As Turkey counts down to an imminent military operation in Afrin, the United States took its long-standing support for the PKK’s Syrian branch, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to a new level. Over the weekend, the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh announced that it was going to create a 30,000-strong border security force, half of whom would consist of PKK-YPG militants – disguised as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This so-called “Northern Army” will guard the YPG-controlled parts of northern Syria along the Turkish and Iraqi borders. As such, the vision of Brett McGurk, which made its mark on the Obama administration’s fight against Daesh, became the cornerstone of the Trump administration’s post-Daesh strategy.
In light of the most recent developments, it became clear that Washington’s partnership with YPG militants was not a tactical move, as some U.S. officials claimed over the years, but a strategic choice. As such, it is no longer a secret that the shipment of thousands of plane and truckloads of weapons to the group wasn’t just intended to facilitate the anti-Daesh campaign. Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield last week had told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S. must stay in Syria – which clearly translates into a YPG-controlled local government on the ground.
The YPG is the Syrian arm of the outlawed PKK that has been fighting against the Turkish state for years, so it is impossible for Ankara to accept any presence of these militants near its borders
Moving forward, the Trump administration’s top priority in Syria will be to protect its military bases in order to remain relevant. Keeping in mind that Mr. Satterfield took a jab at the Sochi process, it is possible to conclude that Washington has concerns about where the agreement between Russia, Iran and Turkey will take Syria.
As such, the U.S. would like to use its proxy on the ground, the YPG, to shape the country’s future. As a matter of fact, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that efforts to transform the YPG militants into some kind of army would place Syria’s territorial integrity at risk.
Moreover, Washington would like to create a Democratic Union Party (PYD)-controlled autonomous zone in the east of the Euphrates River to protect its interests against Iran. Thirdly, U.S. officials would like to “discipline” Turkey by perpetuating the PKK-PYD threat in northern Syria. Although the U.S. denies that its actions target Turkey, Turkish policymakers and the general public have already reached that conclusion.
Let me make this point more clearly: Turkey believes that the United States is transforming a terrorist organization into a state and considers this move hostile.
In recent months, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan repeatedly expressed his eagerness to work with the United States in Syria in an effort to stop the Trump administration from supporting terrorists in the area. However, Washington’s support for the PKK-YPG has reached a certain level, which could inflict irreparable damage to Turkey-U.S. relations.
To be clear, this isn’t just some rumor that U.S. warplanes airdropped weapons and ammunition to PKK militants during Operation Poised Hammer in the 1990s. Today, Washington makes a thinly-veiled effort to turn a terrorist organization, which Turkey has been fighting since 1984, into a “state.” The wave of anti-Americanism that this policy triggered cannot be contained by the AK Party government either.
A recent call by Devlet Bahçeli, the chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), to cooperate with Iran is but a precursor of what lies ahead. Having increased its support to the YPG militants despite Turkey’s objections, the United States forces the Turks to make certain policy changes.
At this point, U.S. officials would like Ankara to come to terms with the YPG-led SDF’s presence in northern Syria provided that the group does not target Turkey – just like the regional government in northern Iraq. However, it is important to note that neither Masoud Barzani nor Jalal Talabani ever engaged in an open conflict with the Turks.
By contrast, the PKK remains an existential threat against Turkey’s territorial integrity and survival. To make matters worse, Washington’s efforts to create a YPG-controlled “local government” aim to encourage the group’s inclusion in the Astana and Sochi processes by the Russians.
At this point, Turkey has three options:
1. The Turks will double down on the policy of removing YPG militants from the Syrian border. To accomplish this goal, they must find a way to launch military operations against YPG-held territories including Afrin and Manbij. As a matter of fact, President Erdoğan said earlier this week that “our responsibility is to strangle this army of terror before it is born” and hinted that the heavily-anticipated military operation could start at any time.
2. Another option is to destabilize the areas controlled by the U.S.-backed YPG militants through various methods including the mobilization of local tribes and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and the targeting of YPG leaders. As such, efforts by the United States to reconcile the YPG militants with the Sunni community must be stopped – in which case Turkey would have to be prepared to wage a lengthy war of attrition.
3. Finally, Turkey could tolerate the YPG presence in northern Syria without recognizing it as a legitimate force, provided that the group does not target Turkish citizens.
It is no secret that the Turkish people won’t accept the third option. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what must be done if Turkey picks one of the remaining options.
This article was first published by Daily Sabah on January 17, 2018.