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Michael Jansen: Resetting relations
May 15, 2017
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said his coming meeting with his US counterpart Donald Trump is set to repair ruptured relations between the two governments.

Strains began to appear in 2015 when the US provided air cover for Kurdish forces fighting Daesh for control of the small Kurdish town of Kobane (Ain Arab) on the Syrian-Turkish border. The four-month battle cemented the alliance between the US and the Syrian Democratic Forces formed under US auspices in October 2015. The largest component of this paramilitary force is Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the leftist Kurdish Democratic Union party. Turkey says it is an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) which was been battling Ankara for more than 30 years for autonomy and is regarded by Turkey and Western powers as a “terrorist” movement.

Washington and its Nato allies have expressed serious concern over the US-Turkish rift as it could weaken the eastern flank of the alliance but the US insists the Democratic Forces has no interest in destabilising Turkey and is the most effective militia operating in northern Syria. Nevertheless, Turkish armed forces have, on several occasions, bombed and shelled units of the Democratic Forces and the YPG. In response, the US has stepped in to halt Turkish military strikes and to reassure Ankara which refuses to be reassured.

While the Obama administration provided trainers, light weapons, vehicles, and other aid for the Democratic Forces, Trump is set to deliver heavier arms and equipment short of ground-to-air missiles, earning condemnation from Ankara.

Although Erdogan has spoken of a reset in relations with the US, Washington will not budge on the issue of its alliance with the Democratic Forces. The Turks have proffered their Syrian insurgent surrogates as replacements for the Democratic Forces, but the US has rightly refused.

In August 2016 Turkish-backed, fundamentalist units of the Free Syrian Army and Turkish-raised Turkomen forces were deployed in northern Syria. Ankara had two aims in launching an operation, dubbed “Euphrates Shield” to make a show of force against Daesh, seen by the West as the main enemy in Syria and Iraq, and push Democratic Forces fighters out of the town of Manbij, which they had seized from Daesh. Turkey demanded the Democratic Forces retreat to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. Ankara focused on the Daesh-held town of Jarablus which special units of the Turkish army, operating under the cover of Syrian insurgents, took from Daesh without a battle. Daesh fighters withdrew because they did not want to face the deeply hostile Democratic Forces.

Turkish troops were also deployed in an operation launched by Ankara’s surrogate insurgents on the Syrian border town of al-Rai and during the protracted campaign to capture Daesh the strategic town of al-Bab. In none of these operations did the Ankara fielded forces show themselves to be effective. Factions among the Syrian insurgents fought each other on occasion, refused to cooperate, and even crossed back into Turkey while Erdogan’s purges of army officers and men following the failed coup of mid-July 2016 have reduced manpower and weakened the Turkish armed forces.

Erdogan bitterly objects to being excluded from the Syrian conflict. He had hoped to achieve objectives other than containing the YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces. He is still demanding a role in the battle to oust Daesh from its capital of Raqqa for his surrogates, backed by regular Turkish army troops, tanks and aircraft. Participation in this campaign could deny the YPG and Democratic Forces a victory in Raqqa because they would not be able to fight alongside Turkish military and surrogate units. A role would give legitimacy to the illegal military Turkish incursion into Syria and allow Ankara to bask in the wide publicity which will be generated by the fall of Raqqa. Turkey would gain for its surrogates a place at the negotiations and, perhaps, influence in the appointment of a Syrian transitional government and the drafting of a new constitution.

Erdogan longs to be in a position to ensure that Syria’s new constitution will lift the ban on ethnic and religious parties and allow them to take part in politics. One of the chief reasons he turned against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was his refusal to end this ban so the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood could enter political life. The Brotherhood is of course the model for Erdogan’s own Justice and Development Party. Turkish pressure to empower the Brotherhood could, however, be resisted by anti-Brotherhood Arab powers involved in the proxy wars in Syria. Erdogan would also like to empower Syria’s Turkomen, who have generally responded positively to Ankara’s call to take up arms against Damascus.

The YPG and Democratic Forces have legitimacy as their fighters are Syrians. There are Kurdish villages located near Raqqa and Arab components of the Democratic Forces are also tribesmen from the vicinity. The Democratic Forces and YPG may have their origins in the PKK but they have long established independence from this movement. Furthermore, the YPG and Democratic Forces have largely coexisted with Syrian Army units based in the north and have, on occasion, cooperated. The town of Manbij, has a military council composed of Kurdish officers from the Democratic Forces, but the municipal council is made up of local civilians, some of whom have served in the Syrian civil service. The YPG and Democratic Forces are fighting for a secular, democratic Syria, the model the international community says it seeks to install in the country. This gives them legitimacy Erdogan’s plans do not enjoy.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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