The U.S.'s decision to indirectly provide weapons and ammunition to the PKK's armed wing in Syria, the People's Protection Units (YPG), has been a major source of friction between the two allies. Now, it is more likely than ever that Washington will end up transferring more heavy weaponry, this time directly, to the YPG for the upcoming Raqqa operation.
Turkey has been concerned about these weapons since the fall of 2014. But this time, heavy weapons are involved, and the YPG could eventually hand some of these weapons to its parent group the PKK, a terror group officially recognized by the U.S. and Turkey.
Since the beginning of this year, the Pentagon has already given a number of armored vehicles to the YPG through its official partner the Syrian Arab Coalition, a component of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces, (SDF).
A report that appeared on Turkish media over the weekend, citing Turkish security sources, alleged that U.S. weapons have already started to end up in the hands of PKK terrorists. The reports said Turkish soldiers seized two AT4 Light Anti-Tank Weapons, or LAW, from a dead PKK militant in Hakkari. Turkish sources had claimed to the Hürriyet newspaper that the LAWs were among the weapons delivered to the YPG in previous operations.
This kind of report is not new. Turkey previously raised the issue with American officials, and similar U.S.-made weapons in the possession of PKK terrorists were found to have originated from Iraq, rather than Syria.
Daily Sabah could not independently confirm whether the Turkish military or Turkish intelligence assessment on whether the AT4 LAWs were correctly represented by the Turkish media.
However a U.S. official said that Turkish authorities were yet to raise the issue with American officials.
"In fact we routinely reach out to [Turkish officials] about this issue, for example to get the serial number of the weapon in question, so we can track it," the U.S. official said.
When the Obama administration announced its decision to divert the weapons bought for the Train and Equip Program to the YPG in late 2015, it said that it would have some measures to prevent them falling into the wrong hands.
Christine Wormuth, the then-undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon, said that in order to mitigate some risks, the U.S. would only provide some light weapons to the groups fighting Daesh.
"We have methods in place to be able to monitor that equipment. These were methods that we instigated with the original program," she said.
As far as I understand the U.S. has a series of methods to track the weapons and the armored vehicles. A U.S. official said the military was able to locate the aforementioned vehicles for operational aims, but it is also a safeguard against the change of hands.
Curious about these methods, I have investigated. According to Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, the U.S. military provides military assistance incrementally and the amount is metered to the minimum needed for the immediate mission. The Pentagon also is monitoring the recipients to ensure that the materiel is used solely for the purpose of fighting Daesh.
In response to Turkey's concerns over the PKK, Maj. Rankine-Galloway says, without elaborating for operational reasons, they use a number of accounting mechanisms to keep track of the equipment transferred to the Syrian Arab Coalition.
I believe the best acceptable option for Turkey, in the case of the U.S.'s decision to directly arm the YPG, would be supplying the heavy weapons as loans to be taken back after the end of the Raqqa operation. Turkey also could send an observer team to be sure of the fate of these weapons.
However, as of now, Ankara has little appetite for this kind of solution. Turkish officials are having a hard time facing the fact that they do not have many options in Syria to disrupt the close U.S. partnership with the YPG.
The long-awaited Turkish constitutional referendum could further push Turkey to take drastic measures in Syria, and it could create a new set of problems that Washington has yet to consider.