U.S. – Turkey on a collision course over the role of Syrian Kurds against ISIS

Turkish President Erdoğan, it seems, will stop at nothing to assert his will on all matters, regardless of the level of frictions it causes with his friends and foes.

Once more he was at his most extroverted mode, as described by my colleague Cengiz Çandar in Al-Monitor website, when he was speaking at the UN General Assembly meeting last week, repeating his now famous comparison of the ‘world against five’.

Çandar explains:

The world is bigger than five” is Erdogan’s favorite motto, a challenge to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council that hold veto power. Erdogan once again chose the UN rostrum to voice his resentment of the injustices of the international system. When he picked up the microphone at the General Assembly meeting, he did not mince his words nor try to be diplomatic. He was as blunt and populistic as in his domestic political performances.

In this respect, Erdogan increasingly resembles the fiery third world leaders of the Cold War period and perhaps more than anyone else former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Yet, it seems the overall international climate is not very interested in the parade of colorful orators at the rostrum of the United Nations. The pro-Erdogan reporters said nothing of the seats in the General Assembly hall. Erdogan gave his fiery speech in front of mostly empty seats. The world’s leaders had not turned out to hear his lesson.”

In a bird’s eye, Erdoğan’s choreography of the Syrian ‘dance’ at best leaves one wondering about its ending let alone meaning.

“The Turkish president gives the impression of attempting to play the piano with several people at the same time” said Frants Klintsevich, vice-chairman of the Russian Fed­eration Council Committee for De­fence and Security recently. Many would agree with this sarcastic remark.


It would seem that Erdogan believes that both Russia and the United States — the two main players in the region — need Ankara’s support to influence regional politics.

Keeping his idea of a buffer zone and the insistence on a no-fly zone for Syria on the table, Erdogan hopes to hit several birds with one stone.

”In Erdogan’s view, the creation of a “safe zone” in northern Syria, especially the northwestern tip west of the Euphrates, would not only weaken the hold of the regime in Damascus and provide an area for the refugees, but would also prevent the formation of a Kurdish corridor along Turkey’s southern border. Thus, the safe zone was meant to contain Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) more than anything else” wrote Çandar. 

Not only that. Erdoğan hopes also to come out winning, simply by playing a divisive game between the Russians and the Americans by insisting on this issue.

Naturally, Erdoğan sees disagreements between Washington and Moscow over the future shape of Syria as a chance to reassert a key Turkish role, with a strategic priority blocking any Kurdish advance to establish a form of self-rule along the Turkish border.

This notion is the core element with which Erdogan agreed with the Turkish military, which he sees as necessary to forge a new nationalist alliance that he hopes will secure him one-man rule.

Erdogan has shown that he likes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approach in dealing with the West, with the crisis in Ukraine an ex­ample. In many ways this explains why Turkey continues its military incursion into Syria, which many observers predict will be a long-running one.

On his way to the UN General Assembly in New York, Erdogan had sounded determined to send a strong message about how fiercely he was opposed to the Syrian Kurds, led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which continue to be favoured by Washington.

Is Erdogan reading the multi­dimensional Syrian chess game correctly? So far Russia is satisfied — cautiously — as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently declared, so long as Erdogan gives up on the idea that Syrian President Bashar Assad “must go”. Moscow noted, gladly, that Ankara was warming up to Damascus.

In that context, the main indica­tor will be how willing Erdogan is to ignore the Syrian advances northward, as far as he will be given a free ride on expanding, to­gether with Free Syrian Army (FSA) elements, to the disadvantage of the Kurdish PYD/YPG forces. On that path he treads also carefully by talking to the person he sees as the good Kurd who can add to Turk­ish interests — Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani.

This is where many observers agree that Erdogan’s vision has become myopic. Relations between Washington and Ankara have been tense and remain so. The rift is no longer well-disguised. Erdogan did not mince words when, as he left for New York, he took shots at US President Barack Obama: “They tell us not to advance anymore but we shall. We shall go as far as we must go. We have to get rid of all threats to us in this area.”

Erdogan complained bitterly in a way revealing that his proposal on establishing a safe zone found no support from the Americans, the Germans or even from the Russians.

”To be fair” wrote Çandar, ”Erdogan, even though he is at odds with Washington, is consistent in his Syria policy. He has been advocating for the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria for over five years. Neither is his anti-Kurdish stance in northern Syria new. Even while the so-called “peace process” with the Kurdistan Workers Party was ostensibly underway in Turkey, he was dedicated to obstructing Kurdish autonomy all along the Turkey-Syria border.”

But, what seems to be taking shape, much to Ankara’s displeasure, is a shift conjured up at the White House that plans to directly arm PYD/YPG units fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) to take over ISIS’s cen­tral foothold in Raqqa.

”Mr Obama has told aides that he wants an offensive well under way before he leaves office that is aimed at routing the Islamic State from Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in northern Syria,” the New York Times reported.

“Directly providing weapons for the first time to the Syrian Kurds, whom American command­ers view as their most effective ground partner against the Islamic State, would help build momen­tum for the assault on Raqqa. But arming them would also aggravate Mr Obama’s already tense relations with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The United States and Turkey sharply disagree over Syria’s Kurdish militias, which Turkey sees as its main enemy in Syria,” the newspaper said.

“The review of the military plan comes as American commanders fear that their timetable to take Raqqa was set back after Turkey recently plunged into Syria with ground forces for the first time. The Turkish offensive cut off a crucial Islamic State supply route but also rolled back the territorial gains of Kurdish militias who despite help on the ground from American Special Operations advisers have criticised the United States for ally­ing with Turkey.”

What may end up as another grave miscalculation by Erdogan is that Washington and Moscow, despite disagreements, give the highest priority to trying to find compromises with each other. They rank this at a higher level than agreeing with Ankara.

The issue is at this utterly complicated stage in the Syrian quag­mire that none of these powers would want to have the luxury of a persistent, additional warring ele­ment such as Turkey, seen as sheer annoyance, rather than productive.

Nevertheless, given Erdogan’s resolve, however erratic it may seem on key issues, the imminent phase of the Raqqa and Mosul offensives will mark a complicated, painful affair.

As pointed out by Çandar:

‘… if the Obama administration does not step back from arming Syrian Kurds — even against IS — tensions may sharply escalate between Turkey and the United States and jeopardize the future of bilateral relations between the two countries.’

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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