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In Spat Between Turks and Kurds, U.S. Remains on the Sidelines

In Spat Between Turks and Kurds, U.S. Remains on the Sidelines

Faced with a tortuous choice between a longtime NATO ally and a vital proxy in the fight against the Islamic State, the Obama administration is trying not to take sides at all.

Turkey called on the United States to drop its support for Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria after a suicide bombing in Ankara killed at least 28 people — an attack Turkey attributed to the YPG. But the State Department refused to single out the Kurds and vowed to continue supporting the group’s fighters on the battlefield against the Islamic State in Syria.

“It’s not about choosing sides here,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Thursday. “The side that we think everybody needs to be on is the counter-Daesh side,” he said, referring to the Islamic State.

But it’s unclear if the U.S. can have it both ways.

Turkey has grown increasingly alarmed as Kurdish forces in Syria, aided by Russian airstrikes, continue to seize territory near the Turkish border. Ankara views those groups as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a separatist group which has waged a bloody campaign inside Turkey for three decades. 

Washington views the YPG as the most effective ground fighting force inside Syria, and coordinates closely with its leadership to provide air support. And the U.S. has reportedly sent arms to groups affiliated with the YPG.

But after a car filled with explosives tore through several military buses in Ankara on Wednesday, killing dozens of soldiers, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called on U.S. and NATO allies to recognize the YPG as a terrorist group.

“Yesterday’s attack was directly targeting Turkey and the perpetrator is the YPG and the divisive terrorist organization PKK. All necessary measures will be taken against them,” Davutoglu said in a televised address on Thursday.

According to the Turkish Embassy in Washington, Turkish officials briefed U.S. ambassador to Turkey John Bass about the terror attack and the government’s allegation that Kurds were responsible on Thursday. At least so far, however, Washington has refused to offer its own assessment about who is to blame for the attack.

“With respect to the claims of responsibility, we’re in no position to confirm or deny the assertions made by the Turkish government,” said Kirby. “There’s an investigation ongoing.”

U.S. intelligence agencies declined to comment on Turkey’s allegation that a member of the Syrian Kurdish militia was behind the attack. But officials privately acknowledged that both Kurdish opponents of the Turkish government and the Islamic State militants were plausible suspects.

The targeting of military vehicles, instead of civilians or tourists, and the timing of the attack — after Turkish forces shelled YPG positions in northern Syria — could suggest that the PKK was behind the bombing, experts said.

“It may be as simple as a one-off attack to make the Turkish government think twice about their actions on the battlefield,” Colin Clarke, a political scientist at the RAND Corp., told Foreign Policy.

Conversely, the Islamic State has also shown a willingness to stage bomb attacks in Turkey, as it did last summer and earlier this year.

The flare-up between the United States and Turkey is only the latest in a string of disagreements among the allies during the nearly five-year Syrian civil war. The long-simmering dispute between Washington and Ankara over the Kurdish issue burst into public view last month when Brett McGurk, the State Department’s pointman on anti-ISIS efforts, met with YPG members in the Syrian town of Kobani. After photographs of the meeting surfaced, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at the United States for siding with Turkey’s enemies. “How can we trust you? Is it me that is your partner or is it the terrorists in Kobani?” he said.

On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry called Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to express his “deep condolences” for the “heinous terrorist attack,” and reiterated America’s “steadfast commitment” to its NATO ally.

Despite Turkey’s increasing anger, analysts said the United States is unlikely to change course and abandon the Kurdish fighters. The Obama administration has been under pressure to show progress in the war against the Islamic State, and officials have often touted the Kurdish militia in Syria and Iraq as scoring the most important successes of the campaign. The U.S. military and intelligence agencies have worked closely with the YPG for months, coordinating bombing runs with U.S.-led aircraft to try to squeeze the Islamic State around its bastion in Raqqa and over the border in northwestern Iraq.

“This is the most effective fighting force on the ground and if the main priority of the U.S. is to fight ISIS, I don’t think deferring to Turkey — even though they are a NATO ally — is something the administration is willing to do,” Clarke said.

Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, said Washington was in a “very bad predicament here because the U.S.’s only dependable ally in Syria is the Kurds.” He added that YPG fighters have helped reclaim significant amounts of territory from ISIS.

Indeed, Turkey has important leverage with Washington in the form of the air base at Incirlik, and the administration will have to walk a delicate line given Ankara’s growing anxiety about the advance of Kurdish militia just over its border. After months of negotiations, and the personal intervention of Vice President Joe Biden, the United States won permission in July to carry out airborne strikes from the sprawling facility.

Some U.S. officials portrayed the agreement on Incirlik at the time as a game-changing step that would see Turkey become a significant part of the military coalition battling the Islamic State. But apart from a limited number of strikes against ISIS, Ankara has remained focused on the threat it sees from the Kurdish militias in Iraq and Syria, as well as on the Assad regime in Damascus.

After the Incirlik agreement was announced, Turkey claimed U.S. and Turkish air cover would create a “buffer zone” for Syrian civilians and rebel groups along the Syria-Turkey border. But that never materialized, as the two governments have been unable to agree on which Syrian rebel groups to support.

Going forward, experts expect the U.S. to continue the same policy: quietly discouraging the Kurds against seizing any more territory near the Turkish border while opposing Ankara’s efforts to bomb Kurdish fighters in Syria into submission. “Clearly the United States has laid down a policy of distinguishing between the Kurds of Syria and the Kurds of Turkey, and it doesn’t want to get sucked deeper into this controversy,” said Landis. “This issue is a loser for the U.S., so we’re going to try to stay out of it.”