How U.S. Support for Syrian Kurds Actually Benefits Erdogan
Of the many issues that divide the United States and Turkey, Washington’s support for the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) in Syria is the thorniest. The YPG makes up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—a group the United States designates as a terrorist organization and that has been engaged in a decadeslong fight against the Turkish government. The origins of the YPG date back to 2011. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began using military force against Syrians protesting his regime, the PKK helped Syrian Kurds set up a fighting force that would protect Kurdish areas of the country.
Turks are rightfully angry about U.S. policy, but because most of them live in a pro-government news bubble, they are missing critical context. In 2014, the United States sought Turkey’s help in its battle against the Islamic State, but leaders in Ankara made it clear that their primary security concern was the threat of Kurdish nationalism and terrorism. This compelled Washington to make common cause with the YPG in the fight against then-leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s terrorist army. Ever since, the United States has sought to balance its commitment to Turkey—a NATO ally—and its Syrian Kurdish partners, even as the former periodically attacks the latter.
The most recent flare-up of Turkish airstrikes, drone attacks, and artillery volleys on the YPG—as well as the threat of a possible ground incursion into Syria—comes after a terrorist attack in Istanbul on Nov. 13 that killed at least six people and injured at least 81 individuals. Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu immediately blamed both the YPG and Washington for the bloodshed, though the YPG’s leaders and those of the PKK denied any involvement. The White House strongly condemned the “act of violence” and said, “We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our NATO Ally [Turkey] in countering terrorism.” A day later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thanked the United States and a slew of other countries for their condolences, but it did little to obscure Soylu’s comment that the White House’s expressions of sympathy for Turkey were akin to “a killer being first to show up at a crime scene.”
Observers might conclude from the ferocity of Turkey’s recent military operations, Ankara’s threat of a ground campaign, and Soylu’s effort to shame Washington that Ankara is trying to peel the United States away from its YPG partners. Turkish officials have long demanded that Washington prove it is a good ally, claiming that Ankara would be better at handling the Islamic State problem than the SDF is.
But does Erdogan really want the United States to choose between Turkey and its Syrian Kurdish friends? It is unlikely. Washington’s relationship with the YPG is too good a foil for Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), especially with the country’s general election approaching in 2023.
The idea that the Turkish leadership is not unduly concerned about the United States’ ties with the YPG is provocative, but it makes sense given the internal political logic of U.S.-Turkey-Syrian Kurd relations. Current violence in northern Syria is taking place in a specific context that the almost 40-year war between Turkey and the PKK has shaped. That conflict has waxed and waned over the decades, which should make one thing clear: There is no military solution to it. Erdogan recognized this fact when he embarked on negotiations with the PKK in 2013.
It is also important to recognize that the group and its YPG offshoot are not existential threats to Turkey, though Turks fear that the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish zone or even a Kurdish state in Syria could jeopardize their country’s security. No doubt, Kurdish terrorists are responsible for spilling copious amounts of blood, but concern that this violence could lead to the dismemberment of Turkey is overblown. The country and its society are strong and vibrant. Its security and sovereignty are beyond question. Overall, more Turks have suffered recently as a result of Erdogan’s poor economic management than at the hands of the PKK and the YPG.
Keep in mind as well that Turkey’s military operations in Syria are taking place at a moment when the Turkish leader and the AKP are relatively weak politically. It is futile to predict electoral outcomes months before anyone casts a vote, but there is evidence that Erdogan and the AKP have overstayed their welcome among large numbers of Turkish voters. Consequently, the Turkish leader has begun to pull as many levers as possible so he can to put himself in a better position before the elections in mid-June 2023—including capitalizing on the Nov. 13 attack—to whip up nationalist sentiment and gain political advantage.
There is precedent for the way Turkish authorities are playing the violence politically. In 2015, after Erdogan forced a new round of general elections because the AKP did not win a parliamentary majority, there was a series of bombings across Turkey that killed around 130 people. Erdogan took full advantage of the violence to attack the Kurdish-led Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which advocates for Kurdish rights in a more democratic political system, as the stalking horse of the PKK. The campaign against the HDP depressed its vote in the November parliamentary elections to the extent that the AKP regained its commanding position in the Grand National Assembly. Of course, Erdogan was neither the first nor the last politician to leverage terrorism and the legitimate fear of it for political gain—which is why it should not be breezily dismissed after this most recent bombing.
The very fact that the United States has been coordinating with the YPG for almost a decade provides Erdogan additional incentive and opportunity to leverage the violence for political gains. There is a vast reservoir of anti-Americanism in Turkey that runs deep. Does anyone believe that Syrian citizen Ahlam Albashir, who is accused of perpetrating the Nov. 13 Istanbul attack, was actually wearing a purple sweatshirt with the words “New York” emblazoned across it when she was caught? It seems more likely that Soylu and his minions put her in the garment (and handcuffs) before taking her photograph to drive home their point that the United States is responsible for Turkish blood.
Soylu’s behavior should not shock or surprise anyone. Turkey’s leaders spend more time assailing the United States than defending their relationship with Washington. That is their right, but they conveniently forget to remind Turks that the United States designated the PKK a terrorist organization in 1997 and then spent diplomatic energy to convince its European allies to do the same. They also glide over the U.S. role in the apprehension of Abdullah Ocalan—former leader of the PKK—in Kenya in 1999. The deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base as a symbol of Washington’s commitment to Turkish security during the Cold War and after is not something politicians in Ankara are inclined to acknowledge publicly either. Instead, they have created a political environment in which it has become common for Turks to believe the United States was behind the 2016 attempted coup.
Of course, Washington has made its own mistakes. When the PKK ended a unilateral cease-fire in 2004, it targeted Turkish forces from U.S.-occupied Iraq. There is no moral equivalence, however. Turkey’s compromised security was a consequence of U.S. stupidity, whereas Turkish officials seem to be engaged in a cynical and malevolent political enterprise.
Despite Turkish fury, Erdogan’s political interest would not be well served if the United States was to walk away from the YPG. All of the Turkish leader’s incentives run in the direction of Syrian Kurdish conflict, which can be blamed on Washington. No one in Ankara seems to care that YPG/SDF fighters have to redirect their attention away from keeping the Islamic State down to defending themselves, prompting at least one prominent U.S. commentator to wonder about the quality of Turkey as an ally. It is the mirror image of questions that Turkish columnists and officials ask about the United States.
Amid all the recriminations, however, the status quo suits Washington and Ankara well. The United States will not choose between the YPG and Turkey because U.S. officials want someone to keep an eye on the Islamic State and can’t be sure the Turks will do it. On the flip side, Erdogan does not want the United States to choose because Washington’s relationship with Syria’s Kurds is too juicy a political target to willingly give up.
The next time folks in Washington lament over the state of U.S.-Turkey ties, dismiss it. The current trainwreck in bilateral relations actually serves everyone’s interests.