Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman (@amberinzaman) is currently a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
Earlier this week President Trump approved a plan to arm the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, whose members Turkey calls “terrorists” and U.S. military commanders rightly regard as their most effective partners in Syria in the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State. America’s relations with Turkey, a critical NATO ally, are poised to sink to a new low as a result.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has vowed to get Trump to change his mind when they meet in the White House on May 16. Trump should not oblige him.
For far too long the United States has indulged Turkey’s despotic leader as he has imprisoned tens of thousands of his citizens, muzzled the media and hollowed out Turkey’s democratic institutions. Inviting Erdogan to the White House only days after he narrowly won a fraud-tainted referendum on April 17, granting him unchecked power, was a big mistake. A week later Turkey ignored U.S. warnings and bombed YPG targets in northern Syria, killing 25 of their fighters and imperiling the lives of U.S. Special Operations Forces, who were just six miles away.
Trump should use his White House face time with Erdogan to drive home the message that the battle to capture Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-declared capital, can no longer be put off. He should also tell Erdogan that his veiled threats to shut down Incirlik Air Base to coalition air missions against ISIS no longer cut any ice, since the United States has other options. And he might also remind the Turkish leader that it was Turkey’s lax border policies, enabling jihadist fighters to slip in and out Syria, that helped ISIS grow its caliphate to begin with.
This isn’t to say that Turkey’s worries about the United States’ alliance with the YPG are unfounded. The YPG was spawned by another Kurdish militia, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK. The group has been waging a bloody war for Kurdish self-rule inside Turkey since 1984, and is listed by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization. The YPG is not.
Yet it is common knowledge that most of the YPG’s top cadres are drawn from the PKK. The YPG and its political arm openly pledge fealty to imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has overseen his share of abuses, including of his own people.
The notion entertained by some top Trump administration officials that helping Turkey take out the PKK’s top leadership in their mountain hideouts along the Iran-Iraq border will help fix the problem is pure fantasy. It may temporarily placate Turkey, but new leaders will swiftly fill their boots. The PKK is not the cause of Turkey’s Kurdish problem. Its emergence and staying power are a result of Turkey’s stubborn refusal to give its estimated 16 million Kurds a fair deal. That problem has now spilled beyond Turkey’s borders.
The lesson that ought to be drawn from Turkey’s 33-year fight against the PKK is that a military solution to Turkey’s festering Kurdish problem is not possible. For a brief moment it seemed as though Erdogan understood this when he became the first Turkish leader to initiate peace talks with Ocalan and his men. But the talks collapsed in 2015 amid mutual recriminations, together with a two-and-a-half-year cease-fire.
Some pundits have suggested that the United States use its leverage to force the PKK to call a unilateral cease-fire and coax Turkey back to the negotiating table. It is a worthy idea – but the timing couldn’t be worse.
Erdogan is set on shoring up his nationalist base before parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for November 2019. Scores of popularly elected Kurdish mayors and lawmakers, including Selahattin Demirtas, the “Kurdish Obama,” who are rotting in jail on thinly supported terror charges, are unlikely to go free any time soon. Ominously, Erdogan is now talking about holding another referendum on re-introducing the death penalty.
The PKK for its part has raised the stakes and is eyeing further influence not only in Syria but in Iraq as well. It has little incentive to call off the fight unless the United States offers the Syrian Kurds political recognition and military protection for their ever-expanding fiefdom in northeastern Syria. But Trump’s endgame for Syria, if he has one, remains unclear. And until it is revealed, the PKK will continue to hedge its bets, keeping channels open to Russia, the Syrian regime and Iran alike.
The anguished hand-wringing about the meltdown in Turkish-American relations rests on a nostalgic memory of a golden age that never existed. Turkish-American relations have always been vexed. Both sides soldier on because they need each other.
Muddling through this crisis can best be achieved by setting modest goals. The United States must stick with its promise to ensure that none of the weapons it gives the YPG are used against Turkey and that it will not allow the YPG to run Raqqa, even through its Arab proxies. It can offer Turkey a role in the governance and reconstruction of Raqqa and encourage cooperation between the YPG’s Arab partners and Turkey’s Arab protégés. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Operations Forces must continue to deploy along the Turkish-Syrian border to fend off further Turkish attacks. De-conflicting Turkey and the Kurds was the Obama administration’s default policy. For now, it remains the only realistic one.