US will not risk ties with Turkey for the PKK
The Turkish military on Jan. 22 completed the third day of its operation into the northwestern Syrian region of Afrin, held by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The operation was launched due to the security threat that the YPG’s control of Afrin was deemed to pose on the Turkish border to the people of the region.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has vowed that Turkey would not retreat from “Operation Olive Branch” until all “terrorist elements” are cleared from the area.
Russia, which on Jan. 21 accused the United States of pushing Turkey to react by arming “pro-U.S.” Kurdish groups in Syria, took an even a stronger stance the next day. According to the Kremlin, the U.S. is either deliberately provoking Turkey or unable to understand what is actually happening in Syria.
Washington has long worked with the YPG as the ground partner of its military operations in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or Daesh in an Arabic acronym, east of Syria. This partnership has been continuing despite repeated objections from the U.S.’s NATO ally Turkey, which had offered its own help with support from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels that it backs.
In order to not agitate Turkey further, the U.S. had asked the YPG to change its name as Turkey views it as equivalent to the PKK, which the U.S. has also designated as a terrorist organization. The YPG changed its name to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as was confirmed by U.S. Special Operations Commander General Raymond Thomas during the Aspen Security Forum in July 2017.
The latest move by Turkey was agitated by statements from the U.S. about the formation of a 30,000-strong “Border Security Force” by the SDF along the Iraqi and Turkish borders, despite earlier promises that Washington would collect back all arms delivered to the SDF following the capture of Raqqa from ISIL.
To the surprise of the YPG, Russia convinced the Syrian regime to let Turkish forces clear the “pro-U.S.” YPG from the region. The U.S. also signaled that it would not become militarily involved in the Afrin operation, and Russia had actually warned the U.S. months ago to stay on the east banks of the Euphrates River in line with their agreement in the joint fight against ISIL.
By supporting Turkey in its Afrin operation, Russia clearly seeks to send a warning to the U.S. (so long as the operation strengthens the territorial integrity of Syria once “pro-U.S. forces” are cleared from the area).
Amid angry statements from the PKK directed at Russia, the EU and the U.S. accusing them of “selling them out,” it is unlikely that the Trump administration will further escalate the situation with its NATO adversary Russia and NATO ally Turkey for the sake of the PKK’s political interests, despite pressure from U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).
In the end, the U.S. military has used the PKK as a legionary force against ISIL. The primary interest for the U.S. is not allowing the emergence of “Daesh 2.0.” The establishment of a Kurdish state, carving territory out of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, whose borders the U.S. has guaranteed to protect through NATO, is not the U.S.’s primary interest.
Erdoğan noted on Jan. 22 that the U.S. has “20 military bases in Syria,” which it would like to maintain. However, if Washington continues to cooperate with the YPG it is likely to only have to deal with more problems across the wider region.
The Afrin operation has just started. There will be more clashes as the Turkish and FSA forces clamp down on the YPG-held town. Perhaps there will be consequences such as the PKK attempting terrorist attacks in Turkey and elsewhere. Ultimately, the U.S. may end up returning to a policy of cooperating with state-actors, including Turkey, in the fight against terrorism.