent bloodshed and heavy diplomacy and security problems now? It’s a question that needs to be explored in details, perhaps in another piece.