Turkey’s operation against Afrin leaves the U.S, facing difficult choices.
It all boils down to what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been saying all along. The U.S. has to decide whether Turkey or an organization Ankara considers to be a terrorist groups is its ally.
Washington thought until now that it could dodge this question with prevarications and mollifying statements, as it continued to consolidate its alliance with the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), the group Turkey says is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The U.S. has the PKK listed as a terrorist organization also but refuses to do the same with the YPG, even though officials in Washington acknowledge the links between the two.
The dichotomy here was underlined by Steven A. Cook, a Turkey expert from the Washington based Council on Foreign Relations, in a Jan.22 article for The Atlantic. www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/01/syria-turkey-kurds-ottoman-isis/551099/
“Unlike American policymakers, the Turks (quite rightly) make no distinction between the YPG and the PKK. After working with the Syrian Kurds to defeat the Islamic State and announcing that the YPG will be part of the American military commitment in the form of some sort of ‘border force,’ the Turks are drawing the not-unreasonable conclusion that U.S. policymakers support Kurdish territorial claims in Syria—which, from the Turkish perspective, would be a ‘terrorist state’” Cook said.
Erdogan has vowed to go after the YPG in it its strongholds in Northern Syria where U.S. marines are also deployed. Washington cannot brush this threat aside anymore, given his anger with the U.S. and his commitment to his nationalist supporters. Not after Afrin.
Clearly, the Trump administration can’t juggle Turkey and the YPG at the same time and will have to do some hard thinking now.
Turkey, however, will also have to do some hard thinking. Going after the YPG held enclave of Manbij, where U.S. forces are also deployed, will not be as easy as Erdogan thinks. It will take more political and diplomatic maneuvering than military action to achieve his aims in Manbij and beyond in Kurdish held Northern Syria.
Despite the wide spread antipathy towards the U.S. among Turks, losing the U.S. as an ally will come at a high cost to Turkey too. Apart from anything else, it will drive Washington more towards supporting Kurdish aspirations, not less.
As the Turkish saying goes, “Turkey could end up poking its eye out while trying to pluck its eyebrow.”
Ankara has to realize, as retired senior Turkish military official are stressing, that taking Afrin will only be a tactical gain. The strategic gain will be neutralizing the threat on its borders from east of the Euphrates, where the YPG, with U.S. support, currently holds territory that is larger than Lebanon.
That will not be secured by warring with the U.S. It will need subtle negotiations, which serve the interests of both Turkey and the U.S. and also take note of the Kurdish reality.
Ankara insists its operation in Afrin is not against the Kurds but against terrorism. It has to prove this at home first by also starting to listen more to the grievances of its Kurdish citizens in order to address their needs.
Turkey and the U.S. must sort this out reasonably. All other choices are in fact, non-choices.