U.S. President Donald Trump angered ally Turkey on Tuesday, approving the Pentagon’s proposal to directly arm Syrian Kurdish militants as part of its operation to retake Raqqa from ISIS. The decision puts greater strain on the relationship between the two countries, just a week before the Turkish president’s first meeting with Trump, and risks further inflaming regional tensions that have flared in recent months.
President Tayyip Erdoğan called on Washington to reverse the decision Wednesday, saying the U.S. should support its ally, and not a terror group, as Ankara considers the Kurdish forces.
“We want to know that our allies will side with us and not with terror organizations,” Erdoğan said.
U.S. support for Kurdish forces has been a flashpoint of late in U.S.-Turkish relations. In March, the U.S. deployed troops to Manbij, Syria, to act as a buffer between feuding Turkish and Kurdish forces. U.S. forces have also patrolled the Syria-Turkey border to discourage Turkish attacks on the Kurdish militia.
Turkey provides key support to the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, including allowing airstrikes against the Sunni extremist group to be flown from an airbase in Incirlik. But the two NATO allies are starkly at odds over their positions toward Kurdish militants operating in northern Syria, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has been fighting for decades for an independent state for the Kurdish minority in Turkey’s southeast, and is considered a terror group by Turkey, the U.S., and the European Union. Ankara fears the Syrian Kurdish forces will establish an autonomous Kurdish statelet on its southern border, fueling the separatist ambitions of Turkish Kurds; Turkish forces have repeatedly struck Kurdish fighters in Syria.
“Both the PKK and the YPG are terrorist organizations and they are no different, apart from their names,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a news conference during a visit to Montenegro Wednesday. “Every weapon seized by them is a threat to Turkey.”
“There’s not really much they can do.”
But the U.S. views the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — a diverse rebel group whose ranks are dominated by the YPG — as a critical component of its war on ISIS. Since the Obama administration, the U.S. has been assisting the group with air support and through direct arms supplies to Arab components of the SDF — some of which have indirectly made their way to Kurdish YPG fighters.
Fadi Hakura, an analyst at the Chatham House think tank, said that while the Turkish government would be “furious” over the U.S. decision, it was not unexpected as it was essentially an escalation of an Obama-era policy, now that the goal of an assault on Raqqa was in sight. He did not expect any significant blowback from Ankara, as “there’s not really much they can do.”
Since November, the SDF – with support from the U.S.-led coalition – has been advancing on Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’ so-called caliphate, ahead of a planned assault on the city that is expected to be the terror group’s last stand. Announcing the decision to step up support for the SDF Tuesday, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said the group was “the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.”
White stressed that the U.S. was aware of Turkey’s security concerns, and wanted to reassure the Turks that the U.S. was “committed to preventing additional security risks and protecting our NATO ally.” To this end, U.S. officials have assured their Turkish counterparts that Arab SDF fighters will lead the battle into Raqqa, and upon victory the city will be returned to local Arab governance. “We do not envision a long-term YPG presence,” White said. She also said that military equipment provided to SDF forces would be “limited, mission-specific, and metered out incrementally as objectives are reached.”
“Erdoğan is hemmed in.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said during a visit to Lithuania Wednesday that he was confident Washington and Ankara would be able to resolve the tensions. “We’ll work out any of the concerns. We will work very closely with Turkey in support of their security on their southern border,” he said.
But those assurances did little to allay Turkish concerns, with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim warning the decision would hurt Washington.
“The U.S. administration still has chances to consider Turkey’s sensitivities on the PKK,” he said. “If there is a decision otherwise, this will surely have consequences and will yield a negative result for the U.S. as well.”
Ankara has long argued that the U.S. should instead support a group of Turkish-trained Syrian rebels to lead the assault on Raqqa. But Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the Chatham House think tank, said the U.S. viewed those forces as inadequate for the task, and that ultimately Erdogan doesn’t have much room to negotiate the issue.
“Erdoğan is hemmed in, with the U.S. continuing its cooperation with the YPG, while Russia is fully backing the Assad regime in Damascus,” Hakura said.
Aydin Sezer, head of the Turkey and Russia Center of Studies, said that it was now widely expected that Kurdish forces would succeed in creating an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria — something Ankara has long feared. But he added that Turkish leadership would take comfort in knowing that key power brokers in the conflict — the U.S., Russia, Iran – were all committed to preserving Syria’s territorial integrity.
“Turkey is sure that there will be no independent Kurdish state in the foreseeable future,” he said.