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Syrian Kurds: The Other Woman in America’s Relationship With Turkey

Tensions have existed for years between Washington and Ankara over the Kurdish population in both Iraq and Syria. U.S. officials regard the Kurds as able fighters and democratic secular allies in the struggle against Islamic extremism. Turkish leaders view them and their agenda for an independent Kurdish homeland as a menace to Turkey’s sovereignty and territorial integrity—especially since a majority of Kurds reside in southeastern Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government deems the highly autonomous Kurdish entities across the border in Iraq and Syria as dangerous models and a magnet for their secessionist-minded ethnic brethren inside Turkey. U.S.-Turkish policy disagreements regarding the Kurds have gained new intensity in recent months and could become a catalyst for an irreparable breach in ties between the two NATO members.

Ankara has long fumed that fighters from Turkey’s secessionist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have used Iraq’s self-governed Kurdish region as a safe haven for raids into Turkey. On several occasions, Turkish military units have retaliated with airstrikes and even ground force incursions into Iraq [1] to neutralize the PKK threat. Turkey also reacted with extreme hostility earlier this year when the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq held a referendum to declare that region’s independence.

Erdogan and other officials repeatedly emphasize that Turkey will never permit Syrian Kurds to achieve the type of autonomous status that Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Continued Syrian Kurdish movements toward such a goal would defy the reddest of red lines [2] that Ankara has drawn.

Syrian Kurdish leaders clearly have not been intimidated by Ankara’s warnings. Two Kurdish factions operate in Syria. One is the rather radical-left Democratic Union Party (PYD), which controls most of the Kurdish militia fighters, the Popular Protection Units (YPG). The PYD competes for influence with the somewhat more moderate Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), a group that has ties to a similar party in Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite some ideological differences, Kurdish fighters in Syria have displayed an impressive record of success. Already by the summer of 2013, YPG forces had scored decisive victories over both the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, and the then-embryonic ISIS, proceeding to liberate most majority-Kurdish cities [3] in the north.  

By mid-2017, the accumulating victories by YPG militias and other forces had expanded the amount of land under Kurdish control. Today, their holdings constitute a nearly continuous swath of territory along the Syrian-Turkish border. That “enclave” amounts to nearly 25 percent of Syria. The Kurds have become more politically aggressive as well. In March 2016, they organized a conference in the city of Rmelan, along with officials from Christian and other minority communities, to declare the establishment of the Democratic Federation of Rojava, an ostentatiously self-governing region. In September 2017, the authorities conducted local elections, the first stage in a three-part process to establish an official, autonomous, regional government [4].

Ankara is increasingly angry at Washington’s cozy military and political ties to the Syrian Kurds. There are understandable reasons for Ankara’s discontent. The United States has sent extensive arms to Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State, and there have been few indications that the flow will cease even though ISIS was on the verge of collapse by late 2017. The Erdogan government finally extracted a promise [5] from President Trump in November to terminate weapons shipments, but Washington subsequently sent decidedly inconsistent signals. Despite Trump’s promise regarding arms transfers, the administration essentially deputized the Syrian Kurds [6] to suppress remaining pockets of Islamic extremism in northern Syria and to guard the border with Turkey, infuriating Ankara [7].

Turkey’s anger has now exploded into airstrikes and massive artillery barrages on two Kurdish-controlled districts in northern Syria. In contrast to previous incidents, the scale of these strikes is much larger. Moreover, a ground invasion [8] followed on this occasion. Ankara’s explicit objective is to oust all Kurdish forces from areas along the border. The operation was indicative of Erdogan’s determination to pursue this course; in doing so, he sought consent [9] for his military actions from both Russia and Iran, but apparently not from Washington.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis has stated that the United States is “very alert [10]” to the escalating tensions between Turkey and the Kurds and is quite concerned about those developments. But it isn’t clear what the Trump administration would—or could—do to restore calm. Ankara shows no sign of backing down now that Turkish leaders have embarked on a full-scale military offensive.

change_me

The situation would be bad enough if the overall relationship between the United States and Turkey was on a sound footing. But that is not the case. Even before the attempt to crush the Kurds, there was growing unease [11] and anger [12] among American policymakers over the Turkish government’s behavior. Erdogan used the July 2016 abortive military coup in his country as a pretext to impose a crackdown that amounts to a systematic dismantling of his country’s democratic institutions. He has jailed thousands [13] of real or imagined political opponents, including journalists, teachers, and judges. Turkey now has more journalists behind bars than any other country [14].

