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The Mess in the Middle East
Turkey’s Kurdish Problem—and Ours

Turkey has expressed outrage that the U.S. is working with the Syrian Kurds against ISIS, because the Syrian Kurds, Ankara says, are assisting Turkish Kurds who are fighting for independence and who Turkey considers to be part of a terrorist group. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Turkey deems the Democratic Union Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PYD, to be a terrorist group as an offshoot of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. While the U.S., like Turkey, classifies the PKK as a terror group, it has lauded the Syrian PYD as an effective organization in countering Islamic State militants.

Tensions over that difference in views have been building for months. On Monday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said at a news briefing in Washington that the U.S. doesn’t consider the PYD to be terrorist.

“We don’t, as you know, recognize the PYD as a terrorist organization. We recognize that the Turks do, and I understand that,” Mr. Kirby said.

Turkey alleges that the Turkish Kurds have received arms from the Syrian Kurds fighting ISIS and are using them to kill Turkish soldiers. But the U.S. government claims it has looked into these claims and found them to be unsubstantiated.

Strategically, what we are seeing here is the bad fruits of two decisions. When Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was Prime Minister, his work on the Kurdish peace process was one of the highlights of his career. But earlier this year, in an attempt to win an election that would give him power to rewrite the Turkish constitution, Erdogan deliberately inflamed Turkey’s Kurdish problem. Erodgan is not the only cause of the current violence in Turkey, but he certainly played a role. Decades worth of bad blood and paranoia came back to the fore, and for the foreseeable future, the internal Turkish-Kurdish question is likely intractable.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration’s strategic drift in Syria has left us increasingly dependent on whatever local actors are still viable. The Syrian Kurds—the PYD—are some of the best fighters out there, and now that the Russians and the Assad regime are encircling the moderate rebels in Aleppo, we’ll need them more than ever. But we also need the Turks, who are a NATO ally and whom the Europeans are hoping will help stop the refugee crisis.

Americans by and large have a great deal of sympathy with the Kurdish people’s aspirations to self-determination; that Erdogan is seen as having started the latest round of bloodletting in Turkey, and that the Syrian Kurds have fought ISIS hard, only increases this sentiment. But the Turkish public cares much more than the American public on this issue, and will not let go lightly. As long as we continue to lead from behind in Syria, and are consequently reliant on local actors with their own agendas, expect dilemmas like this one to keep cropping up.

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