Will Obama or Erdoğan blink first?

Will Obama or Erdoğan blink first?

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan gave one of his strongest messages during an Istanbul evening organized at the historic Çırağan Palace on Feb. 20 for the occasion of UNESCO’s naming of Gaziantep as the “city of gastronomy.”

Hosted by Gaziantep Mayor Fatma Şahin, the evening gathered most of the diplomatic community there since it was known that Erdoğan would be the guest of honor.

Gaziantep cuisine is well-known and respected in Turkey, its prefix “Gazi” was given to the city by parliament because of the strong resistance to the invading armies during Turkey’s Independence War, but Gaziantep nowadays is better known in international newsrooms for another reason. This province on the border with Syria has been the home for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees since the breakout of the civil war in 2011. It is one of the hot spots of the struggle against illegal crossings and against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and where the Turkish army is very active, including with its much discussed artillery in recent days.

Turkish artillery has been “reciprocating to fire” from Syrian territory for almost a week from Syrian army forces and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria.
Both the YPG and the PYD are considered terrorist organizations by the Turkish government on the grounds that they are the Syrian extensions of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union as well.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu revealed on Feb. 18 that the suicide bomber who killed 28 military personnel (most of them being civilians working in military offices) on Feb. 17 in Ankara was linked to the YPG. Underlining that the United Nations’ Syria representative had said a day before that the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria was supporting the PYD and YPG, Davutoğlu said Ankara saw Damascus as being behind the attack and held the “right to take measures” about it.

On Feb. 19, U.S. President Barack Obama called President Erdoğan for an 80-minute conversation, according to official sources. The Turkish and American versions of the conversation were different. According to Turkish sources, Erdoğan told Obama that Turkey would stop artillery fire on the YPG, the ground support for the U.S.-led coalition’s air strikes against ISIL and al-Nusra, if the Syrian army, the Russian Air Force and the YPG stopped hitting Syrian opposition forces as agreed in Munich on Feb. 11-12. According to American sources, Obama asked Erdoğan to stop artillery fire on the YPG and asked for patience regarding the terrorist attacks. Deniz Zeyrek in daily Hürriyet reported that Turkish officials accuse the Americans of “changing the agreed readout.”

“It is not sincere,” said Erdoğan in his speech, “for those who retaliate strongly against the loss of lives of their own citizens to ask for patience from Turkey because of the loss of the lives of their citizens.”

Claiming that Turkey was practicing “self-defense, Erdoğan continued as follows: “No one can limit Turkey’s right to use its right to self-defense against acts of terror. Regarding the threats faced, Turkey has the right to carry out every kind of operation it sees necessary against the positions of terrorist organizations in Syria or elsewhere.”

“This has nothing to do with the sovereignty rights of the countries which cannot maintain their territorial integrity,” Erdoğan said, implying both Syria and Iraq. “On the contrary, it is related to Turkey protecting its own sovereignty rights. Turkey will change its rules of engagement so that it is not just limited to physical attacks against itself, but will expand it to every kind of terrorist threat mainly from DAESH [the Arabic acronym for ISIL] and the PYD.”

Between the lines of Erdoğan’s speech, there lies the Russian presence in Syria. Since Turkey downed a Russian jet on the border with Syria on Nov. 24 last year, Turkish planes cannot join operations in Syrian air space against ISIL carried out from Turkey in the framework of the U.S.-led coalition. Erdoğan also points at the risks of another refugee flow to Europe triggered by the fall of new border towns in the hands of the PYD or ISIL ahead of talks between Turkey and the European Union organized by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on March 5. Erdoğan has recently said it would not be a problem for Turkey to cease stopping buses and planes with loads of Syrian refugees on their way to Europe.  

It seems that despite all of Erdoğan’s efforts to get the U.S. to pick Turkey’s side against the “terrorist” PYD-YPG, Obama cannot risk the ground support Washington receives from the YPG. Obama and Erdoğan, two NATO allies, are engaged in brinkmanship over the PKK-affiliate PYD as their adversary Russia watches from war-torn Syria. 

With his speech on Feb. 20 right after the phone conversation with Obama, Erdoğan wanted to show that he was not the one to blink first; it’s a dangerous game whose result will only become clear with time.