Washington plans to create an army from outlawed YPG militants to win some influence in northern Syria. But that has antagonised Turkey and undermined Syria's territorial integrity.
The relationship between Turkey and the US sunk to a new low last week, as the US announced it would set up a Border Security Force in northern Syria by recruiting the members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
SDF is a conglomerate of several militias run by the YPG, an extension of the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organisation by the US, the EU and Turkey. Ever since its founding in 1984, the PKK has waged an armed campaign against the Turkish state, leading to at least 40,000 deaths, mostly civilians.
In response to the US' attempt to bring together anti-Turkish forces and coalesce them into an organised army, Turkey launched a military offensive named the Operation Olive Branch.
The first stage of the operation focuses on northern Syria's Afrin region, which borders Turkey's Mediterranean province of Hatay. The advance is likely to spread to neighbouring Manbij in the coming days and further along the Mediterranean border towns.
For Turkey, the US' plan to train the YPG militants to bolster the borders of northern Syria is a mistake. It not only puts Turkey's national security at risk, but also violates Syria's sovereignty.
“Americans want to divide Syria,” Cevat Ones, the former deputy director of Turkey’s national intelligence agency, told TRT World. "They are trying to develop a local political model in order to create a Kurdish status.”
Over the past few years, the YPG-run militias have either destroyed or evacuated dozens of Arab neighbourhoods in northern Syria, fomenting a demographic shift in the region.
Since September 2014, Washington has reportedly funded and armed the YPG-run SDF. The militant alliance controls almost one-fourth of the Syrian territory and most of the country’s energy sources which are located in northern Syria.
The US has long argued that its partnership with the YPG is precisely based on strengthening its fight against Daesh, but for regular Arabs in the region, the US has replaced one form of oppression with another. The scale of the atrocities are such that the Amnesty International described them as "war crimes."
Ones said the US' larger plan is to normalise the presence of the YPG-controlled militias in northern Syria and turn it into another autonomous yet heavily militarised governorate. "Their approach is similar to their Iraq policy in the 1990s [when an autonomous Kurdish region was carved out in northern Iraq]."
On many occasions, Turkey asked the US to stop arming the YPG-run militias and allow Ankara to take the lead in the anti-Daesh offensive. But the US turned a deaf ear to Turkey's concerns and continued arming the militants.
“We’re looking around: who would take our weapons? Who’s fighting? Who can we help to be our puppet, our client? It was the Kurds in northern Syria,” Edward J Erickson, a former US army officer, told TRT World.
A retired professor of military history at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, Erickson said an average American military general would rather want the US to work with Kurds than Turks.
"This is my personal opinion," said Erickson. “The problem is the United States military has been very close to the Kurds since 1991 when we established Operation Provide Comfort in southern Turkey for the Kurdish refugees."
In 2003, he said, the US again came close to two Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and his rival Massoud Barzani.
On the counsel of the US, Talabani and Barzani overcame their differences and came together in 2003 to form the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
Erickson said the US wanted to exert its influence in the Syrian war by totally relying on the YPG-led armed groups.
"To make us a player in Syria, our choice of partner was the Kurds – not because we wanted to encourage the PKK or Kurdish independence, but because we wanted to play in the playground of Syria. And now we’re stuck with them. Once we started we can’t stop, it’s a mess, a terrible decision.”
The growing clout of the YPG militants close to Turkish borders has strained US-Turkish relations to a large extent, worrying many experts about the prospects of the alliance. Some think that the US policy in Syria, especially its plans to arm YPG, can make the situation worse.
Nick Danforth, an American expert on Turkey at the Bipartisan Policy Center, cautioned the US against antagonising Turkey with its plans to build a border force comprising members of the outlawed YPG and PKK outfits.
In his recent article, Danforth said that using YPG militants as a pressure tactic to push Turkey to fall in line with the US foreign policy goals will not "reverse the negative trajectory of the relationship" between Washington and Ankara.
"It will ultimately produce diminishing returns,” Danforth wrote.
But statements from top US policy makers show no signs of going back. “We cannot repeat the mistake of 2011, where a premature departure from Iraq allowed Al Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually become ISIS [Daesh],” said Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, explaining why the US supports YPG-controlled forces in northeastern Syria, in a speech at Stanford University on January 17.
With Russia emerging as a decisive force in Syria, controlling most of its airspace and backing up the Assad regime to wrest back control of the lost territories, the US is desperate to form its own zone of influence at the cost of triggering ethnic tensions between Syrian Arabs and Kurds and also open up the possibility for the PKK to use the YPG militants against Turkey.
The US' new strategic goal is even disconcerting for Russia. "This is a very serious issue that raises concerns that a path toward the partition of Syria has been taken," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.
Over the past few years of the Syrian war, the YPG militants have completely taken over other Syrian provinces of Kobani and Jazira, naming them as "cantons," and bringing themselves closer to the east of the Euphrates River.
For the YPG designates, "cantons" are "autonomous" governing units, a stepping stone to realising their long-standing goal of establishing so-called "democratic confederalism," as envisioned by Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s ideological mentor, who has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999.
Experts believe that the YPG along with its political wing PYD are trying to consolidate power in northern Syria by joining Afrin with Jazira and Kobani. The end game, they argue, is to control most of the Syrian border with Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said that Turkey will not tolerate the existence of a "terror corridor" in northern Syria along the Turkish border. The Operation Olive Branch is the second cross-border operation Erdogan has approved after the Euphrates Shield, in August 2016, which succeeded in preventing the YPG/PKK militants from joining its Kobani and Jazira “cantons” with Afrin.
The US' overzealous reliance on anti-Turkish militants has compelled Ankara to explore new possibilities. Much to NATO's surprise, Turkey recently signed up a deal with Russia on S-400 missile systems.
The US' inconsiderate policymaking in Syria might even open a window of negotiation between Turkey and the Assad regime.
A Syrian regime source, as quoted in the regime’s official news agency SANA, has described the American plan as "blatant aggression on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria and flagrant violation of international law."
The regime also issued a warning describing “any Syrian who participates in these groups sponsored by the Americans as a traitor to their people and nation."
As the move to build an army of non-state actors undermines the Syrian integrity, it leaves the two opposing sides, Turkey and the Assad regime, with a common aim – that is, to prevent the fragmentation of Syria.
Additional reporting by Melis Alemdar