With the bulk of the Syrian opposition focused on fighting Assad, the United States has turned to the People's Protection Units (YPG) as a capable combat force with thousands of fighters to effectively fight the Islamic State on the ground.
The YPG is the main armed service of the Kurdish Supreme Committee, the government of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava). The group is primarily Kurdish, but it also recruits Arabs, Turks, and even Westerners. The YPG was originally formed in 2004 by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Northern Iraq (Southern Kurdistan) and was transferred to the service of the Kurdish Supreme Committee (which includes the PYD) in 2012. The Units was the only group that had built up a track record as a force able to offensively engage the Islamic State (IS). Since early last year, Syrian Kurds have gradually cleared much of the Syrian side of the Turkish border, supported by US airstrikes. YPG forces have been recently reported to have extended their reach to the west of the Euphrates, an issue regarded as a «red line» by Ankara, and have their eye on uniting the cantons in the north of Syria to form a unitary Kurdish entity.
Turkey does not want them to move any farther, particularly to the western portion of the frontier, where a 65-mile strip remains under Islamic State control and is used for moving foreign fighters and goods into Syria.
Due to Turkey’s objections, Syrian Kurds were not invited to the recent round of Geneva talks on Syria in early February, despite the fact that other major actors, including the US and Russia, believed their presence was important. Ultimately, UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, did not issue an invitation to the PYD, but suggested he was seeking a formula for bringing them in at a later stage.
The US places importance on the PYD and its armed wing YPG in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), and does not share Turkey's view of the group as a terrorist organization.
The Syrian Kurds have become a major sticking point, both in US-Turkey collaboration against the Islamic State and in the Geneva negotiations to end a civil war in Syria that the United States considers a distraction from a larger anti-terrorist fight.
During US Vice President’s visit to Turkey in late January, Turkish officials called the YPG a terrorist group, but Joe Biden restricted himself to merely saying that the United States supports Turkey’s fight against the Kurdish armed militant group Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and studiously refrained from addressing any other group.
Many analysts saw Biden’s awkward talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was a harbinger of rising tensions in what are already strained ties between the two countries.
And they were right. The tensions with Turkey come as the US is increasing its cooperation with Syrian Kurds by sending dozens of elite military advisers into northern Syria to work with YPG fighters and their Arab allies. Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the global coalition to counter IS, secretly traveled to northern Syria to meet with the Kurds to demonstrate the Obama administration’s backing.
It was the first time a top US official has visited a YPG-controlled town, reflecting the type of relationship the US and the PYD enjoy. The US airdropped weapons and munitions during the siege of Kobani by the Kurds in the summer of 2015.
Turkish media seized on it as clear evidence that the US was working hand-in-hand with terrorists battling Turkish security forces in the streets of southeastern Turkey.
On February 7, Turkey's President Erdogan lashed out at the United States a week after the envoy’s visit.
In comments published on Sunday (February 7), the Turkish leader said the US should choose between Turkey and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, as its partner.
That sounded very much like an ultimatum. Turkey believes it can speak to the US in such manner! Publically slam Washington!
«How can we trust you? Is it me that is your partner or is it the terrorists in Kobani?» asked the Turkish President.
On Monday, February 8, State Department spokesman John Kirby declined to accept the challenge proposed by the angry Turkish President and to choose sides between Turkey and a key Kurdish group fighting in Syria, which Turkey views as a terrorist organization.
He described Turkey as an «ally», a «friend» and a «partner» in the fight against Islamic State. But he also reiterated that the US does not view the Kurdish group in Erdogan’s crosshairs, the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD), as a terrorist organization.
«We don’t, as you know, recognize the PYD as a terrorist organization», Kirby said. «We recognize that the Turks do, and I understand that».
He also noted that «Even the best of friends aren’t going to agree on everything. Kurdish fighters have been some of the most successful in going after Daesh (Islamic State) inside Syria. We have provided a measure of support, mostly through the air, and that support will continue». Kirby would not be drawn when asked who was more helpful in the fight against the IS – Turkey or the Kurdish fighters. «Everybody who has taken the fight to Daesh is helpful in their own way», the spokesman added.
According to an article written by Dion Nissenbaum, a security reporter, and Carol E. Lee, a White House correspondent in the Washington bureau, published on February 7 by The Wall Street Journal, US officials now say Turkey has become one of the biggest impediments to securing a political resolution to the five-year-old conflict in Syria – and to mounting the most effective military campaign against Islamic State.
Looks like Turkey is obstructing the US fight against the Islamic State the way that it obstructed the United States operation in Iraq. In 2003 Turkey refused to allow the US forces cross its territory.
Despite being a NATO member, Turkey has a very poor human rights record.
The human right issue is a problem for the US-Turkey bilateral relationship as the above mentioned Biden’s visit confirmed.
And Ankara may drag the US into the Syrian conflict pursuing its own agenda.
Meanwhile, Turkey finds itself in an increasingly isolated position regarding the issue of the PYD, which is backed by both the US (with its European NATO allies) and Russia. The recognition of the important role played by the Kurds in the Syrian conflict is one of the issues that unites rather than divides Moscow and Washington.
Syria's Kurds have welcomed Russia's military operation in Syria, even as they receive military backing from the US.
On February 6, they opened their first foreign office in Moscow. The choice of Moscow and not Washington or Western Europe is telling.
Prior to the Geneva talks that were postponed a few days ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized that the Kurdish group plays an important role in the fight against the Islamic State and is an essential part of political settlement in Syria.
Lavrov warned that it would be a «grave mistake» not to invite the PYD. «How can you talk about political reforms in Syria if you ignore a leading Kurdish party», he said, adding that the Kurds account for 15 percent of the population.
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The Turkish leadership views all Kurds as a threat. This reasoning has been behind what Ankara calls a counterterrorism operation in the country's southeastern regions, populated mostly by the Kurds.
Erdogan’s security forces crack down on the Turkish Kurds with great vigor and violence. As a New York Times article puts it, «A major Turkish military operation to eradicate Kurdish militants in Turkey’s restive southeast has turned dozens of urban districts into bloody battlefields, displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians and shattering hopes of reviving peace as an old war reaches its deadliest level in two decades».
This policy could backfire since many view the operation against PKK militants as a war against the whole nation.
There is a wide gap between the position of the US (and the West in general) and Turkey on the Syrian Kurds. With all the differences that divide the West and Russia, the Islamic State group is a common enemy. At the same time, Turkey, a member of NATO, has not done anything in real terms to fight this enemy. Instead, it is at war with Kurdish militias in Syria, the only ground force to fight the IS and win. The Syrian conflict has given the Kurds an opportunity to carve out a space they could independently control. That’s what really worries Turkey. Ankara pursues its own interests, which are very different from the interests of all other actors involved in the conflict. As a member of NATO and US-led anti-IS coalition, Turkey does more harm than good. Looks like the US government starts to realize it well.