Turkey’s Plan For The Kurds ‘Raises The Stakes’ In Relations With The US

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Erica Wenig Contributor
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Turkey is determined to keep Syrian Kurds from statehood in the aftermath of victories against Islamic State, highlighting just how different Turkish and U.S. regional aims really are.

According to some Turkish media reports, the government is planning a military intervention to establish a buffer zone in northern Syria, supporting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement the country “will never allow” a Kurdish state along its southern border last Friday, The Daily Beast reported.

The country’s military has purportedly been ordered to send troops into Syria, but this hasn’t been confirmed or denied by the government. According to Turkey’s foreign minister, a statement will be released after the National Security Council meets Tuesday.

There is some credence to the claim, but it’s probably a matter of fierce debate, says Robert Pearson, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey from 2000-2003. It could be designed to test the U.S. or caution it away from helping the Kurdish YPG too aggressively by way of the airstrike campaign.

If Turkey does decide to intervene in northern Syria, it will either have to fight Islamic State or have an accommodation with it, says Pearson. Obviously, the latter option would be highly controversial.

“By making this idea public, it’s a challenge to Washington to see what the Americans will do. Otherwise, I don’t think they would have made it public,” said Pearson. Turkey either would have invaded Syria suddenly, or it would have approached American officials quietly, the former ambassador told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Washington will see this as a complicating factor, says Pearson. This issue could sharpen the existing contradictions in U.S. and Turkish interests, raising the stakes, he added.

America’s priority in Syria is to defeat Islamic State. But for the Turks, the downfall of Syrian President Bashar Assad is key.

“Turkey doesn’t want to see ISIS weakened. They want to see ISIS defeat Assad,” said Pearson. Although Islamic State launched bloody attacks in Kobani and Hasakah over the weekend, the Kurdish YPG militia has had success in reducing Islamic State capabilities.

“They [the Turks] don’t want the YPG to weaken ISIS before ISIS defeats Assad,” said Pearson.

This prospect of Kurdish statehood has been a nightmare for the Turks for decades, says Pearson. The government fears it would attract the loyalties of Kurdish citizens in Turkey, potentially allowing for Turkish territory to be swallowed up by an expanding Kurdish state. There are 14 million Kurds living in Turkey, Reuters reported.

But Pearson downplayed the possibility for an autonomous Kurdish state in Syria.

“They have no means to ensure that this will happen. And therefore, I would say that even if they talk about it around the family tables in northern Syria, in the Kurdish areas, the idea that this would be a political aim of the YPG doesn’t seem realistic,” he said.

The YPG is concerning to the Turkish government because in the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011, the Kurdish militia more or less aligned itself with Assad, says Pearson. They developed a degree of autonomy, and “that increased the Turks’ suspicions” of the YPG and its ambitions, he added.

At the moment, the Turks are having a genuine debate about the future, the growing strength of the YPG and U.S.-led coalition attacks against Islamic State, says Pearson.

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