Turkey-US ties risk deteriorating further due to PYD row

Turkey-US ties risk deteriorating further due to PYD row

The first recent crisis between Turkey and the U.S. erupted in early October last year, after the latter announced that it had airdropped ammunition and other military equipment to Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) despite Ankara’s strong objection. 

Turkey summoned U.S. Ambassador to Ankara John Bass to the Foreign Ministry to express Ankara’s unease over the move, urging once again that the PYD’s fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) should not change the fact that it is an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Back in July 2015, however, when Turkey and the U.S. were negotiating over a joint stance against ISIL that would open Turkish bases to coalition members, there was an understanding between the two sides over the role of the PYD. The PYD and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), were supposed to help the anti-ISIL coalition on the ground on the condition that they would not seek to expand their territory or change its demographic structure. They were also expected to cut any ties to the Bashar al-Assad regime. 

But in fact Ankara’s position against the PYD subsequently sharpened, especially following the rise in PKK terrorism inside Turkey and accusations that weapons and ammunition provided to the YPG were later handed to PKK terrorists in Turkey. 

The row between two parties was widely discussed during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Istanbul on Jan. 23 but disagreement on the issue could not be overcome. On the contrary, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan increased his tone of criticisms against Turkey’s main ally, telling the Obama administration to “choose sides.”     

It was in this environment that the deadly Ankara attack occurred on Feb. 17, killing 28 and wounding 61.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced early on Feb. 18 that the perpetrator of the attack was a Syrian national who entered into Turkey in July 2014 and whose family had undeniable links to the YPG. Although the investigation was still ongoing, Davutoğlu and other leaders immediately pointed the finger of blame at the PYD-YPG, while President Erdoğan told reporters on Feb. 19 that there was “no doubt.” “There are three names who played an active role. The perpetrator is the PYD and the YPG. We have no doubt about that,” he said.

Immediately after security officials made clear that it was an attack committed by the PYD, Davutoğlu instructed the Foreign Ministry to summon the ambassadors of the P5+1 countries, as well as the Netherlands (which is the current EU term president) and an EU delegation, to share information and evidence about the Ankara attack. 

According to the information I gathered from diplomatic sources familiar with the meeting at the Foreign Ministry, Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu gave his counterparts some evidence concerning the perpetrator and his accomplices. He also asked the aforementioned countries to strongly condemn the PYD and to not differentiate between the PYD and the PKK, in either Turkey or Syria.

Meanwhile, U.S. State Department Spokesperson John Kirby’s answers to related questions were disappointing for Ankara, which probably pushed Erdoğan to call U.S. President Barack Obama in the late afternoon of Feb. 19. The phone conversation had not taken place when this column was being written, but it’s clear that the U.S. will cooperate with the PYD for as long as its fight against ISIL continues. At a moment when the U.S. is working on how to increase the effectiveness of the military campaign against ISIL, abandoning the PYD as a local force should be regarded as out of question. John Kirby’s statement should be seen in this context. 

On the other hand, Turkey’s anti-PYD campaign will also endure for as long as it continues to fight against the PKK inside and outside Turkey. Ankara may think it’s dealing with a lame duck government in Washington and it can open a new page with a new U.S. administration, but its image in the West is in a rapid decline. In general terms, Turkey’s actions against the PYD are believed to have negatively impacted the ongoing anti-ISIL fight in Syria.