Will the US leave Syrian Kurdish partners for Turkey?

Will the US leave Syrian Kurdish partners for Turkey?

U.S. Chief of Joint Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford is set to visit Turkey on Feb. 17. Following the Feb. 9 visit of CIA head Michael Pompeo, Dunford is the second high-ranking U.S. official’s visit to Turkey, as part of a Middle Eastern tour. 

As Pompeo’s visit was announced after a telephone conversation between President Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump, the Dunford visit was announced after a meeting between Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis on Feb. 15 on the sidelines of a NATO meeting in Brussels. 

After Dunford’s discussions with Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar on Feb. 18, more high-ranking discussions are expected to take place between the two NATO allies: Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence are scheduled to meet in Munich on Feb. 18 during the annual Munich Security Conference.

There is one single issue in common in all those meetings. The Turkish government wants to convince the U.S. administration to change its fighting partner in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) before Trump announces his country’s new strategy on it. Trump has given a 30-day deadline to the Pentagon to draft a new anti-ISIL strategy, with the date set to expire on Feb. 28. 

Turkey says the fighting partner of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is the Syrian sister of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. for many years. It was thanks to CIA support that the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) was able to capture the PKK’s founding leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in 1999. Now Ankara is telling Washington that it was “wrong to fight a terrorist organization with the help of another one” and that if they end the collaboration with the PYD, the Turkish army and the Turkey-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) will join the U.S. to deliver a coup de grace to ISIL at their headquarters in Raqqa.

In Brussels, Mattis said the U.S.-led coalition would provide more support for Turkey in their Euphrates Shield Operation in Syria, without mentioning the PYD or the Raqqa remarks by Işık. The Turkish operation with the FSA in Syria aimed at both pushing the ISIL away from the Turkish border and not letting the PYD fill it in order to maintain full control along the Turkish border amid escalating worries in Ankara about future demands for Kurdish autonomy. Işık’s indirect answer to Mattis was that the key Syria town of al-Bab was about to be cleared of ISIL, which can also be read as, “We’re done here; let’s talk Raqqa and the PYD.”

Mattis is a former CENTCOM commander. Robert Harward, a possible candidate for national security adviser after Michael Flynn’s resignation, was his deputy at CENTCOM. In CENTCOM’s collective memory, there is very little sympathy for Turkey, if any, because of the Turkish parliament’s refusal to take part in the occupation of Iraq in 2003. At the time, the U.S. forces found Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces as collaborators. Now there are Syrian Kurdish militias; this time, they do not belong to traditionalist Kurdish politics, but rather an originally anti-imperialist, anti-American group.

It is a question worth asking as to whether CENTCOM would like to abandon all the preparation and the investment it has made in the PYD for nearly three years and start from scratch with Turkey, its status as a NATO ally notwithstanding. Turkey, which has a 910-kilometer border with Syria, has signaled that it could take counter measures if the U.S. continues to work with the PYD, including the closure of its strategic İncirlik air base to U.S. use, something which Turkey did in 1975. It is possible that the U.S. planners have calculated that risk in the event Trump retains the partnership with the PYD.

Another factor which might make things more difficult for Ankara is that Turkish concerns do not seem to have much priority on Trump’s agenda nowadays. It is possible that he would like to see ISIL eliminated as soon as possible without giving much importance to the particulars.

To complicate matters further, a Kurdish conference was organized in Moscow on Feb. 15 with the participation of representatives from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, which is an indication that Russia is also in the Kurdish game.

A nightmare scenario for Ankara could be the desire of both the Americans and Russians (in the form of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, for example) to work with the PYD.

The indications so far are that the U.S. might want to keep the PYD as a partner by trying to satisfy Turkey in other ways. Could that be by convincing the PYD not to get on Turkish nerves and withdraw from the west of the River Euphrates? Or trying to encourage Turkey and the PYD/PKK to resume dialogue again?

It is hard to tell with the limited information in public for the time being. But the answer will have a decisive effect in regional politics and in domestic Turkish politics before a crucial referendum for a system change.