Turkey's Erdogan Pulls Strings on All Fronts

U.S. support of Kurdish militias angers Turkey's leader, but he is wary of criticizing President Obama – or confronting Moscow.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan at ceremonies marking the 563rd anniversary of the conquest of the city by Ottoman Turks, in Istanbul, May 29, 2016.
Murad Sezer/Reuters

Why were American special forces wearing the insignia of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) on their shoulders recently? Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would like to know.

“I am someone who believes that politics should be conducted honestly. Therefore, our allies, those who are with us in NATO, cannot and should not send their own soldiers to Syria with insignias of the YPG,” Erdogan said Saturday.

It wasn’t the specific issue of the U.S. troops, as photographed in the media, that was at stake in the president’s eyes – rather, a matter of the American president, of all people, stamping on his already inflamed toes.

When Erdogan visited the U.S. in March, without holding a working meeting with Barack Obama, he complained about the latter’s support of Kurdish forces in Syria, which Turkey defines as part of a terror organization.

“Terrorists are terrorists, there are no good ones,” Erdogan told a select group of top people from U.S. research organizations.

The U.S. understands Erdogan, it just doesn’t agree with him, and some months ago it set up a special body called the Democratic Militia, consisting of Syrians and Kurds. This militia receives support and training from about 200 American special forces troops – aid that trickles down to Kurdish organizations. Erdogan isn’t blind to this gambit but pretended not to see it, in order to avoid confrontation with Washington.

But when American fighters were seen recently wearing insignia of the YPG Kurdish unit, that was a bridge too far for Erdogan. (The YPG is the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, the PYD, which Turkey claims is, in turn, an arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has been outlawed in Turkey. All are terrorist groups, in Ankara’s view. Washington has agreed to define the PKK as a terror organization, but not the YPG or PYD. )

The U.S. and Turkey have an informal understanding that as long as the “democratic militias” get aid, Turkey won’t mount the barricades. But the shoulder insignia affair is, in the Turkish view, a violation of that agreement – and the U.S. administration seems to agree. The Pentagon issued a statement to the effect that the emblems shouldn’t have been worn, and that an order had been issue to remove them immediately.

That message is unlikely to assuage Erdogan’s feelings, however. He views the Kurdish fighters in Syria as allies of the PKK, with which Turkey is embroiled in bloody warfare on Turkish soil. Erdogan is also worried about the possibility of the Kurds in Syria declaring an independent state on the Syrian-Turkish border, on top of the existing independent Kurdish enclave in Iraq. If that happens, some 20 million Kurds in Turkey could get similar ideas.

That fear is exaggerated, however, because a Kurdish state in Syria would be destitute, bereft of any basic means for survival. The leadership of the Kurdish enclave in Iraq is feuding with the Kurdish leadership in Syria. This week, it even closed the border crossing between the two areas.

On the other hand, statements by Syrian Kurds that they are gaining ground in their fight to liberate the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State, or ISIS, are hardly the ticket to calming down the resident of the so-called White Palace – the presidential abode – in Ankara.

Turkish apprehension has another complicated aspect to it. If Erdogan escalates his opposition to the collaboration between the United States and the Kurdish militias, he risks being perceived as damaging the expected offensive against ISIS, and as playing into the hands of the Russians, who are working openly with the Kurds, and not only for military reasons.

The conflict between Moscow and Ankara, which began with Turkey shooting down a Russian plane last year, has led Vladimir Putin to launch political and economic broadsides against Erdogan, as well as accusations that Turkey is abetting ISIS. Putin also demands that the Syrian Kurds be made part of the sluggish diplomatic debate on resolving the situation in Syria.

Erdogan has the choice of biting his lips and shutting up about the American-Kurdish collaboration, over which he could have some influence – or giving full rein to his outrage against Washington, which would just boost the Russian-Kurdish game and cost him American backing, too.

Washington, for its part, must avoid a rift with Ankara as long as it needs the Turkish air bases, and overland access to the areas where the fight against ISIS is being conducted. Erdogan is counting on this need.

But we must keep in mind that during the Second Gulf War, despite the partnership between Washington and Ankara, Turkey wouldn’t let American ground forces reach Iraq through its territory (though that didn’t prevent the American attack). So, even if Erdogan decides that halting the Kurds matters more to him than fighting ISIS, the U.S. and its coalition have enough other options to use to go to war, leaving Turkey in the dust.

Simultaneously, Erdogan is worried about the European front as well. His demonstration of string-pulling skills doesn’t stop with America. He’s threatening to cancel the refugees agreement Ankara signed with the European Union in March, unless the EU agrees to waive visa requirements for Turkish citizens. The EU made that contingent on 72 conditions, the toughest of which, from Turkey’s perspective, are amending terrorism-related legislation, stopping the harassment of journalists and limiting freedom of expression.

Turkey has been adhering to the conditions of the agreement, and the number of refugees crossing its border to Europe has significantly decreased; the issue of the visas seems likely to be resolved by October. Erdogan always did like demonstrations of power in the international arena.