Turkey makes new Syria offer to US amid operation warnings
“Despite everything, we believe we have joint interests with the United States in the region and hope we can act together, because this is the time to qualify the strategic cooperation among us and support Turkey… I hope that meanwhile, our allies will not make the mistake of being in the same ranks with the terrorist organization during the Afrin operation,” said Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan on Jan. 14.
Erdoğan made this remark in the same speech when he said Turkey is likely to start a new military operation in the coming days against the strongholds of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in and around the northwestern Syrian town of Afrin, which is very close to the Turkish border. In the early hours of Jan. 14, the Turkish military reportedly started to pound PKK units in the region, which is known to be a mountainous forest crossing in and out of Turkey.
“Now, Americans have renamed them as the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF],” Erdoğan said in the same speech in the Central Anatolian province of Tokat. “We will not take this. Are you going to cheat us by changing their names? I say this clearly to the West: Cooperation with terrorist organizations to fight other terror organizations hurts our relations,” he said.
Erdoğan referred to the U.S. cooperation with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian extension of the PKK, as the backbone of the SDF in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).
Raqqa in Syria was taken back from ISIL by the U.S.-backed SDF, but the U.S. is not likely to end their cooperation with the PKK-affiliated groups as they promised their NATO ally Turkey, against which the PKK has been waging fatal attacks for the last three decades. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently said the U.S. did not want to let “an ISIL 2.0” to emerge. This is a correct approach in principle except the fact that Ankara reads that as a worrying signal of extended U.S. cooperation with the PKK-affiliated groups, which means more difficulty for Turkey’s fight against terror at home. The PKK is actually designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., too.
Erdoğan’s call on the U.S. could actually give a new opportunity for a joint fight against terrorism without hurting their alliance. It is not realistic to expect a military operation by Turkey in Syria without informing or seeking consent from Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin told Erdoğan during a phone call last week that he did not hold Turkey responsible for drone attacks on Russian bases in Syria even though they came from a Turkish-controlled zone around Idlib, which is also close to the Turkish border.
Turkish authorities also consider the possibility of the PKK-affiliated groups to changes sides from the U.S. to Syria, their original protector. But Turkey and Russia have entered strong economic cooperation as well, which further complicates the outlook.
Erdoğan’s call to the U.S. creates a new opportunity not only to contribute to security and stability in Syria but also to help better Turkish-U.S. relations if positively responded by Washington D.C.