U.S. President Barack Obama's administration's support for the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria continues to strain ties between Turkey and the United States. Though it is unclear what Washington wants to do with the group once DAESH is defeated, the Turkish leadership sees Obama's partnership with the PKK's Syrian affiliate as an effort to limit their influence over the failed state next door. Ever since the siege of Kobani, the Obama administration has been using the PYD to force Turkey into more active participation in the anti-DAESH effort. A recent visit to Kobani by U.S. the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS (DAESH), Brett McGurk, where he accepted gifts from a former PKK member who now serves in the PYD leadership, took the crisis to the next level.
For many Turkish officials, McGurk is a supporter of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's sectarian policies that sought to keep Sunnis on the sidelines. To be clear, his inclusion in a 17-strong delegation does not necessarily reflect major differences of opinion between the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department. Nor is it helpful to associate McGurk's rise to prominence with U.S. military officials who have blamed the casualties of war on Ankara's refusal to base U.S. troops in Turkey, calling the shots in Iraq. At the end of the day, the White House publicly endorsed McGurk's controversial visit to Kobani.
To make matters worse, State Department spokesman John Kirby stated at least twice that the United States would continue working with the PYD, which the U.S. does not consider to be a terrorist group. Going into damage control mode on Wednesday, McGurk offered "to protect Turkey against the PKK," but came out in favor of strengthening the PYD's armed People's Protection Units (YPG) even after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan openly asked the administration to choose between Turkey and the PYD.
One thing is clear: Washington canot make things right with Turkey by calling the PKK a terrorist organization. At the end of the day, whether the international community views a given group as a terrorist organization still depends on where the United States stands. In this sense, fighting DAESH hardly justifies the Obama administration's commitment to working with an armed group with open ties to the PKK.
Having failed to do anything to stop Russian airstrikes against moderate rebels in Syria, which happens to serve DAESH's interests, the Obama administration risks losing Turkey for the sake of limiting Russian influence over the PYD leadership. Another reason appears to be Washington's interest in mediating future disarmament talks between Turkey and the PKK to play a crucial role in Kurdish self-determination. Understanding Washington's motives, however, does not mean much for the Turkish government. By supporting the PYD in northern Syria, the Obama administration is paving the way for a major crisis in bilateral relations.
At this point, Turkey does not believe that Washington's interest in working with the PYD stems from the need for ground forces to fight DAESH in Syria. Instead, the country sees an existential threat. To be clear, the Obama administration's reliance on a small group of military advisors seeking to repent for their sins in Iraq does not make things any better. Moving forward, it will not be possible for the United States to channel the Turkish people's frustration into strengthening the opponents of Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) either.
Here's how to reverse this dangerous trend:
The Obama administration's top priority is to eliminate DAESH and Washington is not exactly happy about Turkey's level of participation in the anti-DAESH campaign. Meanwhile, the Turkish government is extremely concerned about Western weapons and ammunition ending up being used by the PKK in attacks against civilians and security forces. Until now, U.S. officials have conveniently turned a blind eye to the flow of weapons and militants from PYD-controlled parts of northern Syria and southeastern Turkey and ignored concrete evidence presented to them by Ankara. Statements by Turkmen fighters and other moderate groups do not count either. If evidence of PYD foul play becomes public, Turkey will expect the United States to make some changes. If the Obama administration fails to comply, we will probably witness a new wave of anti-Americanism in Turkey and the next president will find it difficult to regain the Ankara's trust.