The United States is on a collision course with its NATO ally Turkey, pushing ahead with arming Syrian Kurds after deciding the immediate objective of defeating Islamic State militants outweighs the potential damage to a partnership vital to US interests in the volatile Middle East. The Turks are fiercely opposed to the US plans, seeing the Kurdish fighters as terrorists. And when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits the White House this week, the most he and President Donald Trump may be able to do is agree to disagree, and move on.
“The Turks see this as a crisis in the relationship,” said Jonathan Schanzer at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The challenge is hardly new. Long before Trump took office, US presidents have grappled with the fragility of partnering with Turkey’s government and the Kurds to carry out a Middle East agenda.
Past administrations have sought a delicate balance. Too exuberant in its support for the Kurds, and the US risks pushing ally Turkey toward US geopolitical rivals like Russia or emboldening the Kurds to try to create an independent state a scenario that would destabilize multiple countries in the region.
Too little cooperation with the Kurds risks squandering a battlefield ally with proven effectiveness against extremist threats and who has staunchly supported Washington. Trump has made his priorities clear. His administration is arming Syrian Kurdish fighters as part of an effort to recapture the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State group’s self-declared capital.
Coupled with the US-backed fight in the Iraqi city of Mosul, Raqqa is seen as a key step toward liberating the remaining territory the militants hold.Turkey has been pressuring the US to drop support for the Kurdish militants in Syria for years and doesn’t want them spearheading the Raqqa effort.
Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish group, known as the YPG, a terrorist group because of its ties to the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party inside Turkey. The United States, the European Union and Turkey all agree the YPG is a terrorist organisation. The Turks fear any weapons the US provides the Syrian Kurds could well end up with their ethnic brethren in Turkey, who’ve fought violently as part of a separatist insurgency for more than three decades.
As a nod to Turkey’s concerns, the Pentagon has promised tight monitoring of all weapons and greater intelligence sharing to help the Turks better watch over their frontiers. Kurds are an ethnic group predominantly concentrated along the borders of four countries Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
But a face-to-face confrontation on the matter between Trump and Erdogan seems inevitable. Erdogan and other top Turkish officials have pressed for the US to reverse its strategy, however low the prospects of Trump changing his mind. As a result, experts see Erdogan using the meeting to confront Trump on a host of other Turkish grievances. Those include extraditing the Pennsylvania-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan blames for fomenting a failed coup last summer, and dropping US charges against Reza Zarrab, a Turkish businessman accused of money-laundering and violating US sanctions in Iran.
“I see this trip as a new milestone in Turkey-US relations,” Erdogan said, as he prepared to fly to Washington. The US, too, has a wish list for Turkey. Washington is concerned by rising anti-Americanism in Turkey that Erdogan’s government has tolerated since the July coup attempt. The US also has pressed unsuccessfully for the release of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, and other detained US citizens.
Trump also has much at stake. His willingness to partner with authoritarian rulers and overlook their shortcomings on democracy and human rights have alarmed US lawmakers of both parties. Trump’s premise has been that he is focusing on deal-making. That puts added pressure on him to get results.
Trump has gone out of his way to foster a good relationship with Erdogan. After a national referendum last month that strengthened Erdogan’s presidential powers, European leaders and rights advocates criticized Turkey for moving closer toward autocratic rule. Trump congratulated Erdogan. Now, the American leader may try to cash in.