Photos emerged earlier this week of US special forces in northern Syria wearing Syrian Kurdish military group, the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) patches on their uniforms, causing international controversy and Turkish outrage.
The Turkish President Erdoğan swiftly damned Washington’s politics as dishonest, with the whole incident triggering a hasty clarification from the US military on its intentions in Syria. The YPG, the military arm of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), is blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Ankara but continues to prove instrumental in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria.
In a statement from a US Department of Defense, spokesman Army Colonel Steve Warren clarified that the USA’s goal in Syria is to “provide advice and assistance to the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF], particularly the Syrian-Arab component of that force.”
The SDF is mostly made up of Syrian Kurds and includes the YPG. Turkey argues that the PYD is an offshoot of the banned Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The USA, however, maintains that the PYD (and thus the YPG) and PKK are distinct groups.
The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Washington, however the PYD is not recognized as one. The US and Turkey have repeatedly butted heads over Washington’s perceived support for the PYD.
Enmeshed in a decades-long conflict with its domestic Kurdish population, Turkey is threatened by the growing strength of Kurdish movements across the border in Syria.
Its own involvement in the conflict in Syria has been increasingly driven by an unwillingness to aid Kurdish groups like the YPG and the YPJ, who have arguably driven the fight against IS since they took back Kobane in 2015, and as they lead the current offensive on Raqqa, IS’ de facto capital in Syria.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said in a statement that the badges, a visual sign of support of the YPG, were “hypocrisy”. The Pentagon responded by ordering the “unauthorised” patches be removed.
A similar incident occurred with Canadian forces in Iraq in the last month, highlighting the growing tensions in foreign involvement in the fight against IS.
With Canada as with the USA, support for Kurdish forces could be seen as a threat to both Syria and Iraq’s territorial integrity. On the other hand, this support for Kurdish forces has proven essential in the fight against IS.
Despite the fact that it shares a border with Syria and neighbours a region embroiled in conflict with the extremist group, Turkey has been reluctant to take up the fight against IS, only joining the international coalition against IS in August 2015.
Joining the coalition did little to simplify Turkey’s commitment to the fight against IS, however; while the terms were being negotiated, they undertook an intensive attack on Kurdish militants in northern Iraq.
Allied with the US through both through Nato and the international coalition against IS, Turkey’s continued conflict with Kurdish forces within its own borders, as well as in Syria and in Iraq, clearly complicates the coalition’s mission and the US’s support of Kurdish forces.
Turkey’s instrumental geopolitical position affords Turkey a degree of immunity from international scrutiny. The recent deal Turkey made with the EU to absorb Syrian refugees attempting to enter Europe has given Ankara another level of protection.
Rights groups and the opposition parties in Turkey have been extremely critical of the US and Europe’s stance given President Erdoğan’s continued work to undermine democracy and centralise power in his own office.
Despite growing tensions with Ankara, Washington has stated that it will continue to support the YPG and the YPJ in their fight against IS. However, it will also support Turkey’s work against the PKK.
The US has a difficult balancing act ahead of them as it attempts to appease Turkey following this latest in a series of diplomatic spats, whilst simultaneously supporting Kurdish forces as the launch a major offensive against IS.