Slamming the US for planning to install military observatory posts in northern Syria, Turkey's defense minister said the move will create a countrywide impression that “American soldiers are somehow protecting YPG terrorists.”
Turkey has strongly voiced its concerns over recently announced US observatory posts in northern Syria, pointing out that the military instalment fuels negative perceptions about Washington in Turkey.
The move further increases Ankara's concerns regarding US support to the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, which has been regarded as a terrorist organisation by both Turkey and the US.
Last week the Pentagon said the planned military posts along the Turkish border was meant to ease Ankara’s concerns, not mentioning any policy shift regarding its support to the YPG.
“The instalment of observatory posts along the Syrian border by American soldiers will affect Turkey’s perception [of US intentions] in a very negative way, leading ... to a perception that ‘American soldiers are somehow protecting YPG terrorists, ensuring coverage [with these posts],’” said Hulusi Akar, the Turkish defense minister and the previous chief of the Turkish army.
Akar’s approach echoes across the country's political spectrum – from Turkish intelligence sources to American foreign policy observers.
For Cevat Ones, the former deputy director of Turkey's national intelligence agency, the observatory posts are a part of a US initiative “to prevent Turkey’s intervention and its possible military operations” in the YPG-controlled territories.
Turkey recently shelled YPG positions along its southeastern border after leading a successful operation against the group in Afrin earlier this year.
“The observation posts in northern Syria announced by Washington are an attempt to signal Turkey that the US strongly wishes Turkey to stop shelling YPG operatives and to avoid a cross-border incursion into that part of Syria,” said Matthew Bryza, a former top US diplomat and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
With observatory posts, Bryza told TRT World that Washington is trying to send a message across to Turkey that "if you continue such actions, you risk killing troops of your NATO Ally, the United States."
“What General Akar says makes sense. I understand why he says it,” said Bryza, referring to the concerns Akar voiced in the media.
Akar also said he directly shared his concerns with US Joints Chief of Staff General Joseph Dunford during his recent overseas trip to Canada.
The PKK launched a three-decade-long armed campaign against the Turkish state, costing tens of thousands of lives. Against Turkey’s persistent concerns, Washington continues to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a northern Syrian militia alliance led by the YPG, treating the group as an ally in its fight against Daesh.
A perplexing US policy against Turkey
“They are practicing a policy to stall off Turkey [in northern Syria]," Ones said.
Ones thinks US support to the YPG is “a strategic reinforcement” for Washington's “long-term designs” concerning a Kurdish-dominated autonomous region, which pretty much will be a mirror image of the Kurdish autonomous region it carved out in northern Iraq in the 1990s soon after the first Gulf War.
The YPG recruits most of its militants from the Kurdish-populated areas in northern Syria, which neighbours Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish-populated southeastern region. Soon after the Assad regime withdrew from northern Syria during the civil war, the YPG moved in, creating “cantons” or autonomous areas, in the region in 2012.
The rationale behind setting up the posts in the area, Pentagon Chief James Mattis said, was to warn Turkey about any threats coming from the Syrian regime. However, for Turkey, it is not the Syrian regime's military – which does not have a heavy presence in northern Syria – but the YPG with its aggressive posturing that poses a primary military threat.
Mattis also claimed that conduct of observatory posts “is closely collaborated” with Turkey. But his Turkish counterpart, Akar, a former top Turkish general, appears to have no knowledge about such cooperation.
“I am of the opinion that these measures will only complicate further an already complicated situation. We have told our American counterparts about our unease several times,” said Akar.
Mattis recently repeated the US government's controversial stance by denying any linkage between the two. “We do not say the YPG is the same as the PKK,” he said, while describing the US observatory posts as a positive step for Turkey in the same breath.
He even offered veiled criticism toward Turkish operations around Manbij and Afrin saying that the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces have lost many men fighting Daesh and yet it was getting "distracted by the instability up around Afrin and Manbij, so they were not staying fully focused.”
Though the US continues to have an ambiguous and increasingly disconcerting policy toward Turkey, Akar said Ankara “will not hesitate to take the necessary measures on the other side of its borders to face up to the risks and threats which could result.”
In much of northern Syria, different armed groups from the Turkey-backed FSA to the US-backed YPG are still fighting each other for regional dominance. Backed by both Russians and Iranians, the Assad regime has claimed much of Syria except its northern part.
In order to balance the increasing Russian and Iranian influence in Syria and across the Middle East, Ones said, Washington needs a proxy such as the YPG.
Even after the end of the Syrian conflict, if there is one, Washington would want to show its adversaries that it’s still part of the Middle East game, the former top intelligence official said.
“The US did not give up from its division plans in Syria. During the settlement negotiations, we will see what kind of status has been designed for east of the Euphrates River,” where the YPG has been dominant since 2012, said Ones.
“By supporting YPG and SDF, they want to create a regular army,” he said, adding that the US government would later deploy these forces to limit Iran’s influence in the region.
Since 2014, the US has given military training to thousands of YPG militants.
Though the prospects of the US-Turkey diplomacy once again look bleak, Bryza appears to be more optimistic about a possible Turkish-American reconciliation in northern Syria.
“Hopefully, Presidents Trump and Erdogan will have a substantive discussion of this issue at the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires,” Bryza said.
“On the US side, only President Trump can resolve this debate once and for all and get US-Turkey military cooperation back on track.”