Turkey and the US have been at odds with each other over Syria since the second term of the Obama administration, which consistently ignored Turkey’s call for a safe-zone in northern Syria, and opted instead to form a partnership with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — at Turkey’s expense. The government in Ankara, meanwhile, became bogged down with domestic crises and began operating efficiently in Syria only after removing internal constraints, in particular the Gülenist impediment within the army and intelligence services.
Today, Turkey calls upon its US ally to team up and mobilise local partners, excluding the YPG, to fight against ISIS/Daesh. For its part, the US seems to be maintaining its partnership with the YPG in Northern Syria at all costs, turning a deaf ear to Turkey’s calls. In this regard, Obama’s legacy in Syria, which excludes Turkey from planning and insists on pursuing short-term goals alongside the YPG, is still intact. This attitude, however, may prove to be detrimental to America’s long-term objectives both in Syria and the wider Middle East.
When US army advisors visited the site of the latest Turkish air strike in Iraq and Syria, the YPG commander who accompanied them and showed them around was Shahin Cilo, a PKK commander and adopted son of Abdullah Ocalan, the movement’s leader. Ranked at number nine on Ankara’s most wanted list, Cilo has been both a planner and a perpetrator of numerous terrorist attacks in Turkey claimed by the PKK.
Recent Turkish air strikes in Syria and Iraq neutralised several PKK commanders, including Bedran Cudi, another terrorist wanted by Turkey. Needless to say, the US designates the PKK as a terrorist organisation (as does Turkey, of course); thus, seeing US soldiers partnering with members of this group, even attending their funerals alongside crowds carrying posters of Ocalan and PKK flags – as documented by photographs taken by international agencies – is, at best, bizarre and ironic.
Frankly speaking, differentiating between the PKK and YPG is questionable at best, and good for nothing but weak argumentative purposes. It is not convincing either, as even YPG supporters consider the group to be operating under the umbrella of the PKK, and see Abdullah Ocalan as their leader. Besides the group’s organic ties with the PKK, the YPG’s own violations of human rights and war crimes during the past six years, as documented by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Syrian Network for Human Rights, are often overlooked for practical considerations.
According to the aforementioned rights groups, the YPG has been assassinating and detaining members of opposition groups systematically, erasing villages to alter their demography, enlisting child soldiers, and so on. In addition, the PKK’s latest terror attacks in Turkey, regardless of which initialism it uses to claim responsibility, had operational connections to areas controlled by the YPG. In almost all cases, either the perpetrator was trained in YPG areas, or the explosives were smuggled in from those areas, or the planning was conceived there. In other words, even if, for the sake of argument, we consider the PKK and YPG to be two separate groups, the latter’s list of crimes is long enough for anyone to have to reconsider working with it. The YPG’s role in fighting against Daesh does not and cannot whitewash the group’s criminal ontology.
The actual differentiation that must be made is the one between short-term military objectives, and the long-term fight against terror and the project to stabilise Syria. Apparently, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) is in charge of America’s operations in Syria, and its judgment is very much clouded by the short-term military objective of driving Daesh out of Raqqa. Post-Raqqa Syria and the wider strategic game in the Middle East are beyond its consideration, understandably so, as this is how the military mind usually works. Nevertheless, CENTCOM’s narrow vision in insisting on utilising what the PKK has to offer in Syria is not only antagonising a key ally in Turkey but also undermining long-term American interests in Syria and beyond.
Post-Raqqa is as crucial as the Raqqa operation itself if the main target is the effective neutralisation of Daesh in the medium- to long-term. Daesh and its predecessors are known for their survival capabilities and their exploitation of social upheavals, instability and a political vacuum. Any operation against the group, therefore, must be coupled with remedies to the problems that create breeding grounds for its toxic extremism. In other words, a Raqqa operation without taking due considerations regarding the post-Raqqa scenario is doomed to failure in the medium- to long-term.
US CENTCOM misses this point, as its overreliance on the YPG in Raqqa is setting up future ethnic clashes and instability in the area. Empowering a problematic small minority group and aiding its domination over the vast majority on the ground is self-defeating as far as the fight against Daesh is concerned, and “mission creep” is almost inevitable. Ethnic, political and tribal tensions would likely cause the liberated areas to spiral out of control, giving fresh breath to Daesh sleeper cells; consequently a more, and more extensive US military deployment in Syria involving greater risks for American soldiers would be required.
CENTCOM’s preference for allying with the YPG brings trade-offs, with an alliance with Turkey being the first casualty along the way. If stability in Syria is the main long-term objective, like it or not, one has to find a way to include Turkey in the picture. If one has more ambitious goals, such as the Trump administration’s desire to constrain Iran’s regional influence from Syria to the Arabian Peninsula, Turkey becomes even more important. The US cannot tackle Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria via the YPG, as the latter has no urge or motivation for that undertaking. On the contrary, the YPG reinforced its presence in the north of Syria in part because of its initial agreement with Iran and the Assad regime. They fought in tandem on several fronts against the Syrian opposition, most recently in the Battle of Aleppo. Hence, a US alliance with the YPG comes at a cost, namely losing Turkey and the majority of local Arabs in Syria at a time when Iran again tops the US foreign policy agenda in the Middle East.
Overreliance on the YPG in wider Syria, including Raqqa, carries great risks and would most likely result in unforeseen complications. There are local partners – tribes, the Free Syria Army, non-YPG Kurds – who are yet to be mobilised, and who could prove to be more effective in the medium term than the YPG, if the state actors, including the US and Turkey, contribute enough from their end and can find a way to work together again in Syria. The idea that there is no alternative to the YPG in the fight against Daesh is too simplistic. There is an alternative to every single armed non-state actor on the ground in Syria, and their effectiveness and image is very much linked with what states offer them in arms, organisational capabilities and political support. One thing that cannot be replaced, however, is what a state can offer to another state as a true ally. To avoid a Pyrrhic victory in Raqqa and in wider Syria, therefore, the US needs to have some forward thinking and cooperate more with allies such as Turkey.