The US should act responsibly in Afrin
The root cause of the problem Turkey is facing in Afrin is the strategic alliance the U.S. has forged with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)/ the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which are extensions of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and enjoy widespread support in northern Syria.
Let us admit it: The elimination of the threats posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), first in Iraq and then in Syria, was imperative for world and regional peace. When it responds to those threats, the U.S. opts to cooperate with the YPG, the military wing of the PYD.
Why the U.S chose this path needs further deliberations, but for the moment, let us assume that the U.S. sees the cooperation with the YPG as the only viable option since it does not want to put U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. In this case, the next thing the U.S had to do was to take note of the concerns raised by Turkey, its ally for more than 50 years, because Washington must have been aware that the track record of its new partner could cause complicated problems.
If the U.S. just had taken a look at the party bylaws of the PYD, which is the political structure behind the YPG, it could have seen those potential problems there. Article three of the bylaw that regulates membership procedures describes the first duty of all members as “taking pride in the values of the Kurdish people and that of Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, loyalty to those values, and fighting for the liberation of the leader [Öcalan].”
Let us put it differently: The U.S. was well aware that it was walking side by side with a group whose underlying philosophy is total loyalty to Öcalan. And all this is happening while in the background the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S.
The U.S. had two options. The first was that it could give the YPG carte blanche in return for the group’s support in the fight against ISIL, at the expense of infuriating Turkey.
The second option was trickier. The cooperation between the U.S. and the YPG gives considerable leverage to the U.S. over the YPG. When it negotiated the principles of the alliance, the U.S. could have used this leverage to persuade the YPG/PKK to take a more cautious stance on Turkey.
The developments on the ground, however, have shown that the U.S. has chosen the first option; it has given the YPG carte blanche and a free hand provided that it cooperates with the U.S. in the fight against ISIL.
While the YPG fought ISIL alongside the U.S., the PKK continued to launch attacks on Turkey. Moreover, the YPG has not hesitated to mount attacks on Turkey from areas under its control. The cadres of the YPG and the PKK often overlap. In sum, the line separating the YPG from the PKK gets blurry.
The U.S. did not bother raising these complex relations between the YPG and the PKK with the PYD/YPG.
Meanwhile, when Donald Trump took office at the beginning of 2017, U.S. generals on the ground started to call all the shots in Syria while the Department of State was increasingly sidelined, which put further strain on Turkey’s already frail relations with the U.S.
It is true that at the end Raqqa was liberated from ISIL. But as Cansu Çamlıbel recently reminded us, the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) dedicated the Raqqa victory to Öcalan. When the city was liberated, Öcalan’s flag was raised in the Al-Naim square in Raqqa.
Today, members of the YPG are clashing with the Turkish military in Afrin, making preparations to put up a resistance in the city center. Since the YPG is the U.S.’s military partner in Syria, this pits Turkey against the U.S., if indirectly.
At this moment, the U.S. can play a more constructive role to prevent further deterioration of Turkey-U.S. relations. As part of this constructive role, the U.S. can urge members of the YPG stationed in Afrin to withdraw from the city to relocate to Kobani.
Such a move would prevent an urban warfare in Afrin with potentially devastating consequences. If such an urban warfare really takes place, one of the casualties will be Turkey-U.S. relations.
The U.S. administration can try to persuade the YPG to accept such a solution that will help save many lives. But at least this time, it would be better if the U.S. tries to win Turkey’s trust.