By Robert Olson
February 26, 2016
There is no question that tensions between Turkey and the US have increased substantially as a result of differences over to what degree the US is supporting the Syrian Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed affiliate, the People's Protection Units (YPG), which are the strongest political and most effective forces fighting the Islamic State (IS) and some of its affiliated groups in Syria. The PYD/YPG are also the strongest entities among the 14 competing Kurdish nationalist organizations in Syria.
The principal issue at hand is Turkey's stance that the US and the US-led coalition against IS are supporting the PYD/YPG forces, which recently have been mobilized under the name Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), comprising Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians and Turkmens, as well as Kurds. The inclusion of the non-Kurds is to give the SDF a sense of being “democratic” or at least pluralistic, when compared to IS, al-Qaeda and other jihadist and anti-Assad forces.
It has been known almost from the beginning of the Syrian civil war in March 2011 that Turkey has been supporting jihadist forces in order to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey supported these forces not only in order to topple the Assad regime but also in order to emasculate, sever and/or destroy the close relations between the PYD/YPG and the Kurdish nationalist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) within Turkey itself.
When Turkey and the US came to an agreement in July 2014 that allowed the US and NATO air forces to use the İncirlik Air Base, enabling these forces to more effectively attack IS, it seemed to patch up differences between Ankara and Washington regarding Turkey's low-profile strategy against IS. But as it turned out, Ankara interpreted the agreement as a license to attack PKK bases in northern Iraq as well as within Turkey; subsequently, Turkey did occasionally attack some non-strategic IS sites.
Even at this stage of the war, there were mounting indications that Ankara and Washington were not on the same page regarding strategies and tactics versus the war against IS. The emerging divisions were clear: The major objective of the US (and the coalition against IS) was to constrain and degrade IS, although not to destroy it. Neither Turkey nor its partners Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) wanted IS destroyed, at least not at the time. Turkey's main objective in the “War against Terrorism” was to use the war to destroy the PYD/YPG and by extension emasculate the PKK and the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), which Turkey -- at least the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- considered its major problem within Turkey's domestic politics as well as its biggest foreign policy challenge because of the PYD/YPG's close relationships with the PKK.
AKP's Strategy Becomes Clear After June 7
The AKP's strategy became clear after the June 7 parliamentary election and in the snap election that followed on Nov. 1, 2015. Between these two elections and subsequently, war raged between the PKK/KCK and government forces, which led to a full-scale war in the heavily populated Kurdish provinces of south-eastern Turkey, which are ongoing even as I write this article.
Tensions between Ankara and Washington had heightened in the fall of 2014 when it became clear that Washington was supplying arms and logistical help and providing advisory aid to the YPG. Turkey and the AKP characterized this as aiding terrorists. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made clear that as far as Turkey was concerned, there was no difference between the YPG and the PKK -- terrorists were terrorists. How could the US state that the PKK was a terrorist organization and not the PYD/YPG when Turkey and its intelligence agencies had presented hundreds of pages of evidence documenting to the US the close ties between the YPG and the PKK?
It is the above situation that has led to the current vituperative exchanges between Turkey and the US, as a result of the Feb. 17 bomb attack aiming to strike at the national security offices of the government and armed forces headquarters right in the center of Ankara in which 28 people, most of them armed forces personnel, were killed and 60 some wounded.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu immediately charged that the Foreign Ministry had evidence that the attack was carried out by a YPD/YPG operative. It was later asserted that the attack might have been carried out by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a militant Kurdish nationalist group that at one time had ties with the PKK. The recent decentralization of the PKK leadership leaves the possibility open that there are still ties between the two organizations. Davutoğlu stated on Feb. 20 that he did not rule out that if the attack was carried out by TAK, it acted as a proxy for the YPG. The leadership of the YPG denied that it had any role whatsoever in the attack. On the contrary, its leaders have said on several occasions that it wants good relations with Turkey. The attack was just too much for Erdoğan, who declared on Feb. 17, the day of the attack, once again to Washington: “I told you many times: Are you with us or against us? Hey, America. Because you never recognized them as a terrorist group, the region has turned into a sea of blood.”
Two countries, both allies, agree ardently with regard to policies against supposedly mutual enemies, in this case IS and the PKK, but disagree with regard to the YPG, which Turkey considers a terror organization.
