The US alliance with the Syrian wing of the PKK terrorist organization in Syria will haunt it long after Daesh is ousted from Raqqa.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a former four-star general with well over a decade of experience operating in the volatile operational landscape of the Middle East, met with Turkey’s leadership on Wednesday as part of his regional tour.  

At the top of the agenda was the ever present thorny subject of Turkey’s ongoing fight against PKK militants and the US support for the Syrian wing of the PKK, the PYD — nominally part of the ‘rebranded’ Syrian Democratic Forces organization that are fighting side by side with US special forces operators and marines.

Tensions have been simmering as US officials have made multiple and highly visible visits in Syria to meet with senior members of the PYD leadership as part of the ongoing effort to battle Daesh in Raqqa. Further complicating matters have been indications that the PYD has received advanced heavy weaponry such as the TOW anti-tank guided missile system.

Turkish backed Syrian rebels who are also fighting Daesh as part of the Euphrates Shield operation have claimed that the PYD deployed the US built TOW missiles against them in recent clashes. The US Special Envoy to the anti-Daesh Coalition Brett McGurk has called upon all sides to focus on a common effort to combat and defeat Daesh. Nonetheless, the PYD’s broader strategic objectives and political ideology remain singularly determined to carve out an autonomous state in Northern Syria and to consolidate as much as possible a contiguous territory to advance their overarching goal of independence.

And despite repeated assurances by the US that the PYD has become a wholly separate entity from the PKK, PYD fighters themselves told a Western reporter this week that such a division between the two groups was a “fantasy.” 

Moreover, Osman Ocalan, the younger brother of Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the PKK admitted to being behind the creation of the PYD. A recent report analysing PKK activities in Syria, found that all top level leaders are from the Qandil mountains, a safe haven for the PKK in Iraq. The second layer is 80% PKK trained with the leader being a PKK veteran.   

So, the question remains, did the discussion behind closed doors between Secretary Mattis and President Erdogan truly lead to a breakthrough in smoothing out this major point of contention between Ankara and Washington?

According to former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan and Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Matthew Bryza, “Secretary Mattis’ visit to Ankara seems to have been successful in terms of reducing politico-military tension between the US and Turkey, restoring mutual trust, and identifying significant and practical areas of cooperation in fighting terrorism."

These confidence building measures focusing on defeating ISIS and the PKK has had the aim of allying some Turkish fears of post war governance  in Raqqa and Tal Afar respectively. 

Matthew Bryza further outlined some of the deep lingering differences between Ankara and Washington. The US alliance with the PKK-affiliated YPG in Syria continues to remain a significant source of tension and potentially hugely destabilising to any post-ISIS stabilisation. Turkey has made it clear that the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq is a principal requirement for the regional security architecture. 

Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst and Research Fellow with the Henry Jackson Society, had this to say, “Mattis' pledge to help against the PKK is obviously a political move designed to mitigate Turkey's fury in the U.S. supporting the PKK in Syria. It is possible it will lead to some additional intelligence sharing, perhaps even U.S. assistance in the elimination of some PKK leaders." 

He went on to say that the Syrian policy "is a fundamentally incoherent, and ultimately ineffective, policy. The PKK is accruing political legitimacy from the U.S. policy in Syria that is far more important to the PKK's long-term vitality than any losses to its leadership.”

One step that US military and intelligence can take is to significantly upgrade targeting and intelligence sharing with their Turkish counterparts. In 2014, fusion intelligence cell that the US once ran in conjunction with the Turkish military stopped sharing special reconnaissance intelligence gathered on the PKK. The US chose to prioritize intelligence surveillance and intelligence collecting platforms in the fight against Daesh. This offered PKK cells significant breathing room, as the intelligence collection had once allowed for extremely lethal and accurate targeting of hard to reach PKK bases and its senior leadership.

A synchronized renewed offensive to target key nodes in the PKK’s leadership both in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria would significantly cripple the operational capabilities of this terror group.

US military planners have proven reluctant to invest the time and resources needed at this time for such a campaign — barring a direct order by President Trump to do so. 

The rapport between Mattis and his Turkish counterpart Minister of Defense Canikli are reported to be warm and productive, and there is no question that Mattis himself is dedicated to improving US-Turkish military cooperation on a number of fronts.

Nonetheless, if public reassurances of joint security interests and declarations of partnership are not met with real tangible action and effective investment of military hardware, then one can only conclude that these high-level meetings have been an exercise in futility.

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