Turkey’s latest air raids targeting the YPG in northern Syria and the PKK in northern Iraq have, once again laid bare the deep differences between the US and Turkey over anti-ISIS strategy. The US continues to support the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), knowing full well of the group’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey insists that the YPG threatens Turkish security and it is an unsavory ally against ISIS. Turkey has long promised to prevent PKK efforts from gaining legitimacy and ground in Iraq and Syria through recycling itself through fighting in the anti-ISIL campaign. The latest Turkish operations are part of a broader effort to convince the US and the international community that using the PKK and its Syrian affiliate against ISIS is an unwise strategy and against Turkish national security.
Since the Kobani fight in the fall of 2014, the US has supported YPG forces in its efforts to counter ISIS in Syria and publicly promoted the group as the “most effective fighting force” on the ground. To get around Turkish objections, the group was formally integrated into the larger umbrella group, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but few have any illusions about the dominance of the YPG forces within the SDF structure. In the meantime, the YPG’s political legitimacy increased alongside Western material and political support. The US has preferred to look the other way about the YPG’s political goals and has focused on the group’s utility in its counter-ISIS mission.
While the US partnered with the YPG and used them against ISIS, Turkey watched nervously the relationship flourish until it launched the Euphrates Shield Operation last August. The operation aimed to prevent the YPG from achieving its long-standing goal of uniting its three cantons to create an autonomous region for itself. The YPG strategy seemed to be to capitalize on the political legitimacy drawn from the anti-ISIS fight and to recast the YPG and the PKK as acceptable legitimate political actors on the ground. Delisting of the PKK, they hope, would follow suit given the ongoing and future Western support. For the purposes of the anti-ISIS operations, political goals of the PKK/YPG do not seem to concern the US military all that much.
The PKK/YPG strategic game plan seems to go beyond gaining political legitimacy considering the group’s flirtation with Russia as a backup plan in case it loses US support. The YPG has worked hard to gain US support and never failed to leverage it through promoting its work with the US military. At the same time, it has justified its relationship with Russia on grounds that the US may cut and run after it is done with anti-ISIS operations. US military leaders have expressed concern that Russia could gain more leverage on the YPG if the US cut its support to the groups as Turkey has requested. This shows that US military leaders have bought the YPG’s argument at least to a certain extent. It shows, more importantly, that the YPG has been skillful in selling itself as the best choice against ISIS and managed to justify its relationship with Russia without losing US support.
Turkey has shown with the latest operations against the YPG that it continues to be deeply uncomfortable with the US alliance with the PKK offshoot on the ground in Syria. This is unlikely to change in the short term given that the fight against the PKK has been going on for decades and the terror group has taken advantage of the civil war in Syria instead of arriving at a lasting resolution with Turkey. The security breakdown in Iraq and Syria with the emergence of ISIS has given the PKK new impetus and opportunity to realize its dream of creating an autonomous region for itself. Turkey is trying to show that it is serious about preventing such a scenario from materializing.
Turkish President Erdogan and US President Trump will meet in person for the first time in mid-May in Washington. The PKK/YPG issue as well as the broader anti-ISIS strategy will most likely top the agenda. The two NATO allies have been unable to coordinate policy in Syria and the fallout from Turkey’s latest operations against the PKK/YPG highlight their disagreements. US and Turkey appear to be working at cross purposes because of their divergence over the YPG although they are both part of the anti-ISIS coalition.
Turkey has been hopeful about the Trump administration’s approach to Turkish concerns regarding the YPG. The administration appears not to have made a political decision about the US military’s support for the YPG as part of its anti-ISIS campaign. If the two leaders can come to an understanding over this issue, it would be an achievement in and of itself. Such a boon to the US-Turkey relationship can help rebuild trust and ensure lasting success in the anti-ISIS campaign. If the US and Turkey fail to strike a political agreement and are unable to work more closely than they have so far, it would be detrimental to the success of the anti-ISIS campaign.