The Cost of Misreading The Big Picture
Washington’s latest move aimed at trying to mollify Turkey over the question of the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) in Syria caught Ankara off guard.
The surprise statement by newly appointed U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Palmer in Ankara last week that they were putting a bounty on the leadership of the Kurdistan Worker Party (PKK) was initially welcomed by the Turkish government.
Palmer said the State Department has authorized rewards for information leading to the identification or location of Murat Karayilan (up to USD $5 million), Cemil Bayik (up to USD $4 million), and Duran Kalkan (up to USD $3 million).
It only took a few hours for Ankara’s satisfaction to dissipate, though, after Washington’s special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey told reporters by teleconference that they had no intention to sever ties with the YPG.
As an aside here, there was an added disappointment because this was made clear by Jeffrey, whose appointment to his current job was welcomed in Ankara where his time as the American Ambassador had been appreciated.
Turkey says the YPG is affiliated with the PKK, which the U.S. has also declared a terrorist organization, and wants Washington to stop supporting it in Syria, and to outlaw it, like it did the PKK.
Jeffrey made it abundantly clear that they never had any intention to declare the YPG a terrorist organization and would not do so now. He also acknowledge the links between the PKK and YPG but said that they would ensure this does not endanger Turkey’s security.
This was not the only disappointment for Ankara in recent days.
Last week the two countries announced the long awaited “joint patrols” in the northern Syrian city of Manbij, which Ankara also wants cleared of the YPG.
The first thing Turkish critics noted was that these were not the joint patrols Ankara expects according to the accord arrived at between the sides over three months ago. The agreed patrols were to take place inside Manbij, once the U.S. forced the YPG to retreat from there, and not on its outskirts.
U.S. military officials, in fact, made it clear all along that Turkish forces patrolling inside the city was never on the cards.
Adding insult to injury for Ankara, the U.S. also started joint patrols with the YPG along Syria’s border with Turkey. It did this concurrently with its joint patrols with Turkish forces outside of Manbij.
This move by Washington also followed the recent cross-border shelling by Turkey of YPG targets in northern Syria.
Ankara responded to all of this angrily, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin declaring that they were not going to accept, what he characterized as “Washington’s tactical moves.”
The decision regarding the bounty on the PKK leadership was not negotiated with Turkey. Washington is basically saying, “Take it or leave it, but this is the best I can do for you now, and I believe what I am offering is not bad.”
In return it clearly wants Ankara “to do its best,” and not only come to terms with the YPG, but also with the fact that the U.S. is not willing to ditch this group.
Ankara’s problem in Syria from the start has been the overinflated sense of its influence in the region, and its inability to read the situation on the ground properly; until it’s too late, that is.
Because of this it has not been able to come up with realistic policies that can bring results.
Failing to produce concrete results in line with its security interests, Ankara opted for bombastic and menacing language to try and force through what it wants to see in that country, especially with regard to the Kurds.
This, however, has also has brought few results that will count when the chips are really down in Syria as a political settlement for the country starts to shape up.
Signals from Ankara, which clearly suggested from the beginning that it would prefer a majoritarian Sunni government in that country which has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, also alienated Arab powers, and weakened Turkey’s hand even more.
Ankara also seriously underestimated Syria’s strategic importance on the global level, involving superpower rivalry, not to mention the clashing agendas of regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The bottom line, according to the current “big picture” is that the U.S. is in Syria to stay for the foreseeable future. It has made this a strategic priority because it is determined to contain Iran and provide for Israel’s security.
A historical reminder: The U.S. facilitated the capture by Turkey of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan 19 years ago, as he was leaving the Greek Embassy in Nairobi.
Washington, naively, expected at the time that this would help Turkey overcome its Kurdish problem by democratic means. That has not happened and Turkey is still facing the same problem today with no apparent end in sight.
Meanwhile the relationship with Washington had gone sour, leaving Ankara with few option other than relying on Russia in Syria against the U.S.
A proper reading of the big picture, however, is that this reliance on Russia may also prove to be off the mark once work on a new constitution for Syria gets underway in earnest.