There is also growing concern about Ankara’s external behavior. The Erdogan regime’s policy regarding ISIS over the years has been ambivalent at best. A noticeable rapprochement between Turkey and Russia is also evident. Ankara has concluded several major energy deals with Moscow—a move that runs directly counter to the U.S.-led policy of tightening economic sanctions on Russia for the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and continued support for secessionist rebels in eastern Ukraine. In an even more provocative move, Erdogan signed a $2.5 billion deal in late December 2017 to purchase Russian S-400 air defense missiles. [15]

The Syrian Kurds are now playing a role akin to the “other woman” in an already troubled, if not entirely dysfunctional, marriage. Given the affection [16] for Kurdish allies [17] in both Iraq and Syria among influential Americans—especially conservatives [18] and neoconservatives [19]—Turkey’s military offensive in northern Syria will undoubtedly put even more pressure on Washington to reassess its ties with Ankara. For its part, the Erdogan government seems determined to crush the Kurds and to chart an independent course both domestically and internationally, regardless of U.S. wishes. Even if the current crisis recedes, the long-term prognosis for the relationship between Washington and Ankara is not good.  

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 10 books, the contributing editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 700 articles on international affairs.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Syrian Kurds: The Other Woman in America’s Relationship With Turkey"

#1 Comment By Dale McNamee On January 29, 2018 @ 12:23 am

Erdogan and Turkey are not our allies… Never were and never will be… And, they shouldn’t be in NATO either…

#2 Comment By mt. auburn On January 29, 2018 @ 12:38 am

My guess is that in the end we let the Turks crush the Syrian Kurds. After all, we let the Saudis starve and wreck Yemen, and we let the Israelis do the same to the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Considering that SA and Israel are only client states, we can’t complain about an actual NATO ally dealing with a grave threat on its own border – a threat that we did much to create, come to that. We’re lucky that Turkey hasn’t yet called on its NATO brethren to help out.

The neocons will of course take to the op/ed pages to whine about Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies, how this amounts to a “betrayal” of the Kurds, etc, but the neocons knew all along that Turkey would never put up with this; it was cruel and irresponsible of them to have encouraged the Kurds to think the US would stand with them against a treaty ally like Turkey. In any case neocon credibility on foreign policy matters is virtually nil. Even in the DC echo chamber people have begun to roll their eyes and finger their cellphones when they hear this tired crap.

#3 Comment By Unholy Lands On January 29, 2018 @ 3:05 am

“For its part, the Erdogan government seems determined to crush the Kurds and to chart an independent course both domestically and internationally, regardless of U.S. wishes.”

This is what we get for not making the Saudis and Israelis toe the line, for not kicking them in the teeth when they defy our orders to stop building settlements or stop killing so many civilians. When you let client states spit in your face like that, your allies lose respect and start doing the same thing.

You would have thought Trump understood that basic fact of international life, but it seems he forgot about both “America First” and “the art of the deal” after he got to Washington.

#4 Comment By Gordan T. On January 29, 2018 @ 7:43 am

@Unholy Lands

Another couch warrior heard from. Please do tell us about basic facts of international life, as well as what “America First” means to you.

#5 Comment By bkh On January 29, 2018 @ 8:55 am

We need to pull out ASAP. This situation has the potential to escalate into something worse with Russia getting involved. And if Iran gets involved somehow, Israel may feel threatened and get involved. Turkey is not our ally.

