The US Defense Department announced on May 9 that President Donald Trump had authorized arming the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of rebel fighters led – by the United States in Syria, which includes the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) as its main element. The package is to include small arms, machine guns, construction equipment and armored vehicles among the provisions. The decision was taken to boost the SDF firepower before the offensive to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa – the unofficial capital of the Islamic State (IS) group.
The move is supported by lawmakers. «To me, it's the only viable solution right now», Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters on Capitol Hill. «And obviously the Kurds have got to have the weaponry to be successful. So I'm glad they're finally following through on what they've known for some time: This is the only course that appears to be feasible relative to Raqqa». «That's a really tricky dance. And ultimately you may be inviting more problems than you're solving by pushing the Turks off to the side and making them antagonists to a future reconciliation process inside Syria», Senate Foreign Relations member Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told Al-Monitor. «There are no good options in Syria. But generally giving people arms creates more problems than it solves».
The US support for the Syrian Kurds, in particular the YPG, has driven a wedge between Washington and Ankara. Turkey sees the YPG militia as the Syrian extension of the Kurdish PKK militant group, which has fought an insurgency in southeastern Turkey since 1984. Turkey had long argued that the United States should switch support for the planned assault on Raqqa from the Kurdish YPG militia to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other Syrian rebels supported by Ankara. Washington sees the 50,000-strong SDF as the most effective force fighting the IS in Syria and has already armed the non-Kurdish Arab elements of that group. Syrian Kurds make up slightly over than half of the SDF.
The Kurdish issue turned into a problem in the American-Turkish relations after Ankara launched Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016, invading the northern part of Syria. One of the goals was to prevent the Kurds from uniting Afrin and Kobani – the regions in the west and east under their control. The operation Euphrates Shield was launched about two weeks after US-backed SDF liberated Manbij in the east of Aleppo province.
In August 2016, the US urged Kurds to leave Manbij and retreat to the east of Euphrates. However, those demands were largely ignored. In March 2017, America announced that Manbij was transferred under control of its anti-IS coalition, making it play against Turkey.
US military and YPG fighters have been patrolling the Turkey-Syrian border since late April after the Turkish Air Force delivered a strike on Kurdish positions. The announcement of the decision comes just a few days before the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's meeting with President Trump in Washington scheduled on May 16.
Turkish top officials have spoken out against the move, saying the US decision is a “crisis” between the two NATO allies. It strikes an eye that President Trump has decided to travel to Israel and Saudi Arabia – and not Turkey – on his first international visit starting on May 19. The president may be looking for the two countries to provide financial and political support for the idea of creating a Kurdish state.
«There have been bad episodes in the relationship between the United States and Turkey, but this one is serious because it gets to the heart of Turkish security priorities», said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. «You've now got a question mark over the US-Turkish security relationship that is pretty serious», Aliriza added.
With American weapons going to the Syrian Kurds, at least a temporary arrangement should be found to soothe Turkey’s concerns. YPG units and Turkish military could be effectively divided by neutral forces taking positions between them. It’s important to prevent possible clashes.
Tentative talks between Turkey and the Kurds could be launched with Russia – the party Turkey and the Kurds trust – acting as a mediator. This is the time to meet the Moscow’s initiative to make the Syrian Kurds part of the Astana peace process. The forum could be used as a platform for contacts to bring together Russia, Turkey, the Kurds and the US. With all the contradictions to divide them, Ankara and the YPG must talk, not fight to make IS terrorists happy.
With Raqqa liberated from the IS militants, the question will arise as to who and under what authority will govern the city and what to do next. Some international presence is inevitable. The establishment of the offices of the UN, the Arab League and other international organizations would be a logical step to take. Turkey should be represented across the political spectrum as part of the Sunni Muslims’ camp. It is a neighboring state with Syria and its legitimate security concerns must be taken into account and respected. Those concerns should be one way or another reconciled with the objectives pursued by the Syrian Kurds. Otherwise, no conflict management in Syria will be possible.
In the longer run, the arms supplies to the YPG are unacceptable to Ankara. It will most certainly put an end to the “strategic partnership’. The parties will not immediately break ties and Turkey will not leave NATO in protest, but it will shift from the US and the West to Russia and the SCO. The decision taken before the US-Turkish summit is an offense not to be easily forgotten or forgiven.
This is the time for intensive mediation and also changes in the Middle East political landscape as the United States has made a decision to support the Kurds. With this choice made by the Trump administration, it’s easy to predict the US-Turkey relationship will never be the same again.