YPG an obstacle US needs to surmount for strategic partnership with Turkey in Syria

Published 30.11.2018 00:00
Updated 30.11.2018 09:12
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) speaks with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (R) ahead of the opening ceremony of the NATO summit, at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, July 11.
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) speaks with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (R) ahead of the opening ceremony of the NATO summit, at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, July 11.

The reluctance of the U.S. to take into consideration Turkey's security concerns over the PKK-affiliated YPG in Syria will continue to be an obstacle in the reconciliation of relations between the two NATO allies, unless Washington halts its support for the YPG

Ahead of his visit to Argentina for the G20 summit, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he will have a chance to discuss the Manbij issue with U.S. President Donald Trump, a matter which continues to be an obstacle in the reconciliation of strained relations between the two NATO allies despite a deal made for cooperation. "We will have a meeting over the issue with Mr. Trump in Argentina. We said we will discuss the issue in detail there, as we have not had a chance to touch on it in detail over the phone," Erdoğan said.

The Turkish president said previously that although a deal was made U.S. over the withdrawal of the Peoples' Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the PKK terrorist organization, the process has been "sluggish" and it has already fallen behind schedule. Erdoğan was referring to the Manbij deal, made in June between Ankara and Moscow, which is supposed to ultimately lead to the withdrawal of the YPG from Manbij, northern Syria, and the province's administration allocated to local people based on demographics reflecting the population prior to the YPG taking over. The deal was based on a 90-day schedule, yet, so far only joint patrols have been conducted with U.S. and Turkish troops, a step scheduled to take place before the actual withdrawal of the YPG from the province.

Erdoğan arrived in Buenos Aires yesterday at 5 p.m., Turkish time. In addition to his meeting with the U.S. president, Erdoğan is also expected to have bilateral meetings with other leaders during the G20 summit, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. support to the YPG, in military and political terms, has caused a wide divergence in what has historically been described as a "strategic partnership" between the two allies in the region.

Washington's YPG policy has caused a major loss of trust in Ankara, as promises made previously have not been kept. During the former U.S. President Barack Obama's term, it was claimed that the YPG forces would move to east of the Euphrates River, a process that never took place.

Moreover, Ankara was told that arms given to the YPG would be retrieved. This was another claim U.S. officials made but failed to convince Turkish authorities on whether it would be kept.

In January, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch to remove the YPG from its northwestern enclave of Afrin. The Manbij deal had sparked hope of solving the YPG obstacle through diplomacy however Ankara sees the U.S. as not being genuine in the process, pushing Ankara to weigh the options of expanding the scope of its cross-border operations in Syria to Manbij and also the YPG-held areas east of the Euphrates.

For Ankara, there is no difference between the YPG, which the U.S. has partnered with under the pretext of fighting against Daesh, and the PKK terrorist group, also listed as terrorists by the U.S. and Turkey. As such, Turkey says the YPG's armament by its NATO ally ultimately poses a threat to its national security.

"Unfortunately, our words have fallen on deaf ears, and American weapons ended up being used to target civilians and members of our security forces in Syria, Iraq and Turkey," Erdoğan said.

The YPG sees the political vacuum and the civil war in the country as an opportunity to realize its ultimate goal of establishing an autonomous region in northern Syria. The two regional facts, combined with the U.S.' strong support, has increased the YPG's encouragement of establishing its autonomy.

The YPG's aim, while threatening Syria's territorial integrity and also other ethnic local demographics, is seen as a threat posed to Turkey sovereignty, as the group is organically linked with PKK terrorists. Ankara has long criticized the U.S.' partnership with the YPG, saying a terrorist group [Daesh] cannot be defeated with another one and that YPG is among the actors fueling instability in the region.

Washington has taken two more steps with regards to its YPG/PKK policy, which have not received the desired reaction from Ankara.

First, Washington decided to put a bounty on three high-ranking PKK leaders worth $12 million. This step was taken with a grain of salt by Ankara, though officials said it was a positive but long-delayed move. In addition, Turkish officials also said the step against the PKK was not genuine and it was an attempt to legitimize support for the group and its presence, at the expense of the PKK. Another issue which has widened the gap in relations over the YPG is Washington's decision to set up observation posts in Syria, along Turkey's borders.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced the observation posts in a press briefing with Pentagon reporters. Some photos circulated also during the week confirming that the U.S. was establishing an observation post in Syria's Tal Abyad, as claimed.

The first reaction to the U.S.' decision came from Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, who said on Saturday that he conveyed Turkey's unease regarding the issue to U.S. Chief of Staff Joseph Dunford and other U.S. officials during his visit to Canada.

"During our talks with both political and civilian interlocutors we repeatedly expressed our unease in various ways," Akar said, adding, "I think actions like this will make the complicated situation in the region even more complicated."

Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Army Col. Sean Ryan said on Tuesday that the aim of these posts is "to further deny escape routes to [Daesh]."

"These observation posts will provide additional transparency and will better enable Turkey's protection from [Daesh] elements," Ryan said.

However, Turkey sees this step as an addition measure by the U.S. to legitimize and protect the YPG in the region, particularly following Turkey expressing intention to eliminate YPG from northeastern Syria.

On Tuesday, Erdoğan said Ankara's allies act as shields for terrorists groups in Syria targeting Turkey's national security.

"Terrorists who have shown enmity against our country clearly are the only targets for us. This is an opportunity for those claiming to be allies, strategic partners who want to strengthen relations politically, economically and militarily and carry them into the future. We will acknowledge that they side with Turkey when they no longer stand as shields in front of terrorists groups," Erdoğan said during his address to his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) lawmakers in Parliament, implicitly referring to the U.S.

Erdoğan and Trump have spoken numerous times on the disagreements over Washington's Syria policy. Turkey has made it clear that it will not allow the establishment of what Ankara has described as a "terror corridor." The Turkish government has called on Washington to instead partner with them to establish stability for the peoples of the region and a political solution to the Syrian crisis. It, however, does not seem likely that the U.S. will give up on what it considers a partner for its long-term presence and interests in the region.

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