US-Turkey collision course
Citing the lyrics of a popular Turkish love song, President Tayyip Erdoğan said on April 30 before departing for India that Turkey could “come overnight, all of a sudden without warning.” He was referring to operations against the positions of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq and of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions in Syria, (the YPG being the Syrian extension of the PKK).
The song has a history for Turkish military. Prior to the Greek military coup and the Turkish military’s intervention in Cyprus in 1974, the Turkish service of Greek Cypriot public radio often played a love song titled “I Long For You But You Don’t Come.” The Turkish Cypriot radio, named “The Flag,” under similar manipulation by the military, played the song “I Could Come Any Night, All of a Sudden” in reply.
Since then, the song is often referred to in order to describe a surprise move taken as a result of a provocation in Turkish political history.
Erdoğan cited the song after photos appeared in the international media showing a YPG militant side by side with an American soldier, under a U.S. flag, watching the Turkish border with concerned expressions. The border they were watching was a border of a NATO member country – not a border of Russia, Iran, or North Korea, for example - and the Pentagon said they were there to monitor whether rockets were fired from YPG positions in Syria to Turkish territory, triggering retaliatory Turkish attacks on the YPG.
Odd, isn’t it? Especially when Russia is calling on the U.S. to take immediate joint action against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DAESH.
Friction between Turkey and the U.S. over cooperating with the YPG and its political entity - the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian extension of the PKK, which has long fought against Turkey for Kurdish independence and which is also designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. - goes back to 2014. Erdoğan now says he was deceived by former U.S. President Barack Obama in October 2014, when he gave permission for the use of Turkish territory for the U.S. to supply the YPG, fighting against ISIL in the Syria border town of Kobane. Since then the tension between Ankara and Washington has simmered, with frequent ups and downs.
Friction was back on the agenda when Turkish jets hit PKK positions around Sinjar in northern Iraq on April 25. This is something that the U.S. has opposed until recently. PYD head Salih Muslim said the Turkish attacks were making it difficult for them to concentrate on the approaching offense against the ISIL
stronghold of Raqqa. Muslim’s statement also actually implicitly admitted that the chain of command, human resources, arsenal and organizational structure of the PYD and the PKK are essentially the same.
It was after Muslim’s statement that the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) openly criticized Turkey and the Pentagon made its remark, followed by Erdoğan’s citing of the song.
The essential point is that Ankara does not want the U.S. to start the Raqqa operation without Turkey, and especially not with the YPG. But the Americans have made all their planning based on the YPG presence on the ground, knowing but ignoring its link with the PKK and its aim to claim a territorial continuum in Iraq and Syria, escalating the YPG’s existential threat to Turkey.
By suggesting that “Turkey and the U.S. can turn Raqqa into a graveyard for DAESH” and underlining that he wanted to tell the whole story to the U.S. President Donald Trump face-to-face when they meet during his trip to Washington on May 16-17, Erdoğan was basically signaling that he wants Trump to delay the Raqqa operation until then. However, the U.S. has already delayed the Raqqa operation for months, first because of the military coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, then because of the Turkish incursion into Syria against ISIL (and the YPG) starting in August 2016, and then because of the constitutional referendum on April 16 which gave additional powers to Erdoğan, including more control on the military. The Americans are impatient to start the operation soon, in order to avoiding fighting ISIL in the worst summer heat of Syria.
Through the Sinjar operation and through retaliatory action against rockets from the Syrian side of the border, Ankara wants to give the message of “not without me” to the U.S. in the strongest way possible.
What’s more, the YPG is not the only problem between the two NATO allies.
In Ankara it is widely believed that without help from at least from some official U.S. agencies, it would be impossible for the Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen to continue living at his Pennsylvania estate for years. A former ally of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) between 2002 and 2013, Gülen is accused of masterminding the July 2016 coup attempt through his illegal network within the Turkish state. Erdoğan said after the foiled attempt that for years he had been deceived by Gülen and his followers. Erdoğan now wants to get Gülen back, or at least face legal action in the U.S. in order to prevent him from running his network so freely.
Another issue, which is important but which may not have as serious consequences as the other two, is the situation of the businessman Reza Zarrab. Turkish-Iranian citizen Zarrab is arrested and being tried in the U.S. on accusations of breaching sanctions against Iran, with the alleged involvement of Turkish state bank Halkbank. An executive of Halkbank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, has also been arrested in the U.S. and is being tried together with Zarrab. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has not shown much interest in the Zarrab case, as Zarrab represented relations before he came to power and his accomplices in Iran are in jail anyway.
Erdoğan, however, is very interested in the case, pointing to Zarrab’s Turkish citizenship. He has reportedly even met with Zarrab’s lawyers, including former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The Trump-Erdoğan meeting will be a belated one. That delay is mainly because of the domestic scene in Turkey: Erdoğan’s consolidation of executive power with fewer checks and balances, together with discrepancies in Syria over the YPG, are the main reasons for reluctance so far.
Trump was the first Western leader to congratulate Erdoğan after his April 16 referendum win, while European leaders were still monitoring the outcome of the election fraud claims. Turkey’s Sinjar operation came after the Trump-Erdoğan telephone conversation.
A NATO summit will be held right after the Trump-Erdoğan meeting. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently stated that “a NATO without Turkey” would be “less strong,” in response to some European voices of concern about the state of affairs in Turkey.
However, that may not prevent relations between Turkey and the U.S. from traveling on a collision course. Trump certainly has a difficult choice to make.