#6 Comment By Michael Kenny On January 29, 2018 @ 9:32 am

The most interesting point in all this is that it illustrates perfectly that Putin is irreversibly bogged down in Syria. Why would his “consent” be necessary otherwise? That means he’s a sitting duck and the US can lower the boom on him at any time by re-launching the war.

#7 Comment By Stephen J. On January 29, 2018 @ 10:12 am

Interesting article, but what I believe we are seeing is, to paraphrase an old saying. “This is what happens when supporters of terrorists fall out.” See links below for evidence of their treacherous acts.

[20]

[21]

[22]

#8 Comment By Stephen J. On January 29, 2018 @ 10:20 am

Article of interest at link below.
—————————————–
Kick Turkey Out of NATO
Oh, and let’s get the US out, too
by Justin Raimondo Posted onJanuary 29, 2018

[23]

#9 Comment By Mark Thomason On January 29, 2018 @ 10:20 am

The US warned the Kurds not to do the things they have recently done.

Not least was the vote for independence, which is not isolated just to Iraq; it was a statement of all, a start.

I like the Kurds. I like them better than all the rest of the middle east, although they too are far from perfect (honor killings?). However, they have made many of their own problems, by poor judgment and over-reach. They have done that despite very clear and public warnings.

We can’t help them if they won’t listen.

Then again, we might not help anyway, since we have been blithering idiots all through the region for two decades and more (our Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam it would be okay to invade Kuwait).

I’d like to see us get our act together, and along the way help the Kurds, but they are their own enemy right now too.

#10 Comment By Carl Edgar On January 29, 2018 @ 6:20 pm

Job one is to wind down the presence of US personnel and dependence at Incirlik and any other installations hosting Americans in Turkey. No need to do it in a hugely obvious way at the get-go. However, it seems clear that the status quo obtaining between NATO and Turkey cannot easily continue without some structural change.

#11 Comment By Carl Edgar On January 29, 2018 @ 6:21 pm

sependents

#12 Comment By RichterRox On January 29, 2018 @ 6:41 pm

Boot the turks out if nato and fund the kurds , they earned it the hard way with blood spilt.

The cold war is over and Turkey has little value.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 29, 2018 @ 9:29 pm

I would love to chastise Turkey for exceeding territorial sovereignty, but that bridge is long destroyed by our own violations or territorial sovereignty.

If in fact the US has cause to be Syria — turkey has more. And Pres Trump was careless to allow himself to entrapped by interventionists by making the demands he has made. Now I have to admit that Pres trump his whole life has managed to surprise his critics.

#14 Comment By Unholy Lands On January 29, 2018 @ 9:54 pm

Gordon T sez “Another couch warrior heard from. Please do tell us about basic facts of international life, as well as what “America First” means to you.”

Happy to oblige, Mr. T. It means we stop wasting money, blood, and focus on Middle East parasites and start using it for the benefit of native born Americans in America. Getting out of the Middle East and starting to defend our own borders, ending immigration, and rebuilding our own infrastructure would be a good start.

I assume “couch warriors” refers to the Israelis, who sat it out while Americans fought and died all around them for seventeen years.

#15 Comment By ally / client On January 29, 2018 @ 10:54 pm

@bkh “And if Iran gets involved somehow, Israel may feel threatened and get involved. Turkey is not our ally.”

Actually, Turkey is our ally, being a full member of NATO. It is Israel that is not our ally, having no formal alliance with Israel. Israel is a US client state.

