On Saturday, Turkey shelled Democratic Union Party (PYD) targets in northern Syria who have been fighting moderate rebels near Azaz, in response to attacks on Turkish soil. Hours later, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said that his government simply followed the rules of military engagement before calling on the Democratic Union Party (PYD) to cease its attacks on moderate rebels and vacate the Menagh military airport immediately. Voicing concern about the escalation of tension between Turkey and the PYD's armed wing People's Protection Units (YPG) the U.S. special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (DAESH), Brett McGurk, urged the group "not to take advantage of a confused situation by seizing new territory." Although Turkey's move does not reflect a change in policy, it is safe to assume that the shelling will continue if and when national security threats arise. Deep down, we all know that this is a point of no return, the time for tough talk has come to an end and now we must focus on meaningful action.
For years, world leaders have been talking about the situation in Syria while carefully avoiding decisive steps to end the bloodshed and launch the nation-building process. Russia's interference in the Syrian civil war last year not only breathed new life into Syrian leader Bashar Assad's regime, but also changed the rules of the game, as the PYD leadership no longer pretends to fight DAESH in northern Syria. Along with the Russian air force, Syrian regime troops and Iran-backed Shiite militias, they have been attacking moderate rebels. To make matters worse, Washington has been desperately trying to outbid the Kremlin in an effort to maintain its influence over the group in an irresponsible, irrational and outright dangerous policy that threatens the entire region, not just the people of Syria.
In the wake of the most recent developments, Turkey and others need to show that they mean business. Obviously, the Turkish government should consult with its allies before taking future steps in Syria and make sure that its actions are legitimate. Moving forward though, the principle should be less talk and more action. But meaningful action does not have to be unilateral. At a time when the U.S. would rather focus on presidential primaries at home than crimes against humanity committed in the Middle East, the international coalition needs to rise to the challenge and question American leadership of the anti-DAESH campaign, which effectively let Russia hijack the international counterterror agenda. Provided that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is unwilling or unable to lead, countries actively fighting DAESH should throw their weight behind the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria by Turkey and its allies - the only concrete proposal seeking to keep terrorists away and stem the westward movement of refugees.
The international coalition's problems, however, extend beyond the shortcomings of the American leadership. In recent months, the Assad regime and Russia have been carrying out ethnic cleansing in rebel-held areas while the PYD leadership seized the opportunity to launch a ground offensive against moderate opposition groups in places like Tal Rifaat and Azaz. Even if the world really liked the story of freedom-loving, eco-friendly freedom fighters at some point, the time has come to acknowledge that the PYD's strategy serves the best interests of Russia, DAESH and the Assad regime, not the Syrian people. At this point, leadership means the PYD must choose between the international coalition and an unholy alliance of Russia, Iran and the Assad regime. This is the only way to realign the group into playing a constructive role in Syria instead of serving as mercenaries in a bloody proxy war.
Last week, the PYD, which Davutoğlu rightfully accused of collaborating with Russia on the ground, opened a representation office in Moscow where plenty of posters of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan were flying around and representatives of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the PKK's political wing, were present. A quick glance at pictures from the ceremony alone provides plenty of evidence supporting Ankara's claim that the PKK, a globally recognized terrorist organization, and the PYD are closely tied. If Obama cannot see the connection, perhaps he should consider retiring before further complicating a delicate situation.
To be clear, the PYD leadership needs to wise up as well. Although outsiders, including Russia and the United States, support the group, the rise of isolationism in Washington and an imminent economic crisis in Russia due to the sharp decline in oil prices means that PYD leaders will be left alone in a dangerous neighborhood. Make no mistake, the time has come for the organization to leave aside revolutionary romanticism and start investing in long-term partnerships with regional powers, including Turkey. When the Syrian conflict ends and the world turns its attention to the next big thing, you do not want to face the music alone.