On Monday, the Pentagon announced that President Trump had signed an order instructing the United States military to provide small and medium arms directly to Syrian Kurds fighting against ISIL (ISIS, Daesh), provoking anger and alarm in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan castigated the United States for siding with “terrorist organizations” against Ankara, and his spokesman called the move “unacceptable.” It is an alarming conclusion in a fellow NATO state and promises a stormy meeting between Erdogan and Trump later this month.
The Turkish press, outraged, complained that “the American, Trump, couldn’t even wait six days” for his upcoming meeting with the Turkish president before rushing into the decision. Since 2015, Erdogan has been pursuing a renewed war on the ultra-leftist, separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in his own country, where Kurds make up some 20 percent of the population. Turkey and the United States concur that the PKK is a terrorist organization, but differ over the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The American government sees it as a secular-minded and valued ally in the fight against ISIL. Erdogan perceives the YPG as a wholly owned subsidiary of the PKK, and hence the Pentagon as a material supporter of terrorism. The area of northeastern Syria where the YPG operates directly borders Turkey.
Ankara roiled relations with Washington in late April when it bombed Syrian Kurdish fighters allied with the United States. American military personnel embedded with the Kurds infuriated Ankara by attending the funerals of those killed by Turkish pilots.
With regard to Washington doubling down on its Kurdish alliance, Redur Xelil, a spokesman for the YPG, said, “We believe that from now on and after this historic decision, [the YPG] will play a stronger, more influential and more decisive role in combating terrorism at a fast pace.” The reputation of the YPG was bolstered by its decisive victory this week over ISIL at the town of Tabqa and its nearby dam (the largest in the country), which further cuts the Sunni extremist group off from the outside world.
Mehmet Tezkan stated the issue clearly in the centrist Milliyet newspaper: “This is the problem: Ankara is failing to convince the Americans that the YPG is ensconced within the PKK and that the heavy weapons supplied to them will reach the PKK” for use against the Turkish army and police. American military commanders insist that the weapons will be carefully monitored, and the YPG in any case, denies that it is linked to the PKK. More broadly, Turkey just does not want the Kurds to succeed in their quest for a federal ethnic province in Syria, where they form some 10 percent of the population, lest it give the Turkish Kurds ideas.