The Difference in the Readouts
The differences were profoundly captured in the readouts of exchanges between Erdoğan's presidential office and the White House. The White House stated: “[US President Barack] Obama expressed concern over the advance of the Syrian regime and the YPG in north-western Syria. He urged Turkey to show reciprocal restraint by ceasing artillery strikes in the area.” But the Turkish readout differed from that of the White House, stating, “Obama underlined Turkey's legitimate right to self-defence, while expressing unwavering commitment to the United States to support Turkey's national security as a NATO ally.” But the White House' readout did not mention “Turkey's legitimate right to self-defence.” The White House was seen to insinuate that Turkey did not have the right to self-defence with regard to PYD/YPG actions within Syria. Such a position differs markedly from the White House's position with regard to Israel's 2014 war against Gaza on the basis that Hamas first fired rockets into Israel.
The exchanges between Turkey and the US with regard to the Feb. 17 attack in Ankara are extremely important for one essential reason, and that is Erdoğan's unanswered question: “Are you for us or with the terrorist organization?” The answer to that posed question is complex, and it rests on what one considers the vital national security interests of the United States vis-à-vis those of Turkey, especially regarding the “War against Terrorism,” which the US has declared as its prime national security policy since 2001. US interests are global, while Turkey's are a national and regional. When there is a major clash between a superpower and a strong regional allied power, with some exceptions, it is the superpower's policy that prevails. This is the dilemma of Turkey. Turkey's concern is what it defines as terrorism or terrorists and considers as threatening its national security, as in the case of the PYD/YPG and the PKK.
The row between Ankara and Turkey is, however, indicative and maybe even symbolic of differences not just between Turkey and the US but of the role that the Middle East will play in the future national security policies of the US. The major question to be asked is: Just how important is the Middle East in the major geo-economic and geostrategic developments occurring in the world?
The policies of the Obama administration that lessened the significance of the Middle East are bound to continue with the next American administration, regardless of whether a Republican or Democrat becomes president. The election propaganda about invading and carpet-bombing IS, al-Qaeda and jihadists of all types will quickly subside or disappear after Jan. 20, 2017. The reasons are clear. The US simply is not as dependent on Sunni Arab Gulf oil and gas as formerly. The state institutions of Iraq and Syria are destroyed. Israel can take care of itself, even without US help, although US aid will, of course, continue. Iran will be brought slowly into the comity of nations over the next decade or so. The US relationship with Saudi Arabia will be modified and reduced slowly and then expedited when IS and other terrorists threats are diminished. But such threats, of course, will not go away any time soon. In addition, the global economic system will require the energy resources of Arab Gulf countries far into the future.
This is clear in the case of Turkey. Turkey is and will remain a strong ally of the US, but Turkey will be on its own as far as most of its domestic and foreign policies are concerned. Turkey is and will remain a strong ally of the US, EU and NATO for the defence of the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Turkey's ties, like those of Israel, will remain close to the US for other reasons as well. This is easily seen just by the two countries' close cooperation on the manufacture of the Lockheed Martin F-35 jet fighter, which is expected to be the workhorse of the next two generations of fighter jets. Turkey has been supporting and manufacturing hundreds of components for the program since 2004. Turkish companies are expected to earn some $12 billion for their production of everything, from components for the Pratt & Whitney engine, titanium integrated blade rotors and optical components for the targeting system. Turkey is also producing 40 percent of the F-35 wiring and interconnection system. Turkish companies are also producing air frame structures and assembling the precision-guided Standoff missiles to be used in the F-35.
Other than Israel, Turkey is the only country in the Middle East that has such a role in producing the F-35. Israel has a $5 billion program to build the wings for the F-35. This is yet another reason for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, which already enjoy a $5 billion trade. It seems likely that Turkey, Israel and the US will continued to cooperate closely with regard to avionics, missile construction, cyber warfare and nuclear programs.
Nevertheless, it should be clear from the above that the US will be even more tolerant in the future of Kurdish nationalist movements throughout the Middle East, not just in Iraq and Syria but also within Turkey and Iran. Ankara has had ample time to see developments in Iraqi Kurdistan over the past 13 years and the past five years in Syria. Ankara should consider these developments as it contemplates what polices to pursue vis-à-vis the Kurdish nationalist movements within Turkey itself. In this regard, it will not get much help from the US.
Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst.