Biden’s visit exposes tension on freedom, and rift over PYD between Turkey, US

US Vice President Joe Biden‘s meetings with Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, during his visit to Turkey, have once again exposed a deepening rift between the two allies over treatment of the Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), reports Today’s Zaman.

At a joint news conference with Biden on Saturday, Davutoğlu reiterated Ankara’s opposition to the PYD, which it considers the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization.

“We do not want Daesh [the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or ISIL], the PKK or the paramilitary forces of the regime [to participate in the Geneva talks],” Davutoğlu said after two-and-a-half hour meeting with Biden in İstanbul.

Biden, who arrived in Turkey late on Thursday for a visit, reportedly said at a meeting with Turkish lawmakers on Friday that the PKK is different from the PYD. Davutoğlu responded to these remarks, calling the PYD a “terrorist organization collaborating with the Syrian regime” and saying its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), operates on orders from the PKK leadership based in northern Iraq, as he spoke to a group of journalists en route from Germany to Turkey late on Friday.

Turkey has threatened to boycott the Geneva talks if the Syrian Kurds participate.

“Turkey has privately warned the United Nations that it will walk out of the political process, which initially were set to start Monday, if Syrian Kurds whom Ankara accuses of being linked to a terrorist organization are included among the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” Foreign Policy reported Jan. 22.

The magazine based its story on diplomats at the UN who spoke to Turkish officials at the World Economic Forum.

“Earlier this week, a Turkish delegation led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu issued its warning to withdraw from the International Syria Support Group, the multilateral group of nations overseeing the peace process, to the UN’s envoy, Staffan de Mistura, in Davos, Switzerland,” it said in the report.

At the press conference with Biden, Davutoğlu said the YPG was a part of the PKK and that it gets open support from the PKK, which he said was a threat not only to Turkey but to the entire region. The YPG, Davutoğlu said, is turning into a security risk due to its association with the PKK.

“Turkey considers the Assad [Syrian president Bashar al-Assad] regime, Daesh and the YPG a threat,” he said.

He also said only the legitimate Syrian opposition should take part in the upcoming Syria peace talks, apparently ruling out support of possible PYD participation amid reports of Russian efforts pushing for the representation of the Kurdish group in the negotiations.

The latest round of Syria peace talks were initially scheduled to begin on Monday but faced several days’ delay, partly because of a dispute over who will comprise the Syrian opposition delegation. Saleh Muslim, co-chair of the PYD, said on Friday that the Syria peace talks would fail if Syrian Kurds are not represented.

Both Turkey and the US recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization, but Washington draws a distinction between the PKK and the PYD, viewing the Syrian Kurdish group’s fighters as an effective ground force against ISIL.

Biden said Turkey and the US agreed that ISIL, the al-Nusra Front and the PKK are all terrorist groups. Without mentioning the PYD or the YPG, he said Washington recognized that the PKK in Turkey was as much of a threat to Ankara as ISIL, and that Ankara had to do whatever was needed to protect its people.

“ISIL is not the only existential threat the PKK is equally [a] threat and we are aware of that,” Biden said. “The PKK has shown no desire or inclination to do that [live in peace]. It is a terrorist group plain and simple. And what they continue to do is absolutely outrageous.”

“We have a robust operation and commitment to defeat ISIL,” said Biden, crediting Turkey for increasing efforts to secure its 550-mile (885-kilometer) border with Syria, as well as allowing anti-ISIL coalition aircraft to use Turkish bases for bombing runs against ISIL targets.

The visit from the US’s second strongman has only made disagreements between Turkey and US more apparent ahead of Geneva.

Observers of Biden’s visit think that lingering differences over the two allies’ approach to the PYD may hamper international efforts to bring warring sides in Geneva to a lasting solution, and may prove costly for Ankara.

The US vice president’s messages during the visit were not encouraging for Turkish officials who tried to convince the US to toe its line regarding the PYD. But Hüseyin Bağcı, professor of international relations from the Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ), says Turkish officials were unable to sell their anti-PYD argument to the US, which places great importance on the Syrian Kurdish group in the fight against ISIL.

