Turkey is no exception as the country that shares 911 kilometers of borders with northern Syrian regions. Ankara is growing more and more worried about an increasing power and influence gain of the Syrian Kurds, specifically the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which Turkish leaders consider as the Syrian branch of archenemy of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Of the 911 kilometers of Syria's common borders with Turkey, nearly 700 kilometers are under the rule of the Syrian Kurds who established nearly two years ago their self-rule in the three border cantons of Afrin, Kobani, and Island.
Since the eruption of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the Kurdish territorial seizures in north caused concerns for Ankara, with the Turkish leaders, on top of them President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, calling for establishment of a safe zone in northern province of Aleppo. Ankara eyed a 90-kilometer restricted zone with a depth of 50 kilometers in a northern region between Azaz and Jarabulus cities. But until September 23, 2016, when the Turkish army launched a military operation, codenamed Euphrates Shield, and advanced into Jarabulus and then Azaz and al-Bab, the Western powers, and primarily the US, precluded safe zones from coming into being.
Since mid-November 2015 when the US and its military alliance sponsored formation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurds of Syria made resounding battlefield achievements with direct help from Washington. As SDF progressed against ISIS, the mostly Kurdish militias seized from the terrorist group Tell Abyad city in Raqqa governorate in the initial steps. Afterwards, the militia forces moved to western banks of Euphrates River to drive ISIS out of Manbij and tighten their rule there. The SDF gains stretched to October this year when they ousted ISIS from the strategic city of Raqqa, which under ISIS rule served as a de facto capital to the self-proclaimed caliphate.
The triumphs of the US-backed SDF have continued to the last month when the coalition managed to take from ISIS the oil-rich parts of Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria. Despite that, two issues more than any other things make the Turkish leaders' blood run cold.
First, when the SDF celebrated capture of Raqqa, its fighters raised a poster of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, signaling that now the most dangerous anti-Turkish armed group might have access to the American-provided weapons. Second, Turkey has questions and worries about possible relations of the PKK with the US. The Turks don’t hide their fear that Washington is possibly behind arming of the PKK.
The recent days saw the Turkish leaders taking steps in reaction. Erdogan talked on the phone to the American President Donald Trump on November 24. Trump, seeking assuring Erdogan about absence of risks posed by the US-Kurdish alliance, told the Turkish leader that he will end military support of the Syrian Kurds coalition that brings together the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).
More on the case, the Anadolu news agency of Turkey quoted the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as saying: “Trump assured President Erdogan that the US will cease providing the Syrian Kurdish militias with weapons.”
The questions that comes to mind is: will Trump’s pledge take effect on the ground? What does Washington seek behind stating this policy?
1. Financial and military aids to Kurds continue on the sly
A strategic look at the developments of the recent years makes it crystal clear that the Syrian Kurds, leading a coalition that includes also Arab opposition factions, have been used as an infantry serving the American agenda in Syria. Broadening cooperation with them and sending arms to them– despite the fact that it comes at the expense of deterioration of relations with one of Washington's key allies Ankara– shows that Washington leaders hold in mind long-term plans for the Kurds of Syria.
A panoramic view of the Syrian developments apparently gives the notion that the Kurds are the principal pawn of the American game in the Syrian crisis as Washington finds the Sunni Arab opposition rarely strong and influential on the stage. So, cutting relations with the Kurds can vividly mean the Americans are checkmated in the Syrian game. At least in the short run the American play logic tells Washington to avoid severing aids to and partnership with Syria’s Kurds. Therefore, the most realistic label to the Trump’s promise of aids cessation is “ostensible.” This means that they will continue receiving all types of military and financial help from the Americans.
2. Pressing Turkey using Kurdish card
Another idea is that Washington wants to press Ankara by means of the Kurdish card. After all, the recent years saw Turkish-American relations go through deep chill, with the two countries' ties now being in the worst status in years. In this condition, a logical game of Trump and the American strategists is use of the Syrian Kurds as a pressure card and even secret support of the PKK to put strains on the Turkish government. This aims at making the Turks bow to the American demands on the one hand and on the other hand stop crossing the red lines by moving further towards Russia and Iran, the rivals of the US on the Syrian arena.
3. Erdogan’s empty hope to Trump vows
Viewing the recent remarks and measures of the American president suggests that his words are invalid even among his aides and subordinates, with many of his remarks are taken as simply personal comments and so given no effect on the ground.
This is more touchable when it comes to military and foreign policy stage. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have shown that they struggle for more freedom of action, putting Trump’s plans on back burner. Therefore, it is unlikely that the American strategy undergoes alteration to pave the way for cutting off arms support to the Kurdish forces.
The past few days' reports came out with the consensus that the SDF-bound American arms supplies keep flowing. A recent report of the Military Times website, quoting a member of the Syriac Military Counter which also operates within SDF, maintained that the US has not reviewed its ongoing strategy of equipping the SDF, with the weapons still being provided by Washington. This is beside the vagueness of the statement issued by the White House which declined to make it clear that it stops cooperation with the Kurds.
The whole of this gives an idea: The Trump administration pursues two goals behind its Kurdish-related promises to Erdogan. First, it wants Ankara to avoid more cozying up to Russia and Iran. And second, to hamper the Turkish army and its Syrian allies' plan to assault Afrin canton in Syria’s northwest. Ankara’s operation in Afrin can draw the US to a big regional crisis, and simultaneously put the American-Turkish relations on thin ice.
But Turkish leaders' unprecedented remarks on the American role in the region perfectly exhibit their awareness of the American decline to keep words. Therefore, they are expected to go on their way to further closeness and convergence with Russia and Iran on Syria future.