10 Mai 2017
The Turkish government has criticised a US decision to directly arm Kurdish militants in Syria as a “threat to Turkey” – the first diplomatic scuffle between the two Nato powers since President Donald Trump took office.
But the muted response to the American deal, which is likely to be seen in Turkeyas a betrayal of a key regional ally, highlighted the efforts to avoid raising tensions with Trump’s administration ahead of his face-to-face meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, later this month.
US officials said on Tuesday that Trump approved a deal to directly supply arms to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that Turkey has long argued is a terrorist organisation affiliated with its own homegrown Kurdish insurgent group, the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK).
“Both the PKK and the YPG are terrorist organisations and they are no different, apart from their names,” said the foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, in comments broadcast live by Turkish TV. “Every weapon seized by them is a threat to Turkey.”
Turkey views the YPG’s expansionism and its plans for an autonomous zone in northern Syria with suspicion, and considers such an entity a major national security threat.
Ankara had long urged the Obama administration to break with the YPG, arguing that they had carried out forced displacement of ethnic Arabs in the quest to forge a Kurdish canton on the border.
Eliminating these concerns was a key objective for Ankara when it intervened militarily in the war in Syria last summer, sending tanks and special forces across the border alongside Turkish-backed Syrian rebels. They ousted Islamic State militants from several strongholds near the border, but also blocked Kurdish attempts to join their two cantons in northern Syria.
Obama and now Trump regard the YPG and its umbrella force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as the most reliable ground force in the battle against Isis. The SDF has cleared large swaths of territory from Islamic State, particularly around its de facto capital of Raqqa.
With direct arms supplies from the US they may soon be poised to take on the self-proclaimed caliphate’s main urban centre, a proposition that Turkey has vehemently opposed, saying the operation should be led by Arab ground forces.
The YPG welcomed the American decision, describing it as “late” but “historic”. “This correct decision to arm our units exposes the falsehoods levelled against our forces,” Rêdûr Xelîl, the spokesman for the YPG, said in a statement. “From now on, and after this historic arming decision, our units will play a greater and more effective role in combating terrorism.”
But while Turkish officials condemned the YPG as a threat, the public response has been muted compared with past statements when the issue of arming the Kurdish militia was publicly debated.
The mild response appeared calculated to avoid raising tensions with the Trump administration ahead of a meeting this month between the American and Turkish presidents. Erdoğan had openly expressed admiration for Trump and sought to reboot the rocky relationship that characterised the Obama years over the latter’s refusal to forcefully push for the removal of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his backing of the Kurdish militias, whose campaigns against Isis were supported by American airstrikes.