American support for Kurdish forces in Syria is a major flashpoint between the NATO allies
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greeted supporters in Ankara on Wednesday.
ISTANBUL—Turkey expected a honeymoon with President Donald Trump. Instead, it increasingly looks like Ankara and Washington are heading for a squabble, if not a divorce.
For now, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has bitten his tongue and avoided attacking the Trump administration with the kind of inflammatory statements that he routinely hurls at European and regional leaders. The White House, too, has kept largely mum about Turkish affairs. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is holding meetings in Turkey on Thursday, aiming to maintain a bond that U.S. officials continue describing as vital.
Yet, on several key issues of this complicated relationship between the two North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, a head-on collision with potentially unpredictable consequences seems more and more possible.
These flashpoints include Washington’s handling of Mr. Erdogan’s Pennsylvania-based nemesis, cleric Fethullah Gulen. Even more important is the growing American support for Syrian Kurdish forces affiliated with the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a group designated as terrorist by Ankara and Washington alike.
Mr. Trump, during last year’s U.S. presidential campaign, praised Mr. Erdogan for resisting the failed July coup attempt. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn wrote an op-ed last November that largely echoed Ankara’s talking points. Mr. Erdogan, usually a fierce defender of Muslim causes who faces a critical referendum April 16, for his part maintained an unusual silence even when Mr. Trump promulgated a travel ban on citizens of seven majority-Muslim nations.
Now, however, a new dynamic has emerged. Mr. Flynn has had to resign over his contacts with the Russian ambassador, and recently reported that he had been a lobbyist for Turkish interests. On Monday, a senior Turkish banker was arrested in New York as part of a probe into violating sanctions against Iran.
Mr. Trump’s attention in the Middle East, meanwhile, has focused mostly on the military operations against Islamic State—operations in which the Syrian Kurdish group, known as PYD, has become the Pentagon’s favored partner, Turkish objections notwithstanding. The PYD is the dominant force in a military alliance that also includes Arab fighters and that is known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a favored partner of the Pentagon in the fight against Islamic State, in Syria on Monday. Photo: delil souleiman/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
“There had been enthusiasm in Ankara, and hope that a reset [with Washington] can be envisioned,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who heads the Edam think tank in Istanbul. “Today there is an awakening that the relationship with Trump and the Trump administration may not unfold the way Ankara had initially hoped for.”
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the head of the House intelligence committee, put it less diplomatically in an appearance this month on Fox News. “Our relationship with Turkey is strained and I think it’s going to become even more complicated as we begin to try to get ISIS out of Iraq and Syria,” Mr. Nunes said.
It’s unclear just how serious a breakdown could be—and whether it would involve the U.S. losing access to Turkey’s Incirlik air base. Mr. Erdogan has recently suggested that Moscow could become an alternative ally, and mulled the purchase of Russia’s S-400 air and missile defense system. However, no matter how much he may disagree with Washington, even Mr. Erdogan would likely balk at becoming significantly more dependent on Russia as his only remaining friend.
“It would be more of the same—an unhappy marriage, but without a divorce,” predicted Aydin Selcen, a Turkish analyst who served as a senior diplomat in Iraq and Washington.
More than anything, it’s the disagreements over Syria under former President Barack Obama that severely strained the U.S.-Turkish relationship. In Ankara’s view, Mr. Obama, by initially encouraging an uprising and then backing off his threats to use force against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, left Turkey exposed to the fallout—and forced to absorb three million Syrian refugees.
Over the past two years, Ankara also seethed at the U.S. aid for PYD in northern Syria. Instead of reversing that policy, as Ankara had expected, Washington appears to be doubling down on support for the Syrian Kurdish group. In early March, the Pentagon went as far as deploying American forces between PYD and Turkish lines near the northern Syrian town of Manbij, effectively blocking a planned offensive by Turkey and its Syrian allies. Then, in recent days, the U.S.—in its most high-profile military operation in Syria so far—airlifted the PYD and its allied Arab fighters across the Euphrates, to the strategic Tabqa Dam near Raqqa.
A convoy of U.S. armored vehicles drove on the outskirts of Manbij, Syria, in early March. Photo: delil souleiman/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
The PYD-led Kurdish and Arab fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces “have been quite effective on the ground, and we’re obviously going to continue to support them,” a senior State Department official said ahead of Mr. Tillerson’s trip. “But we are, of course, very mindful of Turkey’s concerns.”
That’s not something Ankara wants to hear. Yasin Aktay, the deputy chairman of Mr. Erdogan’s ruling party, didn’t disguise his dismay about the Trump administration’s Syria moves.
“It is very disappointing but we are still trying to keep our hope,” Mr. Aktay said in an interview. “The U.S. is a very serious ally of Turkey, and we expect from our ally and from our friend to see the truth and to change their policy in accordance with the truth.”
For now, Turkey hasn’t acted on its frustrations, hoping that a broader deal can still be negotiated with the Trump administration. Both countries have interests beyond Syria, another Turkish official noted, and the Trump administration can’t hope to deliver on its goal of limiting Iran’s regional power if it doesn’t have Ankara on its side.
“We still expect the Trump administration to realize that there is no difference between PKK and PYD and Daesh,” Mr. Aktay added, using another term for Islamic State. “PYD is the extension of Assad’s and Assad means Iran, so when you help PYD, it means that you help Iran, indirectly.”