Shortly after 2018 re-election, Turkey’s Erdogan received a phone call from President Trump. Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed it was intended to “reaffirm the strong bond between the US and Turkey.” Trump seems to have a fondness for international strongmen. Setting aside the blowback from his press conference with Russia’s Putin in July 2018, Trump also called Erdogan in 2017. The occasion? A referendum that granted Turkey’s president sweeping powers. A month after Erdogan’s electoral coup, Trump hosted him at the White House and hailed the referendum results as a “legendary victory.” As they gave a joint statement, Trump declared that he “looked forward to having a long and productive discussion. We’ve had a great relationship and we will make it even better.” Erdogan returned the compliment. “Of course, Mr. Trump’s victory has led to an awakening of new expectations for Turkey and the region it is in. We know the new US administration will not let these hopes be in vain.”

While Turkey views Operation Olive Branch in Afrin as a liberation mission and blockade against the activities of Kurdish terrorists, Trump regards most if not all political Kurdish groups as pro-American. In an interesting twist of fate, Assad and Trump appear to both oppose Turkey’s intervention for their own reasons. “It probably sounds absurd the first time the average person hears it,” confirms Global Research’s Andrew Korybko, “but Presidents Trump and Assad are on the same side in Afrin.” For Assad, Kurdish operatives are another pawn to be used as shields against Turkish aggression toward his regime, while Trump regards Syrian Kurds especially as able to push Damascus into countering Turkey’s ambitions in Syria.

Yet tension remains between Assad and Trump regarding Kurdish political activities in the Middle East. Syria’s Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Forces (YPG) has received US backing to fight ISIS. Up to 650 of them died during the Raqqa siege that ended ISIS’ boasts of a caliphate capital. For Trump, the YPG is an expedient partnership that limits American presence while Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group. “As Daesh (also known as ISIS) does not represent the Muslims, the YPG does not represent the Kurds,” argues Serdar Kılıç, Turkey’s Ambassador to Washington. “The YPG has never been an opposition element [to Assad] but an accomplice of the regime.” The Free Syrian Army (FSA) on the other hand is another story for Ankara. In the summer of 2017, Trump ended a CIA programme of military aid to the rebel group. A year later, the UN reported allegations that the FSA were involved in crimes against locals in Afrin, including arbitrary detention, kidnappings and murder. Erdogan, however, has declared that the FSA “is not a terrorist group, but a national organization that has people from different ethnicities who have the spirit to defend their homeland.”

A closer look at FSA members challenges Erdogan’s assumption. Not all soldiers fight for patriotism. Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch saw the FSA’s cooperation, including possibly hundreds of Kurdish members fighting with Turkey to free Afrin of what they consider to be “the tyranny and dictatorship of the YPG.” It seems common enemies can unite some Kurds with Erdogan’s ambitions. Before Afrin, Kurdish FSA fighters assisted Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield against ISIS in Aleppo. Now, they fight in Afrin alongside Sunni Arabs and against Syrian Kurds that support Kurdish militancy. YPG soldiers condemn their FSA counterparts as traitors to Kurdish aspirations. Kurds of the FSA take Turkey’s stance in denouncing the YPG and PKK as terrorists.     

The involvement of Kurdish fighters for Turkey and against Kurdish autonomy contrasts with supposed dreams of a Kurdish state and feeds into a further aim shared by Washington, Ankara and Damascus: the prevention of Kurdish independence across disputed territory. For the US, expedient use of Kurdish forces against ISIS contrasts with the fear that Kurdish expansion could change the Middle East’s borders. No wonder US opposition was muted when Iraqi forces seized Kirkuk and its oil fields from the Kurds in October 2017. Turkey and Syria harbor their own Kurdish populace and no doubt breathed a sigh of relief as Iraq’s move against the Kurds scaled back Kurdish territory right on their doorstep. Geopolitics has never favored the Kurdish diaspora. “The Kurds, divided across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, for decades have been forced to fight for their rights as a minority group,” explains Joost Hiltermann, MENA Program Director at Crisis Group. “While the Kurds’ common ethnic identity unites them, as a people, they are as divided as any other ethnic group—by dialect, political ideology, and the personalities and strategic priorities of their leaders.”    

Some Kurds are willing to drop the dream of Kurdistan for several reasons. Western-educated Kurds have pointed to the elite’s corruption and nepotism in Iraqi Kurdistan as proof that any attempts to establish an autonomous Kurdish state will fail. Indeed, as the Arab Spring blazed across the Middle East in 2011, Iraqi Kurdistan broke into protests against such corruption. Similar protests by Kurds across Turkey and Syria highlighted discrimination by the governments of Erdogan and Assad. The arrival of ISIS challenged priorities for the Kurds. Stability became more important than nationhood, another reason some Kurds have participated in Operation Olive Branch and assisted Turkish missions across Syria.

ISIS provided a common enemy for Kurdish forces to cooperate with Ankara, Washington, Baghdad and Damascus. Yet, such friendship between the Kurds and Erdogan is not without a sense of irony. While all sides seek to eliminate the Islamic State, Turkey has used former IS fighters to keep Kurdish ambitions in check. As Syria’s civil war spread, Turkey’s border towns became transit hubs for foreign fighters entering Syria and even hosted wounded IS fighters needing treatment. This ‘generosity’ from Turkey’s leadership is compounded by reports that Turkey casually recruits thousands of ex-IS fighters to target Syrian Kurds even as it welcomes Kurdish FSA fighters in its liberation of Afrin. These double standards show Ankara’s strategy: use non-Turkish fighters to limit domestic criticism of intervention while augmenting Turkey’s political clout. Expansion into Syria via the FSA addresses Erdogan’s need for a stable border and influence beyond it. The use of Kurdish and former IS fighters against Kurdish militants addresses his fears of Kurdish influence.

In addition to its Islamic State partner, Turkey also appears to be cooperating with Al Qaeda across Syria. By November 2017, Erdogan had brokered a deal between Russia and Iran to intervene against the YPG in the north. “Turkey [has augmented] its deployment with […] Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate,” explains Elizabeth Teoman at Washington’s Institute for the Study of War. Using both former ISIS recruits and Al Qaeda affiliates, Turkey minimizes its own casualties while pushing its intervention “as a launchpad for future operations against the majority-Kurdish Afrin Canton in northern Syria.”

Erdogan’s outsourcing of intervention to local forces shows a clear strategy aimed at controlling Turkey’s borders while addressing Erdogan’s fears of Kurdish empowerment. Ankara and Washington may both share a desire to thwart Kurdish nationalism, but only Erdogan has a structured policy in Syria while Trump vacillates between appeasing or punishing regional actors. This vacillation is illustrated by his hasty withdrawal announcement from Syria in August 2018, which was partially reneged by early 2019. As President Trump clashes with Russia in Syria, Turkey’s new sultan will be empowered to increase his activities in Syria at the expense of the US. And the sultan will no doubt get closer to Russia’s tsar while America looks on.

Image: [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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