This article was published in Arab News on September 10, 2018.
Kurds crucial to Turkey-US cooperation in Syria
Turkey and the US have several overlapping interests in Syria. They both wanted to get rid of Bashar Assad and they cooperated in the fight against Daesh, but this was not a success story as Washington preferred to work with the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) rather than with Turkey.
The US worked intensively with the YPG during the anti-Daesh fight and it believes, therefore, that Kurds are battle-tested, efficient and reliable partners.
What caused the resentment in Turkey was not only this cooperation, but also the supply of arms and equipment to the YPG. Ankara is aware of the ulterior motive behind Washington’s Kurdish policy: The US wants to use the YPG as leverage to have a stronger negotiating position in the period that will see the transition to democracy in Syria.
Ankara perceived the US-YPG cooperation as Washington’s betrayal of an ally that has the second-biggest army in NATO and makes available its defense facilities close to the most unstable region in the world.
Despite a semblance of common goals, there are fundamental differences between the interests of these two countries. As far as Syria is concerned, the Kurdish issue constitutes the major bone of contention. Kurds want to capitalize on the opportunity created by the Syrian crisis to promote their cause for further decentralization, the establishment of cantons in the north of the country, regional autonomy within Syrian territory, and perhaps eventual independence in the long run.
Ankara is aware of the ulterior motive behind Washington’s Kurdish policy
There are several reasons for the US to support the Kurds. First, the Kurds are the largest community in the world that does not have an independent state, with a total population estimated to be between 35 and 42 million. Sizeable Kurdish communities live in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. All these countries constitute an attractive target for superpowers — especially the US and Russia, who wish to shape this region in line with their national interests.
Second is the role that Kurds could play in the Syrian crisis. They have already declared autonomous cantons in the northeast of the country — Jazira, Kobane and Afrin, although Afrin was later overrun by the Turkish army. They are negotiating cooperation with Damascus and, if they agree, the Kurdish fighters may be deployed in Idlib against all sorts of armed opposition factions operating in the province.
Third is the security of Israel. Kurds are trying to portray the most secular behavior in the region; they display a policy different from the Arab countries regarding Israel. The US may see a potential Kurdish state in the region as a counterweight to the Arab countries that encircle Israel.
There are fundamental differences in Turkey’s Kurdish policy to that of the US. Turkey is opposed to the promotion of the Kurdish cause firstly because the Kurds may resort to ethnic cleansing, as they allegedly did three years ago in Kobane, and oust Turkmen and Arabs from their homelands. Secondly, a Kurdish entity would cut Turkey off from Syrian territory. And thirdly it may set an example for Turkey’s Kurds to seek their own autonomy.
Turkish-US cooperation in Manbij has not progressed as smoothly as Ankara was expecting, because the US is dragging its feet in implementing the road map agreed three months ago. The Kurds may be protesting to the US about their expulsion from a city that they captured from Daesh.
Despite these legitimate worries, Turkey has to understand that the Kurdish cause will evolve steadily, even if it disturbs Ankara.
At the Tehran summit on Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the question of a Kurdish entity’s emergence to the east of the Euphrates under the protection of the US. Washington wishes to keep the Kurdish-held areas in the northeast of Syria, which harbors an important part of Syria’s oil and water resources. The US may also be seeking an opportunity to declare a no-fly zone in these areas, just like the one it operated in northern Iraq in 1991. This would be a nightmare for Turkey because such a step would be the beginning of the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region in the north of Syria.
Iran may have supported Turkey in the summit because it would not like to see any American protege in the region. In addition, Iran would not like to see any Kurdish entity formed because this may provoke similar aspirations for Iranian Kurds.
Russia may not be willing to give priority to the Kurdish issue when the Idlib problem is entering a precarious stage, but it would not like to see a US-supported entity in Syria either.
The emergence of a Kurdish entity in the north of Syria is a red line for Turkey. What it can do to prevent such an outcome remains to be seen.