Trump Decides to Arm the Syrian Kurds Over Erdogan’s Objections
May 9, 2017
The Defense Department announced on May 9, that President Donald Trump had decided “to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces” which it said “with enabling support from U.S. and coalition forces, are the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.”
The decision is a major blow to Turkey and will have an impact on U.S.-Turkish relations just before President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to have his first meeting with President Trump at the White House on May 16. Having long warned publicly that providing arms to the Syrian Kurdish YPG, which constitutes the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces, would damage the relationship, Erdogan was expected to use the opportunity to make a last-ditch effort to persuade the Trump Administration.
Although the statement made a point of noting that the United States was “keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey,” and “committed to preventing additional security risks and protecting our NATO ally,” this is unlikely to mollify Ankara’s anger. In addition to being made just days before Erdogan’s visit to the White House, the decision was announced while a high-level Turkish delegation comprising Turkish Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar, Intelligence Organization Chief Hakan Fidan, and Chief Foreign Policy Advisor Ibrahim Kalin, who had been sent to Washington on May 5 to make the Turkish case, was still in town. They met with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Under Secretary of State Tom Shannon, and argued against expanding U.S. military cooperation with the Syrian Kurds and for cooperating with Turkey in the Raqqa operation.
Differences between the two allies on this issue can be traced back to October 2014 when Obama decided over Erdogan’s strong objections to airdrop arms to the YPG, which Ankara considers a part of the PKK—designated by the United States along with Turkey as a terrorist organization—to help it in its fight against ISIS in Kobani. Since then, the United States has bolstered the YPG by sending U.S. special forces to train and advise its members and providing them with light arms and recently initiated joint patrols along the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent clashes between Turkish forces and the YPG after a Turkish airstrike on the YPG on April 25.
Now that Trump has decided, after a long review and extensive discussions with his senior national security advisors, to continue and expand the policy he inherited from Obama to achieve the quick victory over ISIS which he had promised in his campaign, it remains to be seen how much his decision will damage the relationship.
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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