Erdogan Denounces U.S. Position on the PYD
February 10, 2016
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s exceptionally harsh comments directed at the United States on February 10 for its links with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) have brought to the surface simmering tensions in the relationship because of the Syrian crisis.
The immediate source of Erdogan’s ire was the formal acknowledgement by State Department spokesman John Kirby on February 8 of Washington’s association with the PYD in the fight against ISIS while responding to questions about the visit of Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk to the PYD-controlled part of Syria immediately beyond the Turkish border on January 30. Having long viewed the PYD as the extension in Syria of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which it has been fighting on and off for over three decades, as well as an ally of the Assad regime, Ankara had reacted angrily to the McGurk visit which included a meeting with a PYD commander who had previously been identified as a fighter in the ranks of the PKK. The criticism was amplified with accusations that U.S. arms provided to the PYD were being transferred to PKK elements in Turkey.
However, the broader reason for Erdogan’s outburst was the growing divergence between the two allies on Syria. After having agreed at the outset of the Syrian crisis on the goal of ousting Assad and cooperated in helping his opponents, Washington gradually moved to its current position of focusing only on the Jihadist threat in Syria, in particular ISIS. For its part, Ankara chose to remain constant to its policy of stressing the priority of regime change while maintaining support for the opposition, despite all the associated costs including that of hosting over 2 million Syrian refugees.
After the entry of Russia into the Syrian fray on September 30, which changed the military balance decisively in Assad’s favor, Erdogan had the opportunity to make his case directly for an adjustment of U.S. policy in meetings with President Barack Obama at the G20 Summit in Antalya on October 15 and at the U.N. Climate Change Summit in Paris on December 1, as well as with Vice President Joe Biden in Istanbul on January 23. However, much to his chagrin, in addition to differentiating between the PKK– which Washington, like Ankara, regards as a terrorist organization–and the PYD, the United States also stuck to its policy of emphasizing the importance of the diplomatic track it had established with Russia exemplified by the recent abortive peace conference in Geneva, even as Assad’s army and its allies proceeded to cut the main supply route from Turkey to the opposition groups, surrounded Aleppo and effectively forced tens of thousands more refugees to the Turkish border.
Erdogan’s comments, coupled with the summoning of the U.S. Ambassador in Ankara to the foreign ministry for a formal complaint relating to Kirby’s comments, underline the seriousness of the current dispute. While the two governments will surely endeavor as in past disagreements to smooth over the problem for the sake of the long-term relationship, it nevertheless seems likely that the consolidation of Assad’s position along with the strengthening of U.S. cooperation with the PYD is likely to cause additional strains before Erdogan’s visit to Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit on March 30.
Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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