Michael Young

Cold Turkey

Washington’s relationship with Ankara is bad and getting worse


When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently returned from a trip to Latin America and Africa, only days after an American official, Brett McGurk, had visited the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Kobane, he had something to tell journalists accompanying him on the airplane.


“[McGurk] visits Kobane at the time of the Geneva talks and is awarded a plaque by a so-called YPG [the PYD’s military wing] general?” Erdogan asked reporters. “How can we trust [America]? Is it me who is your partner or the terrorists in Kobane?”


Erdogan went on to question the Americans: “Do you accept the PKK as a terrorist organization? Then why don't you list the PYD and the YPG as terrorist organizations, too?” The president had a point. The PYD and YPG are, essentially, the Syrian extensions of the PKK and PKK members have been fighting in the ranks of the YPG.


There are few more polarizing figures in the region today than Erdogan. The Turkish president has been responsible for creeping authoritarianism at home, has overturned the longstanding middle-ground role Turkey once played in the Middle East, and has pursued disturbingly ambiguous behavior with regard to ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, allowing thousands of combatants to join their ranks through its borders, even if this may have changed somewhat.


To put Erdogan in an even more unfavorable light, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing Aleppo have shown up on the Turkish border recently, and Turkey has refused to allow them in, despite appeals from the UN. While this makes Erdogan appear heartless, the reality is that Turkey is already hosting 2.5 million refugees. The humanitarian crisis is almost certainly being exacerbated by Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s regime to put pressure on Turkey to end its support for the Syrian opposition. 


Yet it’s on the Kurdish issue that Erdogan’s position has been most misunderstood in the West. While the emergence of a Kurdish entity in northern Syria may seem like a good idea at a time when the alternative seems to be jihadist-controlled areas, the Turks view things in a very different light. For a neo-Ottomanist like Erdogan, and indeed for many Turks, a Kurdish mini-state in northern Syria with close ties to the PKK in Turkey is the first step in the breakup of the unitarian Turkish state.


One can doubtless fault Erdogan’s approach to the Kurdish problem. This is true not least because of the widespread suspicion that the president resumed Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds in the belief that it would help win him a majority in parliament after his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its absolute majority in elections last June. Elections were again held in November when the Turkish prime minister was unable to form a government, and AKP regained its majority.


However, Erdogan’s frustration with Washington is understandable. The Obama administration has subordinated everything in the region to the fight against ISIS, ignoring the myriad other dimensions of the Syrian war. Washington also considers the PKK a terrorist organization, so the Turkish president was right to be surprised by McGurk’s visit to Kobane.


At the same time, Erdogan has some explaining to do himself. Turkey’s support for Jabhat al-Nusra, an open secret, and its shady ties with ISIS, coming on the heels of Erdogan’s domestic campaign against Turkish secular institutions, have inspired no more confidence than Barack Obama’s actions. 


What is most disturbing is that the Turks and the Americans have agreed to disagree in Syria, leaving their profound problems unresolved. Both are pursuing starkly contrasting policies while doing nothing to effect a rapprochement. At best this approach is reckless, only delaying a more serious clash.


For the Americans the fight against ISIS takes precedence, so that they need an effective Kurdish partner in northern Syria. The YPG has been particularly effective, rolling back ISIS in large areas. This winning strategy is not one Obama is willing to abandon, and this can be seen indirectly in the fact that the United States has moved closer to the Russians in Syria, while reversing its attitude with regard to Assad’s future.


Erdogan, in turn, will not readily accept the prospect of a double setback: the defeat of his allies in the Syrian opposition, including Syrian Turkmen, by Assad and the Russians; and the emergence of a Kurdish entity following close collaboration between the Kurds and the United States against ISIS. Such an outcome would be devastating not only in terms of what it could mean for Turkey’s territorial integrity, it would also cast serious doubt on the wisdom of Erdogan’s regional choices.


There is no easy solution to this dilemma. However, when Erdogan issues a public statement in the way he did to traveling journalists, it is very clear that he is not talking, or talking enough, to the Americans themselves. And it is incomprehensible at such a crucial stage in Syria that Washington and Ankara are not discussing their dispute, over vital national issues, with the aim of bridging their differences.


Talking is not a solution on its own. But not talking is most definitely a sign of crisis, and when two allies are in crisis then it’s up to their leaders to search for a way out. However, as no compromise seems possible for either side today, the likelihood is that the ambiguity in the US-Turkish relationship--with the US backing the Kurds in Syria, and the Turks continuing to combat them with all means possible--will continue.


The beneficiaries will be Assad and the Russians. And you have to really wonder, if the recent past is any indication, whether Obama would lose much sleep if that were the case. The present administration has systematically neglected its regional allies, showing irresponsibility of the highest order. 


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling.




Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during the monthly Mukhtars meeting (local administrators) at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on February 10, 2016. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on February 10 accused the United States of creating a "pool of blood" in the region by failing to recognise the main Syrian Kurdish organisations as terror groups. (AFP/ Adem Altan)

Do you accept the PKK as a terrorist organization? Then why don't you list the PYD and the YPG as terrorist organizations, too?”

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Less than a hundred years ago, cards were being shuffled in the region, and the outcome was a patchwork of deserving states, not-so-deserving other states, and peoples who deserved states but were sold in the bazaar. Most notably prejudiced were the Kurds whose continuous territory, separate ethnicity, and unique language - all of which are strong hallmarks of a nation-state. In fact, more so than say, Lebanon, or the so-called "Jewish homeland", and even Syria and Iraq with their forced arabization of a myriad of non-Arabs into their midst under the "Arabist" ideology espoused by the Baath Party. The Kurdish push for autonomy in both Syria and Iraq is long overdue, to be followed in the future by a merger with the Kurdish territories annexed by Turkey and those still under Iranian domination. Looking at the swath of territory that encircles the western and northern fringes of the Arabian peninsula, one can see the shaping up of a Sunni Arab-free geographic arc going from the Jewish state in Palestine, into a Christian-Shiite state in Lebanon and a Alawi-Shiite state on the Syrian coast, and a Kurdish state stretching eastward across the north into Iraqi Kurdistan. Finally, a political map that reflects, with some artificial exceptions, the geographic and historic maps, and not some fantasy Arabist ideology based on the tenuous criterion of a dead language forcibly kept alive on life support by decaying religious reasons. Bye bye Baath. Bye bye Syria. Bid farewell to the "pulsating heart of Arabism."

    February 12, 2016