Latest developments in Syria

Latest developments in Syria

Turkey has been hosting the world’s biggest international summits in the last couple of days. Following the G-20 Summit in Antalya last weekend, now it’s Istanbul’s turn to host the Atlantic Council Summit, the globe’s biggest energy summit.

At his opening speech President Tayyip Erdoğan gave critical messages about Syria, the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Paris attacks. Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu, who has been the architect of Turkey’s foreign policy, first as the undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry beginning in August 2009 and then as foreign minister since August 2015, was also in the room. 

The Syria file has become very intense since Sinirlioğlu became minister. Turkey is leading the Syria talks in Vienna along with the other three key countries, namely the U.S., Russia and Saudi Arabia. Sinirlioğlu is the person who represents Turkey in these tough and historic negotiations.

Moreover, he just spent two days at the G-20 Summit with U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, trying to find a solution for Syria together.

I had the chance to have a tete-a-tete with Sinirlioğlu during the summit yesterday and learn about the freshest developments on Syria.

We started our conversation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statement that Turkey and the U.S. would soon start joint operation in Syria. Sinirlioğlu underlined that this refers only to airstrikes. According to him, no country - including Gulf countries and Russia – is considering sending troops to Syria at the moment. Moreover, he argued there was no need for ground troops right now.

Yet who is going to support the U.S. and Turkey from the ground while they are shooting from the air? Ankara wants the “moderate opposition forces” and Turkmens to fight on the ground. Yet the U.S. now openly supports the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) military wing, and considers them the strongest and main fighting force on the ground against ISIL.

Sinirlioğlu said Ankara and Washington have reached a consensus on this issue. So will the YPG not be part of their operation at all? “How could this be possible? Our fight with the [the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK is going on domestically,” he replied. Apparently the PYD will remain a problematic issue for Turkey unless the PKK lays down its arms.

Following this remark, the minister reminded that the joint air operation between the U.S. and Turkey would take place between Azez and Jarablus (the 98-kilometer-long line along Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey), which lies west of the Euphrates River. “The PYD knows well that we will shoot them if they cross to the west of the river,” he said, adding the U.S. was also aware of this redline of Turkey (by crossing to the west of the Euphrates, the PYD would be able to unite the cantons of Kobane, Jazira and Afrin, leading to a Kurdish entity along Turkey’s southern borders, which concerns Turkey).

Furthermore, Sinirlioğlu said the U.S. has not made an effort to engage the YPG at all.

Yet at this point Sinirlioğlu added a critical remark: “We should differentiate between the PYD and the YPG. The YPG is equal to the PKK, which is on both Turkey’s and the U.S.’ lists of terrorist organizations. The PYD, however, is a party, just like the [Peoples’ Democratic Party] HDP in Turkey. The YPG is its armed wing. But the PYD doesn’t hold arms in its hands.”

He also referred to the following discrepancy: PYD co-president Salih Muslim confirmed in mid-October that the U.S. had supplied 50 tons of military aid to the PYD. Upon that the spokesperson of the YPG had blamed Muslim, saying he was “only a politician who is not authorized to speak in the name of the Kurdish forces.” 

After all, does the U.S.’ support for the YPG affect our relations with Washington? “We explained to them that the YPG is the PKK,” he said. Do they understand? His answer was quite short and sharp: “Yes, they do,” adding he saw signals there would be a shift in U.S.’ attitude soon.

As the last point on this issue, the minister added Turkey would continue to conduct airstrikes on PKK bases the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq as long as they PKK is based there.

Does Russia’s support for the PYD affect bilateral relations? “Not at all,” Sinirlioğlu said. Acknowledging that Moscow has hosted Muslim a couple of times and they were in contact, he said, “This is a homeland security issue for us and Turkey is not flexible on this at all. They know this very well.”

Upon this remark, I reached an important official from Ankara by phone to learn more about this specific issue. According to the official, Russia said clearly it was not possible for the PYD to open an office in Russia.
Before concluding our conversation, the Turkish foreign minister said more than 90 percent of Russia’s airstrikes in Syria were meant as defense against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and only less than 5 percent targeted ISIL. He critically added Russia continued to attack “moderate opposition groups” as well. “Yet,” he said, “They don’t say they attack them.”

Last but not least, Erdoğan argued both at the G-20 and the Atlantic Council summit yesterday that it was mainly Muslim leaders who should take responsibility to underline that there was no link between ISIL and Islam, and to present a common stance against terror. It looks like Turkey might take important international steps soon on this issue.

Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu called me upon my op-ed published Nov. 20 and stated that his statements are being used out of their context and may cause misinterpretation. The whole text of Minister's relevant statement is as follows:

"There are many abbreviations which cause confusion. Some contacts abroad argue that PYD is a party like HDP and doesn't hold arms in its hand. It is not possible to accept this. It is obligatory to clarify this point in order to eliminate any confusion. These actors all take instruction from Qandil. YPG, which is called as the armed wing of PYD, is the PKK itself and takes directly orders from Qandil. YPG equates to PKK. YPG is even able to admonish Salih Muslim who is called the Co-President of PYD. This clearly reveals who has the real power at hand."