Turkey’s position on the PYD is not realistic

Turkey’s position on the PYD is not realistic

Turkey’s problem with the U.S. over the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of the Syrian Kurds, and its military wing the Peoples Defense Units, involves a dead-end for Ankara. Turkey has declared both groups to be extensions of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and wants its allies to declare them as terrorist groups too.

This clearly is not going to happen because the YPG has proved to be the most effective force on the ground aiding the U.S. and other Western members of the coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). 

The sincerity of Turkey’s contribution to the fight against ISIL, on the other hand, was questioned for a long time by its closest allies. Until this group started staging deadly attacks on Turkish soil, Ankara’s position was that the real problem in Syria is Bashar al-Assad and if he is gotten rid of, the ISIL problem would solve itself automatically. 

That proved in retrospect to have been naïve. It was a big strategic mistake by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government because ISIL has emerged as the West’s main enemy, thus relegating the need to get rid of al-Assad to a secondary position.

Turkey eventually joined the U.S.-led coalition as an active member after deadly ISIL attacks on its territory, starting by opening its bases to use by coalition forces, starting with the İncirlik base near Adana. Turkey also started taking part in some air raids against the group. 

But all that came too late to change the situation on the ground, where the U.S. and PYD/YPG started working together closely and ended up securing major gains against ISIL. 

It is unrealistic today for Ankara to expect Washington to sever ties with the PYD, even if it did keep quiet when the group was not invited to the Geneva talks. U.S. officials were clearly calculating that Geneva would not make any headway, while the situation on the battlefield would shape the day. Washington recently sent its senior envoy against ISIL, Brett McGurk, to Kobane to meet with PYD officials. The visit was a clear indication that the U.S. would not dump this group for Turkey’s sake. An angry President Erdoğan responded by issuing an ultimatum to Washington saying: “It’s either Turkey or the PYD.” 

This ended up eliciting a response that Ankara did not want: The U.S. stated officially that it would continue to work with the PYD. 

Our editor-in-chief Murat Yetkin was correct to point out that the ultimatum was a mistake by Erdoğan, as his “us or them” approach effectively reduced Turkey to the level of a group that Ankara considers to be a terrorist organization. 

It was also mistaken because the writing on the wall clearly indicated that Washington would not drop the PYD at this stage in the game.

Much more importantly though, there are retired Turkish Ambassadors, who are openly saying during TV debates that Ankara’s PYD policy is unsustainable and contacts with this group should not have been severed.

It will be recalled that until the flare-up with the PKK following the June 7 election last year, Turkish officials were talking to PYD co-chair Salih Muslim. It was only when the war with the PKK was reignited that the PYD began to be demonized by Ankara.

Turkey’s Syria policy under the AKP is rife with mistakes from the start. The PYD question and the manner in which it is approaching this matter with the U.S. prove to be just the latest in a long line of mistakes. 

Meanwhile, Ankara’s policy mistakes have ensured that Russia is also standing behind the PYD, which now has backing from two superpowers.

The government’s refusal to reassess its positon in Syria - and adopt realistic approaches to this increasingly complex crisis - appears set to land Turkey in increasingly difficult situations, including more tensions with its closest allies, in the coming days.