Spilling Blood in War on ISIS, Kurds Pay Heavy Price for U.S.-Turkey Ties

Washington stands by Turkey while expecting the Kurds to help fight tough battles against Islamist militants in Syria.

Women at a grave site during a funeral for the victims of a suicide bombing that killed dozens in Turkey's Gaziantep on August 21, 2016.
Ilyas Akengin/AFP

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s threat was unequivocal. If the Kurds did not pull back east of the Euphrates River, the United States would not help them, he said.

It is unlikely that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is relying on this threat. More important, will the Kurds heed it, and in exchange for what?

One day after the threat, the Kurdish forces also withdrew from Manbij, Syria, one of the Islamic State’s most important strongholds, which had been taken by Kurdish forces under cover of American air support in a battle that won them accolades for their important victory.

“It’s a slap in the face to the Kurds,” Erwin Stran, a U.S. volunteer who fought with the Syrian Democratic Forces against the Islamic State organization, told ARA News, a Kurdish press agency covering northern Syria and the Kurdish areas.

The SDF was established by the United States as an alliance of Kurdish, Arab and other militias to blur the organization’s Kurdish character — necessary to allow Washington to continue to support the Kurds without overly angering Turkey.

But now it seems that the Kurds are once again paying in blood for the complex and tense relationship between Ankara and Washington.

An official in the Kurdish administration in Iraq told Haaretz that the American threat “conveys a frustrating and dangerous message not only to the Kurds in Syria but to the entire Kurdish people, who are spilling blood in the war against ISIS and were relying on the U.S. government to stand by them."

"The Kurdish forces in Syria seek to establish an autonomous region and that is their right," he said. "They paid and are paying a heavy price to create territorial contiguity in Syria that they need to establish an autonomous region.

"That was clear to the Americans from the outset and they said nothing when the Kurds declared Kurdish autonomy in Syria. Now they have decided to stand with Turkey and at the same time they expect the Kurds to continue helping in the war against ISIS.”

Turkey, which has changed its attitude about direct military involvement in Syria after years of helping Islamic State and other extremist militias, is holding a major means of leverage.

The renewal of ties between Turkey and Russia and the establishment of a commission for military, intelligence and political cooperation between the two countries has earned Washington’s support.

But at the same time, Turkey can threaten to withhold cooperation with the United States if the latter allows the Kurds to establish an autonomous region on its border with Syria.

Turkey can also pressure Washington to extradite Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey claims was behind the recent failed coup.

The United States is not anxious to extradite Gulen, but it began legal discussions with Ankara this week to examine the evidence against him and it may be assumed that the threat against the Kurds is part and parcel of efforts to ease the diplomatic tension.

But there are two more heavyweights in this muddy arena. Over the past year, Russia has become an ally of the Kurds in Syria and was even able to mediate between them and the Syrian regime.

The Russian-Kurdish alliance blossomed in the wake of the crisis between Turkey and Russia after the downing by Turkey of a Russian Sukhoi aircraft in November 2015.

But even after the two countries reconciled, Russia did not abandon the Kurds. Last week Moscow initiated a cease-fire between the Syrian regime and the Kurds in the Hasakah region in northeastern Syria.

According to the terms, the Syrians could maintain a symbolic police force in two cities of Hasakah and Qamishli, the two sides would trade prisoners and the dead, and the Kurds would be in charge de facto of security in those cities.

Kurdish government workers who had been dismissed due to the war would return to work and negotiations even began over the “Kurdish problem.”

Ostensibly this was “merely” a local accord, but its special importance is that it strengthened the standing of Russia, which, unlike the United States, can establish a cease-fire, create “areas of quiet” and translate its aerial assaults into achievements on the ground.

According to Syrian media reports, Russia is trying to change Turkey’s position vis-a-vis Syrian President Bashar Assad, and agree to his remaining in office at least until elections can be held.

This initiative has already seen partial success with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s declaration that Assad is an important player in the Syrian crisis and Turkey could agree to his remaining temporarily in office.

Iran is trying to encourage Turkey, and worked behind the scenes to further Turkish-Russian reconciliation. Iran sees the axis of Russia-Turkey-Iran leading diplomatic initiatives to resolve the crisis. The importance of this axis to Iran is not only the chance of ending the war, but also to neutralize diplomatic moves by Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s bitter adversary, and to distance Turkey from the Sunni coalition that Saudi King Salman has established. Iran’s realpolitik approach is unimpressed by the fact that Russia is an “infidel” state and that Turkey is Sunni. Iran has already proven that when the need arises, it is prepared to cooperate with any entity that serves its interests, including the United States, with which it signed the nuclear agreement.

But Russian-Iranian rapprochement comes at a political cost. That has recently manifested itself in verbal blows exchanged between Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan and the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Larijani, over granting permission for Russian planes to operate from Iran’s Hamedan airfield.

Dehghan said that since permission was only for takeoffs and landings, no parliamentary approval was needed, and that parliament should keep its mouth shut in matters that do not concern it.

Larijani responded that the defense minister “had better avoid statements against parliament and act according to the customs of the regime.”

The problem worsened when Dehghan said the Russian planes had stopped operating from the airfield and Larijani said the opposite.

Russia wants to establish a regular base in Iran for refueling, bomb storage and a large technical team, while for now Iran is willing only to allow landings, takeoffs and refueling. The dispute is wider because Russia is not willing to attack targets of interest to Iran and does not coordinate its flight destinations with Tehran.

This is not a crisis in ties between the two countries, but an arm-twisting effort in the context of Iran’s concern over what it considers Russia’s takeover of Syria. Hence the importance Iran accords the partnership with Syria and its actions now to sort things out over Assad’s future.

According to the Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat, Turkey sent a retired general, Ismail Hakki (not to be confused with the former Turkish chief of staff) to Tehran where he met with senior Syrian officials.

Hakki was the Turkish coordinator of the 1998 Adana Agreement that ended the crisis between Turkey and the Hafez Assad regime in Syria over actions of the Kurdish PKK in Syria.

Washington has no contribution at all in any of these moves. At the moment it can only prepare the assault on ISIS in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqah, in Syria.

On those two fronts, its plans depend on massive cooperation on the part of Kurdish forces. We can only watch to see how the Kurds will operate after the slap in the face they received this week.