On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump approved a plan to arm the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) after meeting with a delegation of senior Turkish officials at the White House. Washington is ignoring Turkey’s warnings about the adverse effects of empowering the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the PKK’s Syrian franchise that forms the core of the SDF – regarding the future of Syria and regional stability. By signing off on the plan, President Trump sided with the Obama holdovers at CENTCOM and turned down Turkey’s proposal to fight against Daesh together.
Washington’s decision to arm the YPG means that the U.S. continues to turn a blind eye to the risks of legitimizing the PKK’s Syrian offshoot by enlisting its services in the Raqqa operation and further alienating Sunni Arabs in that country. In the end, the Pentagon – which sees the YPG as the most effective force in the fight against Daesh and has heavily invested in the group for the past two years – won.
First and foremost, the timing of Mr. Trump’s decision is extremely significant. Ahead of his meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Washington next week, the U.S. president was strongarmed by CENTCOM to rush to a decision in anticipation of the possibility that the two leaders might agree on an alternate roadmap. The current plan, which was drafted by the Obama administration, was held off until the constitutional referendum in Turkey and approved days before the Turkish leader’s arrival to the U.S.
It is no secret that Turks are deeply concerned about Mr. Trump’s decision to arm the YPG. To make matters worse, the timing of the decision played into the hands of certain groups that had been lobbying against a fresh start between Washington and Ankara – which could have been a game-changer in the Middle East.
In recent days, U.S. officials have been trying to mitigate Turkey’s reaction by stressing that they are prepared to address the security concerns of their NATO ally. However, keeping in mind that the Obama administration broke a number of promises to Turkey; including the removal of the YPG presence in Manbij after the town’s liberation, the Turks have little reason to take media reports seriously. As a matter of fact, the liberation of Raqqa could mean that YPG militants will be used in future operations by CENTCOM, which could lead to the group’s inclusion in the Geneva talks.
Blatantly put, it remains unclear whether the U.S. Special Forces, which have faced challenges in the fight against Daesh in Mosul, can be successful in Raqqa with the YPG. Furthermore, while keeping in mind that at least four major Arab tribes prefer Turkey’s entering Raqqa, there is no way of knowing whether the YPG could actually control the area – provided that they can defeat Daesh in the first place.
Another concern for Turkey is that the number of YPG militants being trained and equipped by the U.S. continues to rise – which could mean that the PKK in Syria could evolve from a militant group into an army. Needless to say, the Turks aren’t convinced by the U.S. commitment to keep track of the weapons delivered to the YPG, either. Fearing that Washington’s dangerous gambit will result in more bloodshed in the region, Turkey remains concerned that the PKK could push for autonomy and independence south of the border.
Notwithstanding the above issues, what needs to be done right now is to manage the crisis triggered by the U.S. decision to march to Raqqa alongside YPG militants. In other words, it is important not to reduce Turkish-U.S. relations to the Raqqa operation alone. What can be done under the circumstances and which options are available to Ankara will be the subject of my next column.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on May 12, 2017.