Turkey questions US support for Syrian Kurds

Turkey and the United States have shared good relations since the 19th century, that have continued to strengthen in their fight against terrorism and the Islamic State. But a recent conflict of interests over the Kurdish Democratic Union Party is raising concerns in Ankara over its alliance with Washington.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a left-wing militant organization that has waged an armed struggle against the Turkish State for cultural and political rights, and self-determination for the Kurds in Turkey, is recognised as a terrorist group by Turkey, the Europe Union and the United Sates of America. The organization has recently escalated its violence in a campaign against Turkish security forces – digging trenches, and attempting to carve out autonomous areas, with at least 280 members of Turkish security forces having been killed since last summer when a cease-fire was broken.

Turkey has been alarmed by recent Kurdish gains in northern Syria and fears that its advancements could risk separatist sentiments among its own Kurdish population. In spite of this, the United States has insisted on backing Syrian Kurdish militias in their fight against the Islamic State, with their support being extended to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – a northern Syrian Kurdish political party and key US alliance in the battle against the Islamic State – whom Turkey considers another extension of the PKK.

Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has criticised Washington for refusing to recognise the PYD, and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as terrorists. The disagreement began when in late January 2016, the US envoy, Brett McGurk, visited Kobanî – a Syrian border town that was a symbol of Kurdish resistance to the Islamic State’s advance. McGurk visit to the Kurds in Kobanî marked the first known visit by a senior U.S. official to Syrian territory since the beginning of the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State in 2014.

As a result of the US refusing to recognise the PYD as a terrorist organisation in the way that Turkey does, Ankara began to question its alliance with Washington, as Erdoğan urged the US to choose between Turkey and Kobanî.

The disagreement reignited on Thursday 11th February 2016, when the spokesperson to Turkey’s Justice and Develop Party (AKP) – the largest political party in Turkey – directed criticism towards the US over its relations to the PYD, with Erdoğan commenting that Washington’s failure to recognise the PYD as a terrorist organisation was creating a “sea of blood”.

The US State Department Deputy Spokesperson, Mark Toner, avoided directly responding to the comments made, and attempted to restore hope in Turkey-US relations by highlighting the importance of Turkey as a major US ally in its efforts to destroy the Islamic State. Toner reiterated that the US does not view Kurdish militias as terrorists, but instead as their partners, stressing that the US believes the Syrian Kurdish militants are focused on fighting the Islamic State within Syria, and does not pose a security threat to Turkey.

Toner commented that Turkey “clearly make the link between the PKK and the YPG”, while “We [The US] don’t”. He further stated that “The Turkish government has expressed concerns about the PYD and their connection with the PKK”, while “we [The US] don’t make that connection, period”.

The State Department continued to deescalate tensions between the US and Turkey over the PYD by noting their “commitment to the US-Turkey partnership and alliance”, which they take “very seriously”, commenting that they are “in constant communication with the Turkish government to address any concerns they may have”. Toner also expressed that Turkey is a “critical partner in the anti-Daesh or anti-ISIL coalition”, and that “no one should question [The US’s] commitment to [its] alliance with Turkey.”