US sticks with ‘bad alternative’ in Syria
Following a meeting with Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli in Brussels on Syria, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Feb. 15 that he believed the two countries are “finding common ground,” even though “there are areas of uncommon ground where sometimes war just gives you bad alternatives to choose from.”
The “bad alternative” Mattis was referring to is Washington’s choice as ground partner in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL): The People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG is the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish state for over three decades and is also designated as a terrorist group by the U.S.
Speaking about the meeting, Canikli said Mattis suggested that the U.S. could push the YPG to fight the PKK. “I told him that this would not be possible because they are the same organization. I asked Mattis to stop supporting the YPG and to remove it from the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF],” Canikli said, referring to the front group with which the U.S. is nominally collaborating in Syria.
There are two inconsistencies in those two statements. First of all, Turkey has a number of times offered its own on-the-ground assistance to its NATO ally the U.S. against the ISIL and Al-Qaeda, with its own military and its proxy the Free Syria Army (FSA) rebel group. Turkey is also a member of the anti-ISIL coalition and allows coalition flights to use its air bases. The U.S.’s choice of the YPG came in spite of that.
Secondly, certain U.S. documents show that the YPG is no different than the PKK. On Feb. 13, U.S. National Intelligence Director Dean Coats submitted a threat assessment to Congress that clearly said the YPG was the Syrian wing of the PKK. The CIA Factbook makes a similar description.
U.S. Special Forces Commander General Raymond Thomas said in the July 2017 Aspen Security Forum that he had asked the YPG to change their names, knowing that the YPG bore a problematic name because of its terrorism links. “With about a day’s notice they declared they were the Syrian Democratic Forces. I thought it was a stroke of brilliance to put ‘democracy’ in there somewhere,” Thomas said mockingly.
The SDF is an alias and if you subtract the YPG from the SDF only a tiny fraction of Arab tribes injected there for decoration purposes remains. Canikli’s suggestion underlines the absurdity of Mattis’ suggestion.
Shortly after Mattis’s statement, a statement from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was on his way to Ankara, hit the wires. He was quoted as saying that the “U.S. has never given heavy arms to the YPG, so there is nothing to take back.” It was Mattis who told Ankara in a letter dated June 22, 2017 that the U.S. will take back weapons supplied to the YPG after the defeat of ISIL, adding that the first batch of weapons have already been supplied to Turkey with a promise that the list would be updated.
The course of Turkey-U.S. relations will be seen more clearly tomorrow. A press conference in Ankara is expected on Feb. 16 following Tillerson’s talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the evening of Feb. 15 and with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on the morning of Feb. 16. But as long as the U.S. sticks with its “bad alternative” in Syria, problems with its ally Turkey are likely to continue.