U.S. Support of Syrian Kurds Has Not Hurt U.S.-Turkish Relations

Turkey, U.S. have continued to cooperate despite Turkish opposition to arming Syrian Kurds

Syrian Democratic Forces made up of an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, drive on the outskirts of an eastern entrance to the Al-Meshleb neighborhood of Raqq
Syrian Democratic Forces made up of alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters drive on outskirts of eastern entrance to Al-Meshleb neighborhood of Raqqa / Getty Images
• June 8, 2017 10:00 am


The U.S. arming of the Kurdish YPG fighters who are pushing to take Raqqa, Syria, has not damaged relations between Turkey and the United States, said experts at a Wednesday panel at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The experts discussed the consequences of the United States providing Syrian Kurds with weapons in the campaign against ISIS.

The unusual alliance between the YPG and Arab militias advancing on Raqqa with U.S. support is a big deal, said moderator John Hannah, FDD's senior counselor.

"It's an inflection point of sorts" for the region and U.S. policy, he said. He also dismissed concerns that U.S.-Turkish relations would be harmed over the supply of weapons as a "nothingburger."

David Pollock, Kaufman fellow at the Washington Institute and director of Project Fikra, said supplying the YPG was Syria-specific and had nothing to do with Kurdish interests in or with Turkey.

"This is one instance in which the United States can have it both ways," he said, of improving relations with both the Kurds and Turkey. Pollock said Turkey and the United States have continued to cooperate, pointing to the fact that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not cancel his visit to Washington, D.C., or confront President Trump over the decision. Turkey has also not interfered with U.S. operations at the Incirlik Air Base.

The Heritage Foundation's Luke Coffey said arming the YPG and other factions with U.S. weapons in Syria was dangerous.

"The reality is the moderates are either dead or they've left," Coffey said. He expressed concern for the YPG's Marxist ideology and links to the Kurdish domestic terrorist group in Turkey, the PKK. "If the cost of getting Raqqa to fall quickly is arming a group like the YPG, I don't think Raqqa falling quickly is frankly worth the cost," he said.

Coffey objected to the United States giving weapons it does not supply to its Eastern European allies to groups it can make no guarantees for in the aftermath of ISIS' defeat. He said the United States had no need to support sides in the Syrian civil war and should emphasize U.S. domestic security over intervention.

"What bothers me is this argument that we fight terrorism with terrorism," he said. "Maybe for once in American foreign policy we'll start thinking about the second- and third-order effects."

Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman said that the U.S. support of the YPG was due to Turkey's failures to resolve its own Kurdish problem and make peace with the PKK. She said Turkey was given two years to come up with an alternative to a U.S.-supported YPG doing the brunt of the fighting against ISIS, and "it failed to come up with an alternative." She said Turkey "has to sort of, excuse the expression, it has to suck it up."

Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the FDD and a former member of the Turkish parliament, said the other panelists "underestimate Turkey's capacity for flexibility" and that Turkey can and has coordinated with Kurdish groups. "Turkey can be as tactical as the U.S. when it comes to PYD and YPG," he said.

Erdemir described Erdogan's presidency as authoritarian and said the Turkish president's autocratic rule might help Turkey be flexible and pragmatic with regard to the Kurds, even the possibility of a Kurdish regional entity—though he also said that Erdogan may be allying himself to anti-Kurd Turkish nationalists. Of Raqqa, Erdemir said, "Turkey has its eye on the day after," and that on the day after Raqqa's fall, "it's a whole new game for Turkey."

Published under: ISIS, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Sryia, Turkey