What with all the other brain damage that has happened in Syria (and is happening), now comes this:
As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was committing to an open-ended U.S. presence in eastern Syria last week with the ambitious goals of preventing the return of the Islamic State, denying Iran a corridor to the Mediterranean, and ultimately removing the Assad regime, one of Washington’s most important partners, Turkey, was launching a new military incursion targeting U.S.-backed forces. The clashes come after the United States announced plans for a new “border force” that would train and further legitimate elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the largely Kurdish coalition of local militias in eastern Syria that was instrumental to the territorial defeat of the Islamic State.
Emphasis mine. The Kurds, both Syrian and Iraqi, have been the best fighters against the Islamic State this side of US forces. Not only that, the Kurds have been our best allies in the Middle East this side of Israel and Jordan. The Kurds are explicitly pro-American. Not only that, the Kurdish semi-autonomous region known as Rojava has the best form of government in the Middle East this side of Israel. In terms of political rights and civil liberties, Rojava is a gem surrounded by s**tholes.
On the other side, Turkey, under Erdogan, grown increasingly Islamist and dictatorial, especially after the botched coup attempt in mid-2016. Not only that, during the Islamic State occupation in Iraq and Syria, Erdogan took sides in the War Against Militant Islamism, picking the Islamic State by tacitly allowing militant Islamists to transit through Turkey to get to eastern Syria and northern Iraq. Erdogan is no friend of Assad or Iran, so he paid pay lip service against the Islamic State while providing a conduit for their followers (which backfired when militant Islamists launched a terrorist attack at Ataturk Aiport in Istanbul in 2016). And if those religious extremists are fighting against Kurds and taking their territory, all the better.
The recent Turkish incursion occurred not long after SecState Tillerson announced his five-point plan, which is probably not coincidental. Erdogan and his people are saying they’re creating a “safe zone” inside Syrian territory, which means they’re taking a 20-mile wide strip of land along the northern border of Afrin province, and now they’re invading Manbij province, which lies east of Afrin. Turkey calls this military offensive “Operation Olive Branch”, which is quite Orwellian. AP has done a fact check of various statements from Turkish officials and found them less than honest, including their claim that the Islamic State is in Afrin. While claiming a desire to create a climate for refugees to return, the Turkish military is displacing thousands.
Since Putin is consistently hostile to American interests, and because we are working with the YPG (the Kurdish People’s Protection Units) in fighting the Islamic State, it is no surprise that Putin and Erdogan coordinated their military forces so that Erdogan could attack these parts of Syria without injuring Putineers and damaging their materiel.
The Russian reaction has been telling. Given its control of airspace around Afrin, Russia clearly acquiesced to the Turkish operation. (Erdogan dispatched his military and intelligence chiefs to Moscow last week to discuss plans.) Russia also removed troops from harm’s way, including military advisors working with YPG forces there. Erdogan has been notably silent about Russia’s partnership with the YPG given Turkey’s lack of leverage and vulnerability to Russia’s Kurdish policy. Moscow is seeking political capital from recent events, which it described as the result of “provocative U.S. steps aimed at the separation of regions with predominantly Kurdish populations.” On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized American cooperation with the YPG as either a “misunderstanding of the whole situation or a deliberate provocation.”
Mr. Trump “urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces,” the White House said in a description of the call. “He reiterated that both nations must focus all parties on the shared goal of achieving the lasting defeat of ISIS,” or the Islamic State.
His tough tone with Mr. Erdogan was an abrupt reversal from a White House briefing just a day earlier, where senior administration officials suggested that the United States would side with Turkey, a NATO ally, in disputes with Kurdish forces that have fought the Islamic State with direct support from Washington.
The Kurds are concerned, rightfully, that the US will abandon them to mollify Erdogan, and history is on their side. Here’s to hoping we stand by them this time, just as they stood by us in this War Against Militant Islamism, because Erdogan doesn’t deserve to be mollified.
Erdogan takes a similar view as Assad, that any and all rebels fighting against the state are terrorists. Because PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey) is in conflict with the Turkish government, they are terrorists in Erdogan’s eye. And since YPG are Kurdish and have connections with PKK, then YPG is also a terrorist group by extension. If Trump wants to make a dramatic move, he can de-list the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. There are good reasons to do so.
Today, circumstances are dramatically different from those that preceded the PKK’s designation. The rise of the Islamic State has changed U.S. priorities in the Middle East. The PKK’s fight with ISIS has benefited U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Iraq and Syria. The PKK has contributed to defending and liberating areas such as Makhmour, Sinjar, and Kirkuk in Iraq, as well as Kobani in northern Syria. In August 2014, the PKK was instrumental in establishing a humanitarian corridor to rescue tens of thousands of Yazidis trapped by ISIS on Mount Sinjar.
In addition to the PKK’s battlefield successes against ISIS, the group’s transformation into a political party can contribute to democracy in Turkey. It has renounced separatism and instead seeks democratic autonomy within a Turkish state. The governance of Rojava, the PKK’s affiliate in Syria, led by the PYD, provides a positive example of grass roots democracy, women’s empowerment, and environmental sustainability.
At an October press briefing, the State Department Deputy Spokesperson, in response to a question as to whether he was aware of “many of the PKK militants joining the YPG,” responded that the State Department has “always seen a clear separation between the two.” Erdogan, however, does not recognize the U.S. distinction between the PKK as terrorists and the YPG.
Western scholars, European politicians, and think tanks have advocated delisting the PKK, noting the groups pivotal role in combating ISIS. A petition to delist the PKK, posted on the White House website’s “We the People” platform, gathered over 33,000 signatures.
If the PKK took the affirmative step of petitioning the State Department for revocation of its FTO designation, the petition could set forth evidence supporting changed circumstances since its designation and include the formal renunciation of political violence, which would be endorsed by the group’s central committee. The PKK statement could also pledge to support the U.S.-led multinational coalition’s campaign against ISIS. And as the U.S. Government assesses its approach to the PKK, it should coordinate the delisting process with allies such as Great Britain, Canada, and Australia. Substantial support exists in the European Parliament for delisting.