Ankara has repeatedly called on Washington to decide whether it is the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), and its umbrella organizations the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – both of which are considered to be Kurdish terrorist organizations by Turkey – or Turkey that is its ally.
Washington’s response has generally been equivocal. It has preferred to say it respects Turkey’s right to defend itself against terrorism, but gone on to utter remarks that will not offend the YPG either.
Turkey’s Olive Branch Operation, however, has changed much. Ankara’s question can’t be simply brushed aside anymore, given the determination and relative rapidity with which the Turkish armed forces gained control over Afrin.
Put simply, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat to go after the YPG in Manbij now, where the group is supported by the U.S. military, is something Washington has to take more seriously than it probably did before.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was quoted by the Turkish press this week saying that talks with Turkey over Manbij are ongoing, and expressing optimism that a positive outcome will be reached. This contrasts somewhat with previous statements from Pentagon sources, who had sounded a defiant tone against Turkey over Manbij.
We don’t know what Washington’s final stance will be, of course. Especially now that President Donald Trump has a new cabinet made up of hardliners, most of whom are unlikely to be harboring positive sentiments about Erdogan.
Hawkish as they may be, though, Erdogan has left them facing some tough choices.
This is also why Washington’s YPG allies are worried today. Still smarting over how they were sold out in Afrin by Russia, they can’t be sure that the global interests of the United States will not kick in and ensure a similar sellout, regardless of all the sympathy the Kurds enjoy in the West.
Things aren’t going all that well for the YPG in Iraq either. Turkey says it will target the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – which the YPG and PYD are affiliates of – in the Iraqi town of Sinjar near the Turkish border.
This seems to have been taken seriously in Baghdad in the wake of Turkey’s success in Afrin. The Iraqi military is reportedly moving into Sinjar and forcing the PKK out in order to prevent a Turkish incursion.
Washington will also have to factor in the determination Ankara is displaying here too when it decides how it will come to terms with Turkey over Manbij. There is not much that Turkey can ultimately do, of course, if the U.S. decides to dig its heels in and support the YPG against Turkey.
But whether it can get the same strategic advantage from supporting the YPG that it still gets from having Turkey as an ally – despite current tensions – is a question that strategists in Washington are no doubt mulling over now.
It seems Erdogan’s Afrin gamble may have paid off for the moment. Whether he can continue to reap its benefits by maintaining his hard line against the U.S., though, is not clear. But for the moment he is the one riding high.