In Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have become central to the US-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State (IS).
However, it remains unclear if Washington is committed to a long-term strategic alliance, or if relations are merely a short-term measure to support current US objectives.
As Kurdish-led forces push closer to the IS stronghold of Raqqa, the growing alliance with YPG has stoked anger from another US ally, Turkey, who deems the Kurdish force an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkish anger grew with Washington’s recent decision to arm the Kurds directly, just days before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to meet US President Donald Trump.
The US-YPG alliance blossomed under the administration of former US President Barrack Obama, who was close to endorsing direct armament of Kurdish forces.
But, close to the end of his tenure, and with the controversy that would unfold, he deferred the decision to Trump.
Turkey had high expectations Trump would change course and abandon the alliance with the YPG.
However, as much as the decision to arm Kurdish forces would have alarmed Ankara, it was nonetheless unsurprising.
Since Trump assumed power, there is little sign the US was ready to abandon the Kurds.
Reaffirming their viewpoint the Kurds were the only viable force capable of defeating IS, the alliance became closer as the fight against the insurgents has intensified.
This was on full display as US armored units patrolled Manbij as well as border areas to dissuade Turkey from further attacks or encroachment into YPG territory.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated the US would “work out any of the concerns,” as he remained confident of resolving tensions with Ankara over the decision to arm the Kurds.
However, it is anything but straight forward to resolve. The US focus on the battle against IS has masked the lack of a coherent and long-term policy on the Syrian Kurds.
A tactical alliance is one thing, but there are many questions unresolved. The US has stated countless times they do not see the YPG as terrorists or an extension of the PKK.
After the defeat of IS, what will be the US policy on the YPG? Are they willing to act as protectors of the YPG, with Turkey only likely to sharpen animosity to a strong autonomous Kurdish zone on their border?
As for the YPG, the common enemy is IS, but they have not entered into an alliance with the US blind-sighted.
They know the geopolitics at stake and will have sought guarantees from the US for their pivotal role in driving back IS, especially now that the battle is in largely Arab-dominated areas.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that every weapon given to the YPG was a “threat to Turkey.”
But US assurance that weapons will be carefully tracked and retrieved from the Kurds has flaws.
The burning question remains if the US can strike a balance that can truly protect the YPG as well as revive fractious relations with Turkey.
The US has expressed keenness to bolster the “intelligence fusion center” in Ankara in the fight against the PKK, which the US designates a “terrorist” group, but this is unlikely to satisfy Turkey.
Erdogan’s meeting with Trump will center heavily on the Kurds.
The Turkish president and his officials still believe they can dissuade Trump, who they think is feeling ramification from Obama’s policies.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stated, “this plan is not the Trump administration’s plan. This plan was already conceived by the previous administration.”
Meanwhile, Erdogan pointed out that after Obama, the US “was still in a transition period.”
Erdogan expressed hope the Pentagon would “reverse” its decision to arm the Kurds, before his meeting with Trump.
It remains unlikely that Trump will change this decision, with reports of first US supplies already en-route to Kurdish fighters.
However, Turkey remains a key strategic ally of the US, and Trump may have to make concessions to avoid them slipping further away, and closer to Moscow.
At the same time, abandoning the Kurds now or after IS, as one of the few secular and pro-Western forces in the region, brings its set of risks.
If after IS Turkey attacks and the US steps aside, then the violence will multiply on both sides of the Turkish border.
The US can play a key role in the future of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) by encouraging reconciliation among the Kurdish groups and Kurdish armed forces, including those supported by the Kurdistan Region and tolerated by Turkey.
Moreover, Washington should play a crucial role in reviving peace talks between the PKK and Ankara, however distant the prospect of peace may seem.
First Published: Kurdistan 24