Arming Syrian Kurds, A Nasty Thorn In U.S.-Turkey Relations
As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with U.S. President Donald Trump, mutual objectives may be overshadowed by the Kurdish question.
ERBIL — The U.S. decision to directly arm the Syrian Kurds fighting the so-called Islamic State is not a complete shift in the White House administration's policy with the Kurds or Turkey, but it is a necessary step in securing the defeat of militants on the ground, U.S.-backed fighters said.
"The decision … is a sign that we have proven ourselves as a reliable ground force against ISIS here in Syria," Jesper Soder, a Swedish volunteer with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters in Syria, told Syria Deeply.
The news of the U.S. directly arming Kurdish forces made international headlines and prompted strong condemnations from Turkey, but it is not that drastic a move. The U.S. military has long argued that the Syrian Kurds are the strongest partner force on the ground to fight ISIS in northern Syria.
NATO ally Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) as an extension of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Ankara considers a terrorist organization. Thus, the SDF was created. Kurdish units make up the majority of the SDF, which is estimated to have roughly 50,000 fighters.
For President Donald Trump, "taking Raqqa at the earliest possible opportunity" is part of his campaign promise to defeat ISIS quickly. In order to do this, the U.S. evidently prioritized Raqqa over Turkey's objections," Sam Heller, a Beirut-based analyst and fellow at the Century Foundation, told Syria Deeply.
The renewed commitment from the U.S. to provide heavy weapons will double the Kurds' effectiveness in defeating ISIS.
"If you want to move on Raqqa in the next few months — as opposed to doing it in a year, or never — the SDF is your only option. And for the SDF (mainly the YPG) to undertake a fight of this difficulty, they need a qualitative step up in how you're arming them," Heller said.
Trump gave the Department of Defense clearance "to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS in Raqqa," according to chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana W. White's statement. The decision came just days before the SDF pushed ISIS out of the strategically significant town of Tabqa, positioning themselves to begin the assault on the militants' Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.
According to Soder, the decision is not altogether new. "We have for many years received support from the anti-ISIS coalition. But this step is necessary in order for our forces to liberate Raqqa. Our weapons and equipment are kind of old and we lack modern weapons in the fight against terrorists; this is a much welcome contribution to our forces," he said.
The U.S. is expected to provide supplies such as heavy machine guns, mortars, antitank weapons, armored cars and engineering equipment, according to The New York Times.
"As a volunteer that has spent years supporting the YPG, I'm astonished this sort of help didn't come sooner. Just think how much time this indecision has cost us and what it equates to in human life. The renewed commitment from the U.S. to provide heavy weapons will double the Kurds' effectiveness in defeating ISIS," Macer Gifford, a British former volunteer with the YPG, told Syria Deeply.
Kurdish YPG fighter — Photo: Kurdishstruggle
While Turkey has also been fighting ISIS in Syria, Ankara has made it clear that it is also opposed to the Kurdish presence near its border. Last month, Turkish airstrikes hit Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq, killing 20 YPG fighters at their Syrian headquarters on Qerecox Mountain and five Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Iraq. Ankara is afraid that the PKK could use the weapons provided to the YPG against Turkey. On Wednesday, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, "Both the PKK and the YPG are terrorist organizations, and they are no different, apart from their names. Every weapon seized by them is a threat to Turkey," Hürriyet Daily Newsreported.
However, Syrian Kurdish politician Ilham Ahmed said they have never threatened Turkey.
Ahead of Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan's meeting Tuesday with Donald Trump in Washington, U.S. defense secretary Jim Mattis met with the Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim in London last Thursday to assure Ankara that the weapons provided to the Kurds would not be used against Turkey and "reiterated U.S. commitment to protecting our NATO ally," White said.
Anti-ISIS coalition spokesperson Air Force Col. John L. Dorrian echoed Mattis in a message to Turkey on Thursday, claiming that "every single one of these weapons … will be accounted for and pointed at ISIS."
The Pentagon did not share details on how it will oversee how the weapons are used, but "even if the U.S. could control its weapons, it would be difficult to convince Turkey and Turks that PKK attacks in Turkey (which I expect to explode in three to six months) are not somehow carried out through U.S. hardware," Burak Kadercan, an assistant professor of strategy and policy at the United States Naval War College, told Syria Deeply. "Unless provided with extensive assurances or compromises, a robust and credible deal, Turkey will respond very harshly."
Turkey's short-term response is likely to include increased pressure on YPG positions in Syria. In addition to increased airstrikes on the Syrian Kurds, Ankara could partner with a Syrian rebel force on the ground to target the YPG "in places where both parties can claim they are fighting ISIS," Kadercan said.
It is unlikely that the U.S. decision will prompt a solution to the conflict between Turkey and the PKK.
In the long term, arming the Kurds could threaten Turkey's membership in NATO, and Ankara may deny the U.S. use of its air base for operations in Syria and Iraq. "This might be the beginning of the end of Turkey-U.S. and NATO relationship," Kadercan said.
Dr. Nasr Haji Mansour, a senior SDF adviser in Syria, disagrees. "Turkey knows that the U.S. position is serious. It's aware it's not possible for them to play with such sensitive issues," he said. "Maybe it will try to get something to just save its reputation, like making promises to take part in managing Raqqa after ISIS, or demanding the withdrawal of Kurds from Raqqa, and so on," he told Syria Deeply.
Though the U.S. decision gives the Kurds international legitimacy, Syrian Kurdish officials are skeptical that it will change Turkey's position "against Rojava people and northern Syria, where it occupied parts of Syria, and is planning to occupy more territories inside Syria," Sihanouk Dibo, the PYD (political wing of the YPG) presidential adviser in the city of Qamishli, told Syria Deeply.
What is clear is that it is unlikely that the U.S. decision will prompt a solution to the conflict between Turkey and the PKK, or soften relations between Ankara and the Syrian Kurds.
According to PYD official Dibo, this is a "mistake that would eventually affect Turkey more than any other country," and cause Turkey to face more instability in the future.