The timing of the Turkish airstrikes on Syrian Kurdish forces, weeks before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to visit the US President Donald Trump, is not a coincidence.
The attacks serve as a warning for the US, but it also aims to ensure Turkey retains an influence over proceedings in Syria, while simultaneously appeasing hawkish circles in Turkey crucial to Erdogan’s recent referendum win.
The attacks on the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) bases near the Syrian town of Derik, which also included Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions in the Shingal area in Iraq, led to diplomatic protests from the US.
The US is in a difficult conundrum. It relies heavily on Syrian Kurdish forces, whom they have stated many times as one of the most effective troops battling the Islamic State (IS).
However, keeping their once dependable allies in Ankara onside at the same time is proving an impossible balance.
Underlining this difficult predicament, Turkish airstrikes came as YPG led forces were in the middle of an intense battle to capture Tabqa from IS that would pave the way for the final assault on Raqqa.
The strong Turkish opposition to the growing ties between the Kurdish forces, whom they accuse of being an extension of the PKK, and the US is not new.
Turkey has attempted to pressure Washington on multiple occasions to sideline the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the YPG forms as its largest and strongest contingent, and to propel Turkey, and its Syrian opposition allies, to lead the fight to drive IS from their stronghold of Raqqa.
This week, Erdogan stated the US-led coalition, working hand in hand with Turkish forces, “can turn Raqqa into a graveyard for IS.”
This suggestion of anti-IS alliance has been proposed countless times and has been evidently rejected by the US, which has increased their support of SDF forces in recent months.
Erdogan warned continued US support needs to stop “right now,” or risk bringing persistent strife in the region and Turkey while urging that without cooperation on the global fight against terrorism, “then tomorrow it will strike at another ally.”
The US has rejected the notion that the YPG and the PKK are one and the same. This places the US in an increasingly difficult standoff with Turkey.
According to Mark Toner, the former US State Department spokesperson, Washington had already communicated that “Turkey must stop attacking the YPG.”
Toner added the US supports “Turkey’s efforts to protect its borders from PKK terrorism,” but this stance fuels ambiguity in an already tense regional landscape.
The US policy towards the YPG forces, both now and in the future, remains incoherent and unclear.
Erdogan warned that “we may suddenly come at any night,” referring to further attacks on YPG positions. This would certainly undermine Kurdish support in the battle against IS.
For Erdogan to back down on his unwavering stance on the YPG now would risk a nationalist backlash.
It remains to be seen how far the US is willing to go to defend their Kurdish allies, who had even requested a no-fly zone.
The US had already expressed their disappointment over a lack of notice and coordination before Turkish strikes. Col. John Dorrian, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), described the time provided by Turkey as “inadequate.”
According to Dorrian, the US “had forces within six miles of the strikes,” while the operations box given by Turkey was too big to ensure the safety of US troops.
As a deterrence to further Turkish attacks, US armored convoys were seen patrolling some areas alongside Kurdish forces.
This came as US officers visited the site of the airstrikes, with reports of US forces attending funerals of YPG members killed by the air raid.
Deployments of US troops along the border areas was confirmed by Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis, who urged focus from all parties in the fight against IS as the common enemy.
An angry Erdogan remarked that “we are seriously concerned to see US flags in a convoy that has YPG rags on it.”
Erdogan is likely to protest strongly with Trump when they meet.
Ankara hoped Trump would abandon former US President Barack Obama’s policy in allying with the Kurds.
But, with the Kurds driving deeper in their assault on Raqqa, Trump has seemingly taken advice from his military leaders and stuck with the Kurds.
Any change now would spell bloodshed either way. Turkish forces would have to wedge through Kurdish territory, leading to certain conflict.
Conversely, Turkey’s resistance against the YPG would only embolden, especially as Kurds solidify their autonomous rule.
This regional powder-keg goes well beyond the question of who will take Raqqa. IS will be defeated, but the complex Syrian web from years of bloodshed will be much more difficult to untangle.
After IS, is the US willing to protect YPG forces at the continued expense of Turkey, or will it leave both allies to open a new chapter of bloodshed?
First Published: Kurdistan 24