President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama last week took place against the backdrop of crucial developments in the Middle East. The leaders discussed a number of issues including the fragile ceasefire in Syria, the anti-DAESH effort, Russian President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy, Iran's reintegration into the international system and the refugee crisis - issues on which Turkey and the United States see eye to eye. The only exception was the role of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK's Syrian franchise, in the anti-DAESH campaign and, by extension, the Turkish proposal to create a safe zone in northern Syria.
In recent months, the Turkish leadership has repeatedly told their counterparts that the PYD had organic links to the PKK, which Turkey, the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist organization. The facts on the ground support Turkey's claims: In Nusaybin, where the Turkish security forces have been cracking down on PKK networks, the terrorists have been receiving support from al Qamishli - a PYD-controlled town across the border. Meanwhile, PKK militants have been targeting security forces with IEDs - a skill that the PYD learned from DAESH. To make matters worse, the authorities discovered that at least two PKK-affiliated suicide bombers, who blew themselves up in Ankara, had previously received training among the PYD ranks.
In light of the evidence, the government has publicly criticized Washington's refusal to acknowledge the links between the PKK and the PYD. The organization has been trying to carve out a piece of Syrian territory under the pretext of fighting DAESH, officials argue. The Obama administration's futile efforts to distinguish between the PKK, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, and the PYD, a U.S. ally in northern Syria, had been putting strains on Turkey-U.S. relations for some time. According to senior government officials, Turkey was keen on addressing the issue during President Erdoğan's stay in Washington, D.C.
Seeking to launch a dialogue with the Obama administration, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters that "we won't stop talking to the United States just because we have different opinions [about the situation in northern Syria]." According to a Turkish official who participated in Turkey-U.S. talks last week, the Obama administration responded positively to Turkey's effort and pledged to stop distinguishing between PKK and PYD. In other words, the United States acknowledged that the two groups are one and the same. Yet it remains to be seen whether this crucial change in rhetoric will have policy implications. If the United States views the PYD as a terrorist organization, the Obama administration cannot work with them - not even to fight DAESH.
Whether or not the Obama administration will stop working with the PYD won't become clear until the United States responds to what President Erdogan said he proposed to Mr. Obama last week.
According to the Turkish proposal, Syrian Arab forces, which formed the Syrian Democratic Forces with the PYD, will join a new group comprised of moderate rebels and Turkmen fighters - which Turkey wants to lead the charge against DAESH. President Erdogan on Sunday said Turkey had presented a list of 2,400 names to the Obama administration. In addition to the formation of a new ground force, Turkey wants the United States to provide air support to the group by targeting DAESH positions across the Azaz-Manbij line.
According to sources who participated in the negotiations last week, the Obama administration isn't opposed to the Turkish proposal and agrees with Turkey on the necessity of air support. Whether or not the PYD will be excluded from the effort, however, remains unclear. A joint commission comprised of Turkish and U.S. officials, which will work on the specifics of the deal, has held their first meeting in Ankara yesterday.
The Turkish proposal features a concrete roadmap and promises quick results. If the United States agrees to Turkey's terms, most notably the PYD's exclusion from the anti-DAESH force, bilateral relations might improve in the foreseeable future. The question, of course, is whether the Obama administration will shake hands with Turkey. A Turkish official says they take Washington's pledges with a grain of salt: "The Americans seemed interested in bilateral meetings. But it wouldn't be the first time that they don't keep their promises. The important thing is to monitor the situation on the ground. It would be too early to unveil the deal without the U.S. taking concrete steps first."