Allies tense over PYD

Allies tense over PYD

Apart from consolidating popular legitimacy and injecting fresh blood into the bureaucracy, elections are often seen as an opportunity to enable policy revisions. 

Even before the Nov. 1 election, policy makers were taking gradual steps to put an end to Turkey’s political isolation in the region, the so-called “precious loneliness.” Syria was not an exception in this sense. Just a month ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed upon a political transition that would allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remain in power, even if only temporarily.

However, Turkey’s stance toward the Democratic Union Party of Syrian Kurds (PYD) is unlikely to change in the near future, since Turkey’s security concerns regarding the establishment of a Syrian Kurdish entity along its borders persist and its operations against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) show no signs of abating.

With all its spillover effects, the civil war in Syria continues to threaten Turkey’s national security. Though combating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) creates a common ground for cooperation, allies differ on both means and ends, which not only complicates reaching a political settlement but also undermines military efforts to defeat ISIL. 

Following the Kremlin’s direct involvement on the ground, the war in Syria entered a new phase, putting the U.S and Russia at odds over the future of President al-Assad. What’s more, Russian forces are not only targeting ISIL but also the U.S.-backed rebels, who are fighting both ISIL and the al-Assad regime. 

Almost in a self-fulfilling prophecy, increasing U.S. support for the rebels reveals a type of a proxy war between Russia and the U.S. Perhaps, apart from agreeing that ISIL is a genuine threat, the only point on which Russians and Americans agree is the efficiency of the Syrian Kurds on the war front. Therefore, the two powers are in a competition to make the PYD the essential component of their military strategy in Syria, which obviously sends chills to Turkey.

Ankara has long been in favor of the establishment of an ISIL free zone, which would serve not only as a safe haven for the refugees but also prevent the Syrian Kurds from crossing west of the Euphrates, enabling them to connect the three cantons of Arüfrin, Jezire and Kobane. While Washington rejected plans of a safe zone, the Russian presence in Syria has put another nail in the coffin. 

The failure of the U.S.-backed train and equip program once again highlighted the role of the PYD as the single significant military force in combating ISIL. Thus, the issue of the PYD has become a thorny issue between Ankara and Washington, putting the Americans on a tightrope in terms of finding a way to cooperate with the PYD without alienating the Turks.

In this respect, the U.S decision on Oct. 30 to send Special Forces to Syria is all around a good policy. In an attempt to counter the Russian presence, sending advisers to coordinate the fight partially makes up for the humiliation over the failed U.S. train and equip program. Furthermore, the U.S. presence sends an important signal to both Turkey and the PYD, in a sense serving as an arbitrator, which will prevent attacks from both sides.

It is no secret that the U.S air drop of ammunition to rebels ending up in the hands of Syrian Kurds caused serious discontent among the Turkish authorities. Before the Nov. 1 election, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced that Turkey targeted PYD units trying to cross the Euphrates towards the west, in line with their previous warnings. 

U.S. Colonel Steve Warren’s recent remarks on supplying ammunition only to the Syrian Arab coalition - excluding the Kurds - should be considered as a step to calming Turkey’s concerns about the PYD and safeguarding its support in terms of continued access to Turkish military bases. 

Bearing in mind the previous Russian offers to provide arms to the Syrian Kurds, Warren’s statements run the risk of pushing the PYD toward Russia. 

The stakes are high, since the U.S. relies on the support of the PYD as the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) - also including Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmens - when making plans to drive ISIL out of Raqqa. 
Aydın Selçen, Turkey’s former consul general in Arbil, has argued that Warren’s statement indicates a tacit agreement, reached between Turkey and the U.S. with regard to the PYD and their zones of influence in Syria. According to Selçen, Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu’s visit to Arbil right after the election carried a diplomatic message that Turkey’s ties with the Iraqi Kurds are stronger than ever, aiming to pressure both the PYD and the PKK.

With no political reconciliation in sight for Syria in the near future and the PKK ending the unilateral cease-fire it declared before the election, Turkey has signaled it will step up the fight on two fronts. It seems that a harsh winter is in store.