Turkey and the US meet halfway

Turkey and the US meet halfway

“We are exchanging messages with the PYD [Democratic Union Party]. Our dialogue channels are open. The course of Turkey’s relations with the PYD depends on their attitude. Tal Abyad is a test case for them.”

These words came out of the mouth of a high level official in Ankara amidst allegations that Turkey is about to intervene in northern Syria, which is dominated by the PYD.

The PYD seized the town of Tal Abyad on the Syrian border, which had been controlled for two years by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), two weeks ago. In this way, Syrian Kurds secured a 250-mile border with Turkey and united two of their three cantons, namely Kobane and Cezire.

In the aftermath of this development, it has been reported that the PYD has been blocking the return of Arab and Turkmen refugees who had fled Tal Abyad during the clashes. 

Thereafter, the highest ranks in Ankara claimed that the PYD was conducting ethnic cleansing and trying to form an independent Kurdish state. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned, “Turkey would never allow the establishment of a state in Syria’s north. We will continue our fight in this regard no matter what it costs.”

Following these statements, Turkey’s recent military plans towards Syria have been reflected in the press and military action along the border has intensified.

Amidst this very tense environment, I had the chance to speak to a high level official from Ankara and got surprised to confront an obvious softening in Turkey’s approach to the PYD.

First of all, Ankara has always been comparing the PYD and ISIL; some officials have even claimed that the “PYD is more dangerous than ISIL.” The official, however, distanced the two organizations, saying there is a big difference between the PYD and ISIL and the PYD could emerge as a rational actor.

He interpreted these statements from politicians as an effort to play with the balances within the country.

Moreover, he displayed a will for rapprochement by saying, “There is the possibility of reconciliation with the PYD and a belief that their attitude will change in a positive way.” 

The conditions set by Ankara to this end are that the PYD allows the return of the refugees, hauls down its flag in Tal Abyad and does not build its relations with local people along ethnic lines. 

He also underlined that the dialogue is ongoing and the course of the bilateral relations relies on the PYD’s attitude.

Furthermore, for the first time Ankara has included Syrian Kurds in its projection for Syria’s future. “If the PYD changes its approach, they would sit at the table when shaping Syria’s future. We could talk with them and help them,” the official said.

Yet, do the recently increased military action along the border and military plans target the PYD, as widely alleged? The official denies these claims, emphasizing the PYD is not the target. Accordingly, this perception emerged due to the synchronicity of the developments.

In addition, Ankara is not raising its voice against the U.S.’ military support to the PYD anymore, in a sharp contrast to its reaction during the U.S.’ arms transfer to the PYD when fighting in Kobane last fall.

Signals of reconciliation are also coming on another front: Salih Muslim, the co-president of the PYD. Muslim stated two days ago that Turkey’s concerns were unfounded and they were waiting to establish ties with Ankara. He even gave assurance: “Let’s talk and then see if we will apply the decisions taken or not.”

Moreover, for the first time he drew a thick line between the PYD and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), saying, “The cantons in Kobane are led by the PKK. Yet not all of them are from the PYD.”

This all indicates that the possibility of rapprochement looms on the horizon.

This critical change implies that Turkey and the U.S. have met halfway on the issue of Syrian Kurds. The statements of U.S. Ambassador to Ankara John Bass two days ago verified this, since he said, “Turkey and the U.S. share common concerns on northern Syria.”

The second point of disagreement between the two countries had been about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While Turkey has been insisting on fighting against ISIL and al-Assad at once, the U.S. has been prioritizing the struggle with ISIL. 

It looks like Ankara has accepted the U.S.’ approach. The official signaled this change by saying al-Assad would “fall automatically once ISIL is defeated.”

The first clue of this shift was given by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, when I had asked him about the target of the train-and-equip program at the end of May. His reply was clear enough: “Of course at the moment the first and foremost target is ISIL.”

The official concluded his remarks by saying negotiations between Ankara and Washington have intensified. Here is the translation: The gap decreases; hence, action on the field increases.