Washington’s decision to arm the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, has provoked outrage among some in Turkey.
“We will not accept this decision by the U.S.,” said Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, before a visit to London. “The U.S. knows well the Syrian Kurds are a terrorist organization.”
The YPG militia is widely recognized as the most effective in Syria in fighting Islamic State. However, it is considered by Ankara to be an affiliate of the PKK, which is fighting the Turkish State and is designated by Washington as a terrorist organization.
“Every weapon obtained by the People’s Protection Units [YPG] constitutes a threat to Turkey,” declared Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli, speaking on television, promised to oppose its NATO ally. “We hope the U.S. administration will put a stop to this wrong and turn back from it,” he said.
President Donald Trump’s decision comes in the face of months of lobbying led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and warnings of serious repercussion to bilateral ties. However, Erdogan has remained silent since Tuesday’s announcement.
Erdogan in Washington
“The reaction is quite low key, compared to previous statements from the highest level, namely the president,” observed former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served in Washington and in Iraq. “The way there was no high-level reaction and that the Washington visit will go ahead, shows to me that this decision will not have a destructive effect on relations.”
Erdogan is due in Washington next week for a long-awaited meeting with Trump. “This photo opportunity in the White House is too big an opportunity to miss by Ankara,” Selcen said, “and if this is seen by Washington, then they will believe they have a free hand.”
The Washington visit is seen as the most important leg of an international tour by Erdogan to bolster his legitimacy, after last month’s controversial referendum victory granting him sweeping powers. The vote remains marred by voter fraud allegations.
The ongoing controversy over Kurdish fighters is a running sore between allies, especially as most experts predicted Washington would ultimately arm the YPG.
“It’s obvious Americans are quite pragmatic about the Syrian question,” said Atilla Yesilada, political consultant of Global Source Partners. “They prefer Kurds, not because they are in love with them, but simply because Kurds have 50,000 valiant fighters at the gates of Raqqa. What they need is heavy weaponry.”
Weapons and PKK
The kind of weapons Washington will ultimately deliver to the YPG will likely be closely followed by Ankara. The Turkish military has repeatedly claimed sophisticated anti-tank missiles delivered by its Western allies to Syrian Kurdish forces have fallen into the hands of the PKK fighting in Turkey.
Washington is going on the charm offensive.
“We’ll work out any of the concerns,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday. “We will work very closely with Turkey in support of their security on their southern border. It’s Europe’s southern border, and we’ll stay closely connected.”
A Pentagon statement Tuesday stressed the delivery of weapons to the YPG and their use would be closely monitored.
But the YPG is still claiming victory.
“We believe that from now on and after this historic decision, [the YPG] will play a stronger, more influential and more decisive role in combating terrorism at a fast pace,” spokesman Redur Xelil said in a written statement to Reuters.
Ankara has threatened retaliation against its Western partners if they pursued a policy of arming what it considered terrorist organization. U.S. forces depend heavily on the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, not only for military operations against Islamic State, but also as a strategic logistics hub. Turkish ministers from time to time have threatened Washington over its use, but analysts predict Ankara remains reluctant to take such a drastic step and risk wrecking relations with Trump.
Erdogan has met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, five times in less than a year, most recently this month in Sochi. But given that Moscow also is backing the YPG, Ankara’s room for maneuvering is viewed as limited.
Washington’s decision to support the YPG will also likely preclude any repeat of last month’s Turkish military strikes against the Syrian Kurdish militia, both in Syria and Iraq.
“The Americans have pushed Ankara into a corner where no military operations against the presence of YPG in Syria are possible and, second, Ankara from now on will have to live with the fact the YPG is a political organization like any other that is fighting Islamic state,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Selcen.