#16 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On January 30, 2018 @ 12:24 am

The very idea that Uncle Sam, all knowing all seeing, could go into the Middle East and get all the children to play nice was one of the biggest mistakes a nation could make. Plenty of blame to go around but George W. Bush really poured gasoline on the fire. Going through speech therapy after treatment for tongue cancer, I saw young men (20’s), amputee’s in the rehab center. The price of war is always dead bodies, civilian casualties, wounded, wasted resources. Uncle Sam could get out, not gracefully, not saving face, being humiliated, called mean names, disgraced. However, it isn’t our fight and it never has been. I feel sorry for the Kurds as it is one more group we have co-opted with hollow promises knowing we would never deliver. Perhaps, if Uncle got out of this quagmire, the parties involved would have to figure out a solution by themselves. Which is the way it should have been from the beginning. That includes Israel. Will this happen? When pigs, dogs and cats have wings.

#17 Comment By C’est La Guerre On January 30, 2018 @ 6:50 am

“the neocons knew all along that Turkey would never put up with this; it was cruel and irresponsible of them to have encouraged the Kurds to think the US would stand with them against a treaty ally like Turkey.”

But undermining US/Turkey relations is a major Israeli goal. The Israelis have never been happy about the fact that Turkey puts the lie to the Israeli claim to be America’s only democratic friend in the region. It also puts the lie to the Israeli claim to be our best source of military support in the region, considering that Turkey hosts incredibly valuable bases, whereas the Israelis turned out to be militarily worthless to us when the rubber met the road after 9/11.

Crucially, Turkey is also hosting literally millions of Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, and Yemeni refugees that might otherwise be flooding Europe, refugees created by our wars …

So I suspect we’ll shut up and let Turkey do whatever it deems necessary to its own security. And we’ll probably help out in the background with intel and weapons, as we do with Saudi Arabia and Israel.

#18 Comment By Mark Thomason On January 30, 2018 @ 10:02 am

This neglects to mention that the Turks believe the US played a key role in the coup attempt against Erdogan. They have some reason for that belief. Even if they are wrong, they do seem to believe it, and that certainly plays a role in the present confrontation, in their motive for being so uncompromising.

#19 Comment By come on home On January 31, 2018 @ 12:38 am

@John Blade Wiederspan – “However, it isn’t our fight and it never has been. ”

Amen, brother.

#20 Comment By Pete On January 31, 2018 @ 9:39 am

Turkey is a terrorist state which directly supports ISIS and al Qaeda, and is attempting genocide and ethnic cleansing in Syria to expand its empire. It is fervently anti-US.

The Kurds, in conjunction with the rest of the people of northern Syria, want a democratic, secular Syria (not independence). They fight ISIS and are pro-US.

What do you want to do, America? Do you want to support radical islamist terrorism, or do you want to support democracy and human rights?

It’s a very simple choice.

#21 Comment By ain’t us On January 31, 2018 @ 12:58 pm

@Pete : “Turkey is a terrorist state which directly supports ISIS and al Qaeda”

That’s a new one. Turkey is a US NATO ally. We are working with Turkey to wipe out the PKK Kurd terror threat. That’s official US policy. You got a problem with it, go join the PKK and fight for “democracy and human rights”, because the US doesn’t do that any more. We fight to defend murdering dictators and other killers of innocent civilians, from Sisi to MBS to Netanyahu to Erdogan.

#22 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 31, 2018 @ 1:19 pm

“However, it isn’t our fight and it never has been. I feel sorry for the Kurds as it is one more group we have co-opted with hollow promises knowing we would never deliver.”

My position on the Kurdish question as with many is excruciating. Because unlike many, I think credibility maters. And we made them our business by making promises and any guarantees. I assume we made more than one. Our word needs to matter if we are to have anything besides “big guns” to operate in the international community.

#23 Comment By kayser On August 4, 2018 @ 10:37 pm

To break up a big rock to carve up the images of the American Founding Fathers, The US had to drill and charge the heart of the rocks with dynamites before it was detonated to shape the rock for a new image we see to day on Mount Rushmore. In the politics of the Middle East, The Rocks are the Turks and the Persians, the Kurds are the sculptures and the United States is the provider of the dynamite. The United Sates must and will stay in the Middle East until the rocks are reshaped to Ameri-KA’s liking.