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ANALYSIS: Kurdish conundrum opens rift between US and Turkey

US support for Kurdish fighters in Syria hurts its relations with Turkey, a NATO ally, which may elude solutions
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he feared the latest US-Russian ceasefire plan would benefit Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (AFP)

NEW YORK, United States - US President Barack Obama is often criticised as indecisive for his hands-off approach to Syria’s civil war. His position grows more uncomfortable daily, with Washington increasingly at odds with a long-standing ally, Turkey, over the conflict.

Washington is torn over its support for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, one of the most effective forces in the war, and Ankara’s fears that Syrian Kurds will build a proto-state on its southern border and fuel discontent among Turkey’s own restive Kurdish population.

“American officials are in a bind,” Steven Cook, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, told Middle East Eye.

“They can either sign up with the Turks, thereby undermining what they have going with the YPG against Islamic State, or ditch Turkey altogether. Neither serves US interests.”

Tensions continued on Wednesday, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he feared the latest US-Russian ceasefire plan, due to begin on Saturday, would benefit Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

Speaking in Ankara, he railed against world powers for letting Syria’s bloodbath persist.

The US, Russia, Iran, the EU and the UN have abandoned the “honour of humanity” by allowing “the killing of nearly half a million innocent people by the regime and its backers,” Erdogan said in a televised address.

Ankara’s stance on the war is entwined with its battle against fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade rebellion for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey's southeast.

Ankara views the YPG militia and its political wing, Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) - which enjoys US backing in the fight against IS in Syria - as a hostile insurgent force with operational and logistical ties to the PKK.

Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria and scholar at the Middle East Institute, a think tank, said Ankara’s fears have spiked as Kurdish militants advance into territory controlled by Turkey-backed rebels in northern Aleppo near the Turkish border

“Syrian Kurds are close to realising their goal of a contiguous autonomous region along the Syrian-Turkish border - a serious irritant to Turkey,” Ford told MEE. 

“Ankara fears the close kinship between Syrian and Turkish Kurds and perceives growing Kurdish nationalism in Syria as a more serious threat to Turkish territorial integrity than IS.”

With Russian jets striking the rebel-held stronghold of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, Turkey is also braced for a worsening flow of refugees, Ford added.

“The likelihood of either the Syrian army or Kurdish rebels cutting the important supply line from Turkey to Aleppo adds to the prospect of thousands more Syrian refugees flooding into Turkey, on top of the 2.5 million already there,” Ford said.

Like Turkey and the European Union, the US lists the PKK as a terrorist group. But it views the YPG as a valuable ally against the Islamic State (IS) and says it will continue to work with them against the Sunni hardliners.

“We will continue to disagree … with Turkey with regard to that particular issue, and our support for those particular groups that are taking the fight to ISIL,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters on Tuesday, using an alternate acronym for IS.

Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have both said the YPG, working with Kurdish fighters in Turkey, were behind a suicide bomb blast that killed 29 people, most of them soldiers, in Ankara on 17 February.

Turkish forces shelled YPG positions in northern Syria after the Ankara attack and launched air strikes on PKK camps in northern Iraq, as the government vowed payback for those responsible. Washington urged Ankara to stop shelling the YPG.

Clashes have also continued within Turkey, where violence in the southeast is at its worst since the 1990s. Military helicopters killed nine PKK fighters along the Syrian border on Wednesday, according to security sources.

According to Cook, the author of several books on the Middle East, the US will struggle to maintain ties with Turkey while also backing the Kurdish militia that Ankara fears. It faces an awkward choice.

“Washington must decide whether the PKK and YPG are terrorist groups or not,” Cook told MEE. 

“If they are not, policymakers should brace for a change in bilateral relations with Turkey. Turkey is not quite the indispensable ally it has been made out to be, so it may be worth taking the hit. 

“Meanwhile, when Washington tells Turks that it stands with them, they have every right to be incredulous.”

Conversely, Amberin Zaman, from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, saw an opportunity for Washington.

“The US should stop hiding behind these labels and help Turkey acknowledge it has a big problem with Kurds that now extends beyond its borders,” Zaman told MEE.

“Washington has leverage over the YPG. Turkey’s only sustainable solution to its Kurdish problem now involves their cousins in Syria. A common front between Turkey, the US and the Kurds offers the best chance of defeating IS.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, an umbrella body, said Turkey’s main threats were tensions with Russia and IS expansionism.

Relations with Moscow deteriorated after Turkey shot down a Russian jet near the Syrian border last November. Against this backdrop, Ankara is rebuilding bridges with Israel, after the two nations fell out over an Israeli raid on a Turkish-backed aid flotilla bound for Gaza in 2010.

“I think there is certainly a better mood, a more positive one that we have seen,” Hoenlein told MEE. “I think there are a lot of humps that have to be overcome before you’ll get a full resumption of diplomatic relations and putting an end to acrimony.”

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