As long as the ISIL threat remains in place, the importance of the PYD will be intact and outside powers will continue to adopt a different policy than Turkey, he told German-based Deutsche Welle. He said the American side would continue without Turkey regarding diplomatic efforts to solve the Syrian crisis and the fight against ISIL if they fail to forge any common ground over the PYD. He noted that Turkey’s efforts in the international arena to undermine and degrade the PYD have failed, and Turkey would be ineffective in influencing the outcome in Syria and the new order to emerge in Syrian following international settlement of the conflict.

Another Turkish expert, Mehmet Okur, also told the same outlet that if Ankara sticks to its current Syrian policy, it may find itself outside the equation over reshaping Syria’s political future.

Biden also said the United States and Turkey were prepared for a military solution in Syria if a political settlement was not possible.

“We do know it would better if we can reach a political solution but we are prepared… if that’s not possible, to have a military solution to this operation and taking out Daesh,” Biden said at the news conference.

A US official was quoted by Reuters as clarifying that Biden was talking about a military solution to ISIL, not Syria as a whole.

On Iraq, Davutoğlu said the Turkish military was in the country to fight ISIL, and reiterated that Ankara respects Iraqi territorial unity.

Speaking to the media after the joint press conference, Turkish Prime Ministry sources said the US and Turkish sides agreed to strengthen coordination on the Bashiqa camp and the fight against ISIL in Iraq. It also said new initiatives will be taken to move forward, but did not elaborate.

Turkey sent troops to protect military trainers in Bashiqa near Mosul; however, the deployment drew the ire of the Iraqi central government, which declared the move a violation of its sovereignty. The US has also called on Turkey to withdraw troops unauthorized by the Iraqi government. Turkey has said the deployment was approved by the Iraqi government and that it was a measure against ISIL.

The Turkish prime minister also thanked Biden for visiting Cyprus, adding that the United States will have an important role in Cyprus peace talks.

”So why is the Obama administration taking a stronger pro-democracy position in Turkey now?” asked Ömer Taşpınar, my colleague with TZ, in his comment.

He elaborated as following:

“Too little, too late” critics of the Obama administration in Turkey and in the US would say. They may indeed find Biden’s words insignificant or a purely a symbolic attempt to “check the box” before attending more serious business with Erdoğan. Such critics should not forget that this is not an just an Obama administration problem for American foreign policy. There has always been great tension between American ideals and national security interests. Even the most idealist and pro-human rights US administrations face the dilemma of “inconsistency” and “double standards” when they deal with autocratic allies. And lately, Turkey, fits in this category.

I never believed that America could have fundamentally changed the autocratic trends in Turkey over the past few years. Domestic dynamics are always more important than external ones when it comes to democratization. Even the European Union, which has a much bigger role in Turkish domestic dynamics, could not have stopped Erdoğan’s autocratic agenda. We can see in the example of Hungary how liberalism and democracy can be undermined even in a country that is within the EU political system.

Despite all this, we still have to understand why Biden is speaking of democracy now, much more forcefully than ever before. In my opinion this is probably because Washington finally realized that Turkey will not fully cooperate with the US on national security issues unless it changes its autocratic tendencies at home. A number of interconnected policies such as Erdoğan’s confrontational policy on the Kurdish question, the war with the PKK, the presidential regime agenda, and aggressive Syria and Iraq policies have transformed Turkey into a much less predictable partner for Washington.

Most of these policies are products of Erdoğan’s erratic and autocratic governance. For instance, without Erdoğan’s presidential regime change agenda, there would not be such a major war with the PKK and the peace process with the PKK would probably have continued. This, in turn, would have changed Turkey’s approach to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and made America’s life much easier in terms of fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This is why the Obama White House has probably decided that it is time to speak louder in warning Turkey about these negative autocratic trends that hurt Turkish-American security cooperation. The White House should have reached this conclusion much earlier.”

Ali Aslan commented as s

”Biden’s visit points to an engagement characterized both by discrepancies and joint projects by the US and the AKP. The parties call this a “strategic partnership” but in my opinion, it is better defined as a “reluctant partnership’ commented Ali Aslan, with TZ as well, on the visit.

About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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