US President Donald Trump’s decision to directly arm the People’s Protection Units (YPG) has cast a shadow on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Washington on May 16. Senior Turkish delegates who met Pentagon, State Department and White House officials last week were notified about Trump’s decision to arm the PKK’s Syrian affiliate.
They tried their best to prevent the Trump administration’s announcement from happening prior to Erdoğan’s visit. Turkish officials were afraid that if the decision was announced, the first direct contact between Erdoğan and Trump could be moody and problematic. Well, the announcement was made.
National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and others did not want to listen to the Turkish objections since the Pentagon told the administration that they could not wait any longer to alleviate Turkish concerns. I suspect they never intended to listen to the Turks, anyway.
Another concern for American officials was that Erdoğan, who is known for his negotiating skills, might have convinced Trump to change the U.S.’s plans in Syria. And sources tell me that Erdoğan has already figured out how to approach Trump; simply put, he knows how to dance with him.
So what will happen next? American officials, of course, didn’t break the bad news to the Turks without empty hands. They came up with some ideas to guarantee Turkey that the U.S.’s decision to arm a foreign terror organization was a short-term partnership against the immediate greater threat, Daesh.
What were those guarantees? As far as I understand, Americans offered three things to calm the Turks down.
The first is to increase military and civilian intelligence on PKK operations in northern Syria. The Wall Street Journal has already reported some details: The Pentagon will double the capacity of the Intelligence Fusion Center in Ankara, which is jointly run by Turkish and American officers, adding more U.S. intelligence assets, such as drones and other capabilities. It should be also noted that the U.S. stopped providing reconnaissance Intel on PKK activities in fall 2014, rerouting its assets to track Daesh movements rather than the PKK. Both countries are still negotiating the details of this new step.
Second, Americans promised Turks that after the operation, Raqqa would be governed by locals and Arabs, rather than PKK intermediaries. Turks took this with a grain of salt. Previously, President Barack Obama had personally promised Ankara that once Daesh crashed, the PKK would be out of Manbij, but he couldn’t deliver.
This is why the Turkish government will demand that this time American officials provide a written agreement on their promises concerning Raqqa, that the PKK completely would be out of the city, and that local Arabs control the city. The composition of the newly established Raqqa civilian council, on the other hand, indicates that Americans are still not serious about this promise.
Lastly, Americans concur that the PKK should not be in Sinjar. Other than Turks mistakenly killing some Peshmerga forces in Sinjar, Americans have no objection over Turkish demands in Sinjar, and they are likely to secretly approve a Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan operation to kick PKK forces out of the town.
Turkish officials specifically conveyed to their American counterparts at the highest levels almost in every meeting that Turkey would continue to hit the YPG whenever Ankara feels necessary or feels threatened. A senior Turkish official would not confirm, but many other sources suggested that Turkey sees the area at a 30-kilometer distance across the border in Syria as a red line for YPG movement.
The latest Turkish airstrikes targeting YPG positions in northern Syria was a bold statement to the Americans that Turkey can and will hit the YPG whenever it wants, and Washington can’t do much to stop them.
Turkey experts unanimously say that the Turkey’s response to Trump’s YPG decision was tame. This stems from the fact that Erdoğan wants to keep it rather quiet until he personally meets Trump. Then we will see what Turkey’s reaction really is.
My theory is that Turks somehow expected this would happen and are now looking for ways to secure American promises for the post-Daesh era in Syria. Who knows, maybe the PKK terrorists getting killed in the Raqqa operations in bulk will be good riddance for Turkey?