Turkey seems firm about nixing YPG plans in Syria despite US

Turkey seems firm about nixing YPG plans in Syria despite US

On Aug. 24, 2016 the Turkish Armed Forces along with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) began a cross-border operation into northern Syria, in a bid to clear its borders from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) elements between the country’s Azaz and Mare provinces.

The Euphrates Shield Operation was concluded in February, after the capture of ISIL stronghold al-Bab and the full clearance of jihadists from a 2,000-square kilometer area. 

Turkey’s success in pushing ISIL off its borders and its cooperation with Russia to provide a ceasefire between the Syrian regime and opposition groups through the Astana talks put the Turkish government in a better position with regard to Syria-related issues. 

Nowadays Turkey, Russia and Iran are in talks on the implementation of what they call “de-conflict zones” in western parts of Syria, aiming to make the ceasefire a lasting one. In the meantime, Turkey has re-calibrated its policy and made it clear that it has given up insisting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go before any solution.

There is no question that the Astana process was based on the idea of al-Assad’s continued leadership in Syria by the Russians, and Turkey had to approve this. Acceptance of this was perhaps the only way for Turkey to conduct its military intervention into Syria to keep its borders and citizens secure. 

However, Turkey’s cooperation with the United States has followed a rather different and more difficult course. Like the previous Obama administration, U.S. President Donald Trump has opted to favor the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group that Turkey sees as a terror organization, to its long-standing ally Ankara in the ongoing anti-ISIL Raqqa operation. 

In the absence of a sound and well-formed Syria policy, U.S. institutions are conveying contradictory messages on the nature of their existing and future cooperation with the YPG. While on the one hand they have tried to reassure that weapons delivered to the YPG will be collected back after the fight against ISIL is won, on the other hand they suggest that they could continue to support the group even after the Raqqa operation. 

Uneasy with U.S. moves, senior Turkish officials have increased their tone against Washington recently, vowing that the Turkish military will not hesitate to retaliate against any YPG action that would be regarded as a threat to Turkey’s security. 

Turkey’s concern is based on the fact that the YPG and its main body, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), may attempt to lay the foundations of a future independent state in northern Syria, with inspiration from northern Iraqi Kurdish leaders, thanks to the political and military support they are receiving from the world’s most powerful country.

Despite consecutive talks between the defense ministers of the two countries, there is still a big lack of understanding on the two sides about overcoming any potential crisis in the near future. That is perhaps why the Trump administration’s anti-ISIL fight coordinator Brett McGurk felt it necessary to visit Ankara on June 30, following talks with YPG commanders in Raqqa. Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was scheduled to hold a phone conversation with Trump late on June 30, probably to express Ankara’s concerns more directly to Washington. 

Of course, the main question is whether Turkey will undertake a new military operation into Syria, this time to directly target YPG elements. Deputy prime ministers Veysi Kaynak and Numan Kurtulmuş have been the most vocal government members recently to voice Ankara’s unease at the YPG’s positioning along the Turkish border, especially in the Afrin canton. 

Recalling that Turkey and Russia are planning to deploy troops near Idlib as part of the monitoring mechanism of the de-conflict zones, Kaynak said it was necessary to clear Afrin of YPG elements in order to fully secure Idlib as well as Azez, Mare and al-Bab provinces.

However, it should be well recalled that YPG elements in Afrin have long been under the protection of Russia. Because of this there is no question that any Turkish intervention should first be permitted by Moscow. We will see in the coming days whether Russia will give its go ahead to Turkey, simply hoping to see a further deterioration of ties between Ankara and Washington.