Everyone in Washington who closely follows developments in Syria knows that Ankara adamantly opposes the U.S. military partnership with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party's (PYD) People's Protection Units (YPG) militia due to its organic links to Turkey's outlawed PKK. The two countries are trying to find short-term solutions for their mutual problems. They recently increased military aid to moderate opposition groups fighting against DAESH instead of allowing the YPG to seize the remaining land along the Turkish border.
The Pentagon's draft defense budget for 2017, however, still contains some clauses that could cause trouble for Turkey in the long run, such as the possibility of the YPG transferring American weapons to the PKK. In the latest draft, Pentagon requested that U.S. Congress approve a $250 million fund to train and equip "vetted Syrian opposition forces" to fight DAESH. What the Pentagon means by "vetted forces" is overwhelmingly the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose main bulk is made up of members of the YPG. American officials defended themselves when faced with vigorous questioning from their allies last summer by saying that training the Syrian Arab opposition embarrassingly failed because the rebels wanted to focus on Syrian dictator Bashar Assad instead of DAESH. Then, to address Ankara's concerns, the SDF was invented with the participation of smaller Arab forces, and over the year the U.S. funneled tons of weapons to the YPG and its allies at least a dozen times. One mistake by Ankara was to think the Pentagon was providing U.S.-made weapons to the YPG. This is why Turkey's effort to find American weapons in PKK forces did not prove fruitful.
The budget proposal for 2017 bluntly lists that "vetted Syrians" would receive weapons that include former Soviet small arms and heavy weapons such as AK-47s, PKM machine guns, DShk machine guns, 50mm, 82mm and 120mm mortar systems and anti-tank weapons. The Pentagon also plans to provide modified Toyota Hilux four-wheel drive trucks to these forces. The main part of the fund, $210 million, would be spent on weapons, ammunition and equipment. That this administration might not plan to ramp up its efforts seriously to train opposition forces, despite U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter's promises, is a bad sign for Turkey.
There is one bright spot, though. The chairman of the House Armed Service Committee included some draft updates that say U.S. assistance for "vetted Syrian forces" should reflect the ethnic makeup of Syria, including vetted Sunni elements of the opposition, as appropriate. It also forces the U.S. military to support all groups receiving American aid to "retain the capability to defend themselves against" DAESH and regime forces.
The Turkish lobby pressuring U.S. Congress on this front says these changes are not enough. Indeed, a vigorous investigation of financial and logistical ties of vetted Syrian groups as to whether they receive support from terrorist organizations must be included in the bill. This would force President Barack Obama's administration to take Ankara's concerns regarding the YPG more seriously, and although there are more positive developments on this front, there is still a long way to go.
Turkish-Americans, along with Ankara, should pay close attention to defense budget bills in the House of Representatives and Senate. Deliberations on the bills will continue throughout May and a lot of pro-YPG or pro-Greek members of Congress will likely try to remove anything they determine as restrictions on their allies.
It also reminds us of larger problems that Turkey faces in the U.S. capital. Ankara might know how to influence the White House, but it still fails to lobby Congress properly. Of course, curbing congressional attempts regarding the 1915 events, which the pro-Armenian lobby has been forcing lawmakers to recognize as genocide, is important. But Turkey has become another country whose stakes are not only covering its own national problems, but also those in the greater Middle East. So Ankara must act on it and should follow a strict course to push its agenda in Washington. Otherwise Turkish officials will keep crying foul on American tactics in Syria.