Just two days after announcing it would begin direct arms transfers to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighting in Syria, in talks in London the Trump administration today told Turkish officials it would support them in their fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The move to arm YPG fighters had Ankara apoplectic, as Turkey considers the group to be affiliated with the PKK, a left wing political party in Turkey that has fought intermittently with the Turkish government since the 1990s.
While the groups are distinct, there are significant ties between them, and some Kurds don’t see much of a separation at all. “It’s all PKK but different branches,” Kurdish fighter Zind Ruken told the Wall Street Journal in an interview. “Sometimes I’m a PKK, sometimes I’m a PJAK [a PKK-allied group active in Iran], sometimes I’m a YPG. It doesn’t really matter. They are all members of the PKK.”
The YPG is one of the dominant factions within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella organization comprised of various Arab, Kurdish, Assyrian, Armenian, and other ethnic militia groups. The SDF is the primary proxy force of the United States in its operations against ISIS in Syria.
The meeting in London marks the highest level discussion between Turkey and the United States since Tuesday, when Washington announced plans to support the YPG militia in its attempt to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State. Secretary of Defense James Mattis described a half-hour discussion with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim as “honest, transparent and helpful.”
Mattis’ reassurances to the Turks regarding its fight with the PKK underscore the nature of American foreign policy, which often backs both sides of the same conflict.
Earlier in the Syrian war, clashes between Pentagon- and CIA-backed rebel groups were reported, and for some time the Obama administration embraced a back-and-forth policy of supporting the Syrian regime against ISIS, then the rebels against the regime, and so on.
At the same time, American politicians wax apocalyptic about the rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East and the dire threat it represents, while at the same time fight alongside Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria in the effort against the Islamic State.
Turkish officials have said the plan to arm YPG fighters is tantamount to siding with terrorists, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed hopes that the U.S. will reverse the decision. The fear is that the YPG, whom the Turks have been attacking on and off for about one year, will use its American weaponry against the Turkish regime.
The Trump administration, however, insists that the YPG is integral to the effort to expel ISIS from its capital in Raqqa, an objective the United States has pursued with ground operations since early March. YPG spokesman Redur Xelil told Reuters that the militia would achieve “Positive, big and fast results” in that endeavor.
Mattis said that the United States wouldn’t arm the PKK. “We do not ever give weapons to the PKK. We never have and never will,” he said.
It remains to be seen how Turkish-American relations will develop as the Syrian conflict drags on, but as long as the U.S. supports armed Kurdish groups, tensions between the two countries appear set to continue.
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