For the United States, ISIS Trumps Turkey

US President Donald J. Trump’s decision to arm Kurdish rebels in Syria, despite objections from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, indicates that the new administration’s Turkey policy is secondary to winning the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), according to an Atlantic Council analyst.


This decision “would suggest to me that Trump really doesn’t have a Turkey policy,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “Turkey policy is secondary to the need to prosecute the war against ISIS quickly,” he added.


“The key actors in the US bureaucracy are not on team Turkey,” said Stein. “They don’t care. They are elevating different priorities now.”


The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) has been an effective military proxy in the United States’ war on ISIS.  On May 10, Trump approved arming the YPG with the goal of retaking the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS in the country. Stein said US troops will “embed, advise, and assist,” the YPG in their assault on Raqqa.


In order to directly arm the YPG, Trump sent a letter to Congress waiving a provision in the bill that regulates US military support for vetted Syrian opposition groups.


“You had to go through that step at a minimum to get legal cover, because the amount of [military equipment] the US is about to send to the YPG is a lot,” according to Stein.


“The YPG was not receiving assistance from the United States until the issuance of this waiver,” said Stein, “and that’s why it’s explosive for Turkey.” The YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a Kurdish organization based in Turkey and recognized by both Turkey and the United States as a terrorist group. While the United States makes a distinction between the YPG and the PKK, Turkey does not.


Turkey warned the United States that its decision to arm the YPG would have consequences.


Stein said Erdoğan “could try and cozy up with Russia to win some sort of broader concessions in a future peace deal, but Moscow has been using the YPG as a counter escalation tool in Syria to undermine Turkey for quite some time now. Russia knows the YPG is a point of leverage with Ankara, and isn't afraid to use it.”  On May 3, Erdoğan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to reaffirm their cooperation in Syria. Alternative options range from rhetorical to diplomatic to military avenues, however, Stein said, “all of those options are bad for Turkey, and they know it.”


Erdoğan will meet with Trump in Washington on May 17. At that meeting, “Erdoğan will try a last-ditch effort to say ‘you’re making a mistake here,’” Stein predicted. “I don’t think it will work.”


Instead, he said, Turkey should seek concessions in the form of intelligence-sharing, a solution already set forth by the Pentagon, as well as a role for Turkey in the reconstruction of Syria, an issue which remains contested due to the involvement of the Kurds in that process.


While Trump’s decision will have a negative impact on US-Turkey relations for some time to come, ultimately, according to Stein, “the structure of the debate, Turkey or the Kurds, has always been slightly false.” Rather, the decision for Trump boiled down to the fact that in the assault on Raqqa: “It was the Kurds, or 20,000 [US troops].”


“What would you choose?” asked Stein


Follow the link for the source article published by The Atlantic Council on May 11, 2017.





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