Choosing between Turkey and the Kurds

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Former Deputy Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken wrote in The New York Times on January 31 -- “To Defeat ISIS, Arm the Syrian Kurds.” His core argument is correct. The Trump administration should expand security cooperation with the Syrian Kurds. Blinken also proposes steps to placate Turkey. While diplomacy is even-handed, destroying ISIS requires hard choices. Parsimony and appeasement will undermine America’s effectiveness in the combating violent extremism.

Here is my response to Blinken’s recommendations.

Blinken: “First, Mr. Trump should make clear that he has no more urgent priority than defeating the Islamic State — and that Raqqa cannot wait. Pushing the pause button in the illusory search for an alternative liberation force more amenable to Turkey would delay any move on Raqqa for months.”

Blinken is right. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) are battle-hardened Syrian Kurds, who have shown their mettle fighting ISIS. The US has provided weapons and air support to the YPG, numbering 40,000 men and women under arms. US Special Forces are embedded within the YPG on the front-line. With US support, the YPG has advanced to within 15 kilometers of Raqqa.

Blinken: “Second, any support we provide the Syrian Democratic Forces should be mission-specific — just enough to do the job in Raqqa, not enough to risk spillover to the P.K.K. United States Special Operations forces will have to ensure the S.D.F. is using resources only for its intended purpose. We should insist that it commit to not use any weapons against Turkey, to cede liberated Raqqa to local forces, to respect Syria’s territorial integrity and to dissociate itself from the P.K.K.”

Syrian Kurds cannot defeat ISIS with one hand tied behind their back. They need heavy and offensive equipment to take Raqqa. If Turkey is concerned about US weapons falling into the wrong hands, the US can monitor supplies so weapons are not transferred to the PKK.

The US Government draws a legal distinction between the YPG and PKK. However, they are practically one in the same. In 2015, the US provided weapons to a combined force of Kurds from Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, defending Kobani. The battle for Raqqa is not the time for semantical differences. Asking Syrian Kurds to disassociate from the PKK is a topic for the boardroom not the battlefield.

The SDF is simply a fig leaf for the YPG; it includes a nominal Arab force. Referring to the SDF creates ambiguity, aimed at mollifying Turkey’s concerns about direct US military assistance to Syrian Kurds.

Blinken: “Third, keeping the S.D.F. focused on Raqqa keeps it away from the Turkish-Syrian border — and any effort by Syrian Kurds to join the area they control in a contiguous Kurdish region or state. Turkish troops entered Syria to prevent the emergence of such a state. President Trump should clearly reiterate our own opposition to such a development.”

Kurds in Afrin, Jazeera, and Kobani cantons have declared an entity along Syria’s border with Turkey called “Rojava.” The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the leading Syrian Kurdish party, can gain greater credibility by being more inclusive and tolerant. Despite shortcomings, the PYD’s founding principles are high-minded -- grass-roots democracy, decentralized administration, women’s empowerment, and environmental sustainability. The PYD endorsed a federal constitution for Syria with powers devolved to the regions. Decentralization is the best way to preserve Syria’s sovereignty and achieve sustainable peace.

Blinken: “Fourth, Turkey wants to take back the Islamic State-controlled town of Al Bab before the Syrian Kurds do. President Trump should back strong American air support for the Turkish operation there and reiterate our determination to help Turkey consolidate a broader buffer zone in northern Syria.”

Turkey invaded Jarablus and al-Bab without informing the United States. Now Turkey’s vaunted military is bogged down, taking significant casualties outside al-Bab. Turkey wants al-Bab as a launch point to attack Syrian Kurds in Mambij, and to prevent them from establishing a contiguous territory. The Pentagon was originally reluctant to help Turkey in al-Bab. At this stage, US air power should help Turkey in al-Bab if Turkey promises to keep its troops away from the YPG in Mambij.

Blinken: “Fifth, Mr. Trump should double down on support for Turkey’s fight against the P.K.K., including helping find the group’s leadership holed up in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains.”

The PKK announced a unilateral ceasefire with Turkey in 2015. After Erdogan’s poor performance in elections on June 7, 2016, he cynically restarted Turkey’s civil war to rally his nationalist base and gain more votes. Kurds paid a steep price. Whole cities like Cizre in Southeast Turkey were leveled; scores of civilians slaughtered. Surely, the US does not want to be an accomplice to Turkey’s war crimes.

Blinken: “Finally, the president must rethink last week’s executive order on immigration. At the very moment the Islamic State is on its heels, the order risks becoming a recruitment bonanza for jihadists while shutting America’s doors to the very people taking the fight to the Islamic State on the ground.”

Absolutely correct. The US needs local partners to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Trump’s refugee and immigration policy undermines our local partners. The executive action is illegal and unethical. By boosting ISIS recruitment, it makes the US less safe.

Trump asked the generals to provide a plan for destroying ISIS. Blinken’s advice is a retread of the Obama administration’s policies in Syria. US-Turkey relations steadily worsened under Obama.

It is trite to talk about Turkey as a cherished NATO member. Erdogan’s Turkey is Islamist, anti-democratic, and anti-American. At best, Turkey is an uncertain ally. If NATO was established today, Turkey would not qualify for membership. The US cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that Erdogan and his National Intelligence Agency supported jihadi groups and helped create ISIS.

The close and growing relationship between Erdogan and Putin underscores the problem with Turkey. Joining with Russia and Iran to the exclusion of the United States in Syria is not becoming of a NATO ally.

Blinken rightly recommends enhanced US support for Syrian Kurds. He also proposes measures to mollify Turkey. The US cannot have it both ways.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert to the State Department in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. His forthcoming book is titled – An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s Dictatorship.

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