Turkey cuts ISIL links but PYD gets more US support
The headline of pro-government Turkish newspaper Star’s Sept. 5 edition read, in English: “YPG is terrorist.” According to the report, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan had said that sentence in English during his Sept. 4 meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the G-20 Summit in Hangzhou. The story implied that if the translation was not explained to Obama, he should hear the message in his mother tongue from Erdoğan’s mouth and do what was necessary.
Erdoğan was asking Obama not to cooperate with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey regards as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whether it be against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) or not. Actually, the U.S. administration knows that the YPG/PYD “have links with the PKK,” which is a “terrorist organization in the eyes of the U.S. government as well,” as clearly acknowledged by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter during testimony in the senate’s Armed Services Committee on April 28. Knowing that the YPG and the PKK shared their armory, their militants, their resources, Obama said he needed them for ground operations against ISIL, since he did not want to send U.S. soldiers to die in the Syrian desert (like his predecessor George W. Bush did in Iraq) when he had foot soldiers ready to serve the same purpose for their own cause.
But that cause is the point where the two NATO allies fall apart. The PKK’s program when it launched its armed campaign in 1984 (since then more than 40,000 people have been killed) aimed at carving out a Kurdish state from the territories of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Syria is the most reachable target for the PKK/PYD due to the power vacuum there because of the ongoing civil war. The key point for them is to form a corridor along the 910-km-long border between Turkey and Syria, with the help of U.S. air support as a by-product, or perhaps the bill of services to the U.S. This looks like a strange, Machiavellian cooperation between the Obama administration in the U.S. and the originally Marxist-Leninist PKK.
But knowing that such a PYD/PKK corridor (which Erdoğan calls a “terror corridor”) would not only be a recipe for Syria falling apart, but also the first step for a PKK-led Kurdish state, the Turkish government has moved to put a wedge between the eastern and western sectors of the PYD/PKK-held territory in Syria. There was already a plan to get into Syria to protect the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) in its advance on ISIL to cut its physical contact with the Turkish border. That was something demanded by both the U.S. and Russia for some time and the CIA and the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MİT) have been training the FSA for more than a year in Turkey for this purpose.
Turkey moved into Syria on Aug. 26 and sealed the border by Sept. 4, on the day of Erdoğan’s meeting with Obama in Hangzhou.
We understand that Erdoğan asked for an end to the cooperation with the YPG and said the Turkish army with the FSA could clear that region of ISIL and now was the time to call for a “safe zone” for Syrian migrants and rebels, since no ISIL is left in the areas taken under Turkish-protected FSA control. We also understand that Obama focused only on eliminating ISIL through his talk with Erdoğan. Right after the Erdoğan-Obama talk Brett McGurk, Obama’s special envoy to the U.S.-led coalition (operating also out of Turkey), visited the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), mainly consisting of the YPG, in Manbij, which was taken from ISIL on Aug. 12. Ironically, in an earlier statement U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had told Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu that the PYD/YPG would withdraw from Manbij to the east of the Euphrates River, as promised to Turkey once the town was cleared of ISIL.
Could Turkey have moved into Syria before the U.S. got into cooperation with the YPG? Perhaps so. Could Turkey have moved to seal the border before? Perhaps so. But the trajectory that the U.S. follows, cooperating with a group marked as a terrorist by an ally, might lead to unexpected costs for the U.S., and of course to the world, in the future.