US is giving NATO training to a group on its terror list
The Turkish government on Oct. 20 strongly reacted against photos of militants standing in the Syrian city of Raqqa in front of a giant poster of Abdullah Öcalan, the founding leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., the EU and Turkey. The photos clearly show PKK flags flying on the masts after the capture of the city from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
It was in fact thanks to the help of the CIA that Öcalan was arrested back in 1999 by Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT) as he left the Greek Embassy in Kenya. He had been pushed out of his hideout in Syria the year before, thanks to the cooperation of Iran and Egypt with Turkey. Today, Öcalan is currently still in jail in the İmralı island prison south of Istanbul.
The militants in Raqqa who ousted ISIL belong to different militia groups - with acronyms like the YPG and the YPJ - under the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian branch of the PKK. They have been fighting against ISIL since 2014 as the ground force partner of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Neither Barack Obama nor Donald Trump wanted the sons and daughters of American families to die in Middle Eastern deserts any more, and despite repeated offers by Turkey - a NATO ally of the U.S. - the White House opted to work with the PYD in the anti-ISIL campaign.
The photos from Raqqa have outraged Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan (as well as many others in Turkey), who blasted the U.S. for “not standing with Turkey” in the fight against terror. He also pointedly questioned “what kind of alliance” the two countries are in.
In a Congressional hearing in April 2016, then U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter admitted that Washington knew about the organic relations between the PYD and the outlawed PKK, but would still supply arms and training to them. CENTCOM thus invented a “Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)” front, with the inclusion of a few Arab tribes, in order to be able to use the rhetoric that they were not directly collaborating with the PKK – which would be illegal – but actually with a democratic front for the liberation of the Syrian people from ISIL. When Erdoğan objected to the idea of fighting one terrorist organization with another one, Washington vowed to collect all the weaponry it lent to the PKK-affiliated militants once the campaign against ISIL is completed in Syria, (so the arms would not be used against Turkey or the Turkish people).
But it is fair to say that neither the Turkish government nor the Turkish people have full trust in that pledge.
The threat is not limited to the weapons in the hands of the PKK. As part of the anti-ISIL campaign, the U.S. military has been assisting the PKK - a group on its official terror list - with all necessary knowhow and training, helping it get organized as a regular army conversant in all the latest special warfare techniques. Indeed, CENTCOM has been training PKK-affiliates for the past three years.
The U.S. government has been playing with fire, perhaps thinking that it will be contained in the Middle East with no spillover against its interests. But that is a risky assumption, with no guarantee that the PKK will not soon again team up with its former host, Syria, with the full support and protection of Russia.
The fact is that the PKK is now pursuing its own political goals, not only with modern weaponry but also with the best military training from the world’s number one military power, the U.S., which is also the number one military ally of Turkey, which has long been in the PKK’s crosshairs.