Biden’s Visit Needs to Address Turkish Concerns Over the PYD
On August 21, Reuters reported that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups were preparing for an assault against the ISIS-held town of Jarablus on the Turkey-Syria border. A day later, on August 22, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) shelled ISIS and YPG positions in Jarablus and northern Manbij with the intent of clearing a corridor for FSA forces to Jarablus. This new effort is likely linked to the recent comments by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim that Turkey will play a larger role in Syria to help end the five year old conflict in the coming months, as well as the victory of the PYD-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) over ISIS in Manbij. The continued American reliance on the PKK-affiliated YPG in Syria continues to raise concerns in Turkey about its national security, just one more issue adding to the fraught relationship between Turkey and the U.S.
While Turkey and the U.S. both want to see ISIS driven out of the border region, Turkey has an interest in making sure it is replaced with a friendly actor. While the defeat of ISIS in Manbij was a welcome turn of events for Turkey, the role of the PYD in the SDF has never been popular with the Turkish government. Turkish concerns over the role of the PYD remain high, as evidenced by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s statements to reporters that Turkey expects the PYD to stand by the promise to withdraw. A successful operation by the FSA to take and hold Jarablus will both remove ISIS from a border town with Turkey, and preempt any PYD attempt to link Rojava with the Afrin canton, a link which would effectively cut Turkey off from Syria.
Despite PYD involvement in the offensive against Manbij, the operation demonstrated that the U.S. and Turkey, along with their preferred opposition groups, can fruitfully cooperate in Syria. Before the offensive began, the U.S. was apparently able to obtain tacit Turkish approval with the promise that YPG forces would withdraw east of the Euphrates after combat ended. Mid-June, as the SDF operation in Manbij was underway, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken credited the successes in Manbij to Turkey’s cooperation and support. Though it took over a month, ISIS was successfully driven out of a city where it was entrenched. In a statement after the conclusion of the operation, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter congratulated the involved forces, and thanked Turkey for its support to the operation.
Even after the recent Turkish shelling of PYD positions, there are signs of continued cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey. A Turkish official told Daily Sabah that U.S.-led coalition forces were informed of the strikes. In the aftermath of the July 15 coup, U.S.-Turkish relations are quite high-strung. There is widespread sentiment in Turkey that the U.S. was either complicit in the coup, or would have at least stood by and let it happen. A strong effort by the U.S. to show that it is standing by its promise to have the PYD return to the Rojava area would be a good way to show U.S. goodwill and continued support for Turkey. Standing by the pre-offensive agreement can help rebuild the eroded trust between Turkey and the U.S. If the Kurdish forces were to withdraw, it could also help alleviate Turkish concerns about undue PYD influence over the SDF. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Ankara is an opportunity for the Obama administration to make it clear to the Turkish government that the U.S. will take concrete steps to ensure the PYD’s withdrawal.