Ties strained as Turkish president steps up tirade against US for backing Syrian Kurds

ISTANBUL–Just as events in Syria seem to be approaching a new climax and NATO has been drawn into the so far unsuccessful attempts to tackle the refugee crisis, Ankara has trained its sights on the country supposed to be its closest ally, the United States.

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan

For three nights running this week, President Erdoğan has hit out fiercely at continuing American ties with the Kurdish Syrian PYD (Democratic Union Party) insisting that the US label it a terrorist organization and cut links with it.

He is in effect asking for the US to do something which would undo the most effective wrong in the US-led international coalition against Islamic State (IS).

In the last year and a half, a combination of  US and other coalition jets working closely with the PYD’s armed militia on the ground, the YPG, has successively rolled back ever larger sections of territory from IS control.

YPG soldiers defended the beleaguered city of Kobane, lifted the siege on it and liberated other areas in a strip of northern Syria running along the Turkish Syrian border. They are currently on the west bank of the Euphrates, poised to drive IS out of a 98-km strip of land which happens to be the main conduit between Turkey and the Syrian rebels.

In addition to this, Turkey’s ability to intervene on the ground in Syria is also blocked by Russian and Syrian government airpower following the downing of a Russian jet on Turkey’s border on 24 November.

To all intents and purposes, it looks as if Turkey’s original aims in Syria of helping rebels overthrow the government of President Bashir Assad and replacing it by a Sunni regime dominated by the Muslim Brothers have finally failed, thwarted by the intervention of the Kurds and the Russians. Rebels’ hopes of taking Aleppo, the capital of northern Syria and the country’s largest city, are also fading.

Against this background, Erdoğan’s harshly-worded virtual ultimatum to the US looks clumsy and alarming, even apparently to some of his erstwhile colleagues inside the AKP, now retired, who have begun holding highly publicized meetings, while Erdoğan met former president Abdullah Gül for three hours in the new presidential palace on Tuesday.

No announcement was made afterwards about what the two men discussed but speculation about some sort of rebellion inside the AKP, even if only by its old guard, is growing.

The US seems to have decided that while it will not budge over the PYD, Turkey is too useful an ally to annoy unnecessarily.

On Wednesday evening, Mark Toner, State Department spokesperson, attempted to smooth tempers in Ankara declaring “Turkey’s a NATO ally, a strong partner within the anti-IS coalition and we appreciate their support.

“We coordinate closely with them across a variety of fronts and all lines of effort … we’re going to continue those discussions [on PYD] moving forward but I think no one should question our commitment to our alliance with Turkey.”

It is unlikely that Erdoğan can ever sit easily with a United States which is working closely with the PYD, an offshoot of the Turkish PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). Since last July, he has been waging all-out war against it, flattening parts of several large cities in southeastern Turkey in a ruthless crackdown which has cost hundreds of lives – many of them those of Turkish policemen and soldiers.

Here, as in Syria, Turkey’s abandoning of compromise does not seem to be repaid with success.

Despite the horrific cost to civilians in southeastern Turkey, the all-out force has not defeated the PKK or brought an end to violence. The daily flow of casualties continues.

Though the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democracy Party (HDP), the wing of the Kurdish movement which opposed violent tactics, seems to have been smashed, the hardline militants appear to be determined to go on striking at government targets.

Frustration at this situation perhaps explains Ankara’s current belligerent tone in its dialogue with the US.  It knows that it has strategic assets, such as its air bases which the US will not want to lose. It is also displeased at remarks by the US administration implicitly criticizing imprisonment of journalists and threats against opposition academics.

The underlying problem, as everyone is now well aware, diverges sharply from those of the US.

Erdoğan wants to fight Assad and the Kurds leaving IS somewhere in the background. The US sees the combat almost exclusively as a war against IS.  It looks like a partnership in which the two sides are both doomed to become steadily more unhappy.

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