Turkey and the US hold diverging views on what should be done to tackle the situation in Syria and they are pursuing different goals.
In late August, Turkey launched an unprecedented military operation to clear the border area of the Islamic State (IS) group, as well as halt the westward advance of Kurdish armed formations complicating Washington's strategy to defeat the militants. Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish military clashed with Kurdish fighters.
The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) is part of a broader US-backed coalition in Syria, called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Washington has supported the group in its battle against the IS but Ankara sees it as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the outlawed Kurdish militant group in Turkey.
The Turkey-Kurdish fight is yet another complication in the tangled civil war as Turkey and the United States seek to rout the IS by supporting different proxy groups. Now Washington is in a bind being torn over its support for the YPG in Syria, one of the most effective forces in the war, and Ankara’s fears that Syrian Kurds will build a proto-state on its southern border and fuel discontent among Turkey’s own restive Kurdish population. Washington is facing an awkward choice. Neither signing up with Turkey, nor breaking up with it in favor of Kurds serves US interests. And the appearance of unity between Washington and Ankara did not even last a week.
Supportive of the operation in its initial stages of the operation, the White House openly expressed its displeasure with Turkey's targeting of Kurdish forces and urged Ankara to focus its attacks on the IS instead.
But Turkey's president vowed to press ahead with the military operation until the IS and Kurdish Syrian fighters no longer pose a security threat to Ankara. Senior Turkish officials said US, British, French and other citizens fighting alongside the YPG would be treated as «terrorists… regardless of whether they are members of allied countries».
«No one has the right to tell Turkey which terrorist organization it can fight», said Omer Celik, Turkey's minister for European Union affairs.
Evidently, the United States’ attempts to bring together the Syrian opposition, Turkey and the Kurds to tackle the so-called Islamic State in Syria are unraveling.
It’s worth to note that Turkey had warned that the Euphrates was a red line for the Kurds not to cross. The Kurdish fighters crossed it with US backing to capture Manbij from the IS earlier in August. Now the Kurdish forces, called a stalwart ally by American officials, are attacked by Turkey, a US NATO ally. The United States reaps what it sowed. The situation is a result of its yet another foreign policy gaffe.
The Ankara's operation against the Kurds in the northern part of Syria aims to prevent the militia joining up with a Kurdish-held area to the west of the Euphrates, which Turkey fears would lead to the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria and bolster separatists on the Turkish side of the border. Turkey sticks to the goal of establishing a «safe zone» in Syria – the idea which had not received the backing of other world powers. Moreover, the situation risks getting out of US control with different forces fighting each other without looking back at Washington anymore. The goal of seizing Raqqa – the IS informal capital – by US- supported forces before the US presidential election now seems to be a pipe dream.
As the events unfold, cracks appear inside the US-led international coalition. According to French President Francois Hollande, Turkey's military push against Kurds in northern Syria risks escalating the conflict. He said «multiple, contradictory interventions carry risks of a general flare-up».
Hollande, who has special forces operating in Syria alongside Kurdish and Arab forces as part of an international coalition fighting the militant group, said it was a matter of absolute urgency to stop the bloodshed. An intervention the US initially welcomed now seems to benefit IS by setting the members of US-led coalition against each other. The French President emphasized his intent to discuss these issues with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he visits Paris in October.
In its turn, Russia has expressed concern over Turkey’s activities in Syria, saying it raises the risk of civilian casualties and the worsening of ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs.
Neither the Syrian government, nor Turkey, nor the so-called «moderate» Syrian opposition is ready to accept the idea of autonomy for Syrian Kurdistan. Opposing the Kurds will have grave implications and weaken the anti-IS alliance. After all, the Kurdish self-defense formations are the main force on the ground to strike the IS. The only way to prevent the worst is to tackle the Kurdish conundrum by initiating an inclusive dialogue with all sides involved in the conflict.
Russia is a major actor positioned to the role of mediator. It enjoys good working relations with the US, Turkey the Syrian Kurds and the Syria’s government in Damascus and it takes no sides. Moscow has always said the Syrian crisis can be resolved only on the basis of international law through dialogue involving all ethnic groups, including the Kurds. The Russia-US talks on coordination activities in Syria could be broadened to include the situation in the northern part of Syria. As Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan put it, «Without Russia’s participation it’s impossible to find a solution to the Syrian problem. Only in partnership with Russia will we be able to settle the crisis in Syria».