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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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  • Fat_Man

    The United States needs the Turks like it needs boils. And boils is pretty much what the Turks have been to US foreign policy for the past 15 years. Turkey is of no strategic or economic importance to the United States. The United States should side with Kurds and help them establish an independent Kurdistan in Kurdish areas of Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and the Levant. It was of the few positive moves the US could make to stabilize the Middle East and limit the expansion of Iranian Power. The other one is building a base in Northeastern Jordan.

    • rheddles

      Agree completely except that Kurdistan should also include parts of Iran, unless you were considering those to be in Mesopotamia. The Turks have made their bed. The only thing they offer is Incirlik and that could be rebuilt in Kurdistan. Except that Kurdistan is land locked, which is its great problem. An ugly part of the globe.

      • Fat_Man

        As to seaports, the Kurds could take Hatay Province from Turkey. It is the chunk of Turkey, on the Mediterranean coast north of Syria. Its capital is Antakya (Antioch), and its port city is Iskenderun (Alexandretta).

        Incirlik should be replaced by a new base in Jordan that should also house an armored brigade. That would serve to protect Jordan from both ISIS and Iran.

        • Kevin

          I have a lot of sympathy for the Kurds, but at the end of the day the author of the article is right – the Turks care about this issue much more than we do. Nudging the Turks towards accepting some sort of Syrian Kurdish option (and making it work for them too) like they have in Iraq is likely to be much more effective in the long run (even if full of disappointments and morally dubious comprises along the way) than going it alone to promote a Kurdish state will be – we will almost certainly lose the will to pursue this long before the Turks cease opposing such a plan. Working with the Turks, the Sunni Arab states and various factions inside Syria to all come up with a plan they can all tolerate is much. Ore likely to succeed than us just picking our favorite group to support will – but even the best option us likely to be very ugly and risky – we simply have no good options left having squandering them along the way.

        • rheddles

          I’m not NSA, but incirlick may have locational advantages unavailable in Jordan. The route to the Med is not true Kurdastan and would be vulnerable. Sure would be nice but unlikely



  • The mistake here was in ever butting our noses into Syria in the first place. Syria is of practically zero strategic importance to the US, and the only importance it does carry is its relationship to Israel (a state which has zero strategic importance to the US).

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