Why the West ignored Turkey’s PKK threat in Syria, explained

  • 23 Oct 2019

TRT World spoke to reputed academic and civil rights activist Sami al Arian who explained what caused the US and much of Europe to show indifference to Ankara's security concerns emanating from northern Syria.

A convoy of Turkish military vehicles is seen in the town of Tal Abyad, Syria October 23, 2019. ( Khalil Ashawi / Reuters )

Turkey faced criticism from much of the Western world for launching a cross-border military operation in northern Syria in the second week of October. The Western media was quick to jump the gun and in most cases fed on propaganda circulated by the YPG, a Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which is considered to be a terror group by the US, Turkey and the EU. 

As a result, many influential politicians and lawmakers in Washington spoke harshly of Turkey, obfuscating Ankara's security concerns. 

Except for US President Donald Trump and a few other American lawmakers, much of the American political establishment, as well as several other powers in Europe, either ignored Ankara’s worries or knowingly turned a blind eye to them. 

Criticising the inconsiderate attitude of Western powers toward the question of Turkey's security concerns, Sami al Arian, a prominent Palestinian civil rights activist, said that Turkey’s concerns are real in the face of the YPG’s growing presence in northern Syria. 

Arian, an American-Palestinian professor, who is the director of the Center for Islam and Global Affairs at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, believes that the root cause of Washington’s toxic criticism toward Turkey is Ankara’s independent decision making and growing clout in the region. 

Since the end of WWII, Arian said, the US has created an “empire” across the world, which it wants to protect at all costs.

“Part of strategic imperatives to do this is whenever they see an emerging power and whenever they see a country that wants to be independent, being able and willing to defy the US dictates and US strategic imperatives, is to create - what they call - a balancing power,” Arian said. 

“Balancing is misnomer. By that, they mean to create another power that can check this power, so this power will not object to US objectives,” Arian told TRT World. 

Sami al Arian, an American-Palestinian academic, speaks to TRT World in the premises of TRT World Forum: Globalisation in Retreat: Risks and Opportunities in Istanbul on October 21, 2019.(TRTWorld)

Arian said that the YPG/PKK was meant to be a puppet state to be used against Turkey so the US could force its decisions across the region without any stumbling blocks. 

Most of Turkey’s neighbours, Bulgaria, Greece, Armenia, Georgia, Cyprus, Iraq and Syria, are weak countries. They aren't effective enough to be pitted against Ankara, according to Arian. 

While Iran, another neighbour to Turkey, is a powerful state, one with which Western powers do not have good relations, meaning they cannot dictate to Tehran on how to counter Ankara’s political agenda, Arian said. 

“Iran has its own strategic relationship with Turkey [though] sometimes it’s tense and sometimes they are cooperating. That’s not a real option.” 

For the Pentagon and other powers, who are planning these balancing acts against Turkey, the only way to keep Ankara’s emerging power under control is to create a power which can check it. 

“The easiest and most direct thing is to arm and train Kurds [against Turkey],” Arian said. 

Turkey has a significant Kurdish population, corresponding to 15 to 20 percent, according to differing estimates.

Arian thinks that the US wants to use “some elements within the Kurdish community championed by the PKK, which wants to separate from and destabilise Turkey” to force Ankara to accept American demands. 

The YPG heads a convoy of US military vehicles in the town of Darbasiya, next to the Turkish border, in Syria, April 28, 2017.(TRTWorld)

PKK’s three-decade terror campaign against the Turkish state has led to tens of thousands of deaths, damaging private and public properties across the country. 

Since 2015, Washington has used the YPG, the PKK’s Syria extension, for various purposes. 

First, the group was used by the US to extend its own presence and influence in northern Syria, where the group was able to claim one-third of the country, controlling the nation’s biggest oil facilities and dams. 

Despite US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal announcement from Syria, following a crucial phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on October 6, he has recently pointed out the country’s interest in Syria through the YPG. 

“We have secured the Oil,” Trump, who is also a rich businessman, wrote on Twitter. 

“We’ll work something out with the Kurds so that they have some money, so that they have some cash flow. Maybe we’ll get one of our big oil companies to go in and do it properly,” Trump said, signifying that the US will not withdraw from Syria completely. 

The second purpose Washington had for the YGP was to fight Daesh. After the defeat of the terror group in Syria and Iraq, the US assigned the YPG to guard Daesh prisoners across northern Syria. 

“But the real reason for arming and training [the YPG] was not Daesh. The real reason is to establish a power that can actually check Turkey and destabilise it in the future if need be,” Arian said as he pounded the table with his fist. 

“That was so important to the Americans that they were totally willing to ignore the NATO alliance with Turkey and all other considerations.” 

Arian thinks that former Pentagon chief Jim Mattis’s resignation last year after Trump’s withdrawal announcement from Syria “for his own reasons,' is a clear indication of the US commitment to the YPG. 

“Because this was so fundamental to American thinking,” the professor said. 

In order to support his argument, he also exemplified the case of Mitch McConnell, a Republican Trump ally, and Senate majority leader, who recently wrote a piece in the Washington Post to defend the US alliance with the YPG, criticising the withdrawal. 

“He says this is beyond ISIS [Daesh]. What Trump did was to jeopardise America’s strategic interests. What is America’s strategic interest in this area?” 

The only strategic interest the US has is to make sure that it will be the dominant power, controlling other regional powers like Turkey with great potential, Arian said. 

“If Turkey becomes the dominant power, that would be at the expense of another dominant power [US]. That’s why everyone in the US is up in arms,” the professor concluded.