The Cable

In Syria, Washington Can’t Get Its Friends to Stop Fighting, Either

When it comes to implementing a Syrian ceasefire, the Obama administration is finding that sometimes its friends are just as much of a problem as its enemies.

A Syrian woman and youths, one of them carrying a wounded baby, flee the site of a reported barrel-bomb attack by Syrian government forces in the northern city of Aleppo on June 26, 2014. Syria's war has killed more than 162,000 people and forced nearly half the population to flee their homes. AFP PHOTO /AMC / ZEIN AL-RIFAI        (Photo credit should read ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian woman and youths, one of them carrying a wounded baby, flee the site of a reported barrel-bomb attack by Syrian government forces in the northern city of Aleppo on June 26, 2014. Syria's war has killed more than 162,000 people and forced nearly half the population to flee their homes. AFP PHOTO /AMC / ZEIN AL-RIFAI (Photo credit should read ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images)

When it comes to implementing a Syrian ceasefire, the Obama administration is finding that sometimes its friends are just as much of a problem as its enemies.

Take Turkey, which shelled Kurdish forces in northern Aleppo province for the fourth day Tuesday and ignored Washington’s calls for all sides to stop the fighting.

The uptick in violence is a frustration for the Obama administration, which is desperately trying to ensure that a ceasefire cobbled together last week by the Syrian Support Group, a 17-nation group overseeing efforts to secure peace in Syria, takes effect on schedule Friday.

That plan is now on life support due to the renewed fighting in northern Syria. The Turkish operations give Moscow an excuse to continue its bombing campaign at precisely the time the U.S. is trying to bring pressure on it to stop, creating another division between Washington and its NATO ally. Secretary of State John Kerry and other top officials have lambasted Moscow all week for its continued air campaign in Syria. But Russia has defended its own actions by using the Turkish strikes to accuse Ankara of violating Syria’s sovereignty.

When asked about the Turkish assault on Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said it was necessary for “all groups to start to stand down, not ratchet up what they are doing.”

While not mentioning Ankara by name, he told an audience at the Brookings Institution that the U.S. expected “all of our various partners on our side of the equation” to de-escalate and refrain from trying to gain new territory ahead of the implementation of the ceasefire.

The Turkish Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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 most intractable of problems continues to be the West’s support of Kurdish YPG fighters and their political wing, the PYD. The United States views the PYD as one of its most effective allies in the fight against the Islamic State. But Turkey sees the group as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which it sees as a terrorist organization working to create an independent Kurdish state in parts of what is now Turkey.

With such stark divisions, Turkey has become increasingly resistant to Washington’s requests to ratchet back its air campaign against the Kurdish forces.  “The U.S. would prefer if the PYD and the Turks cut it out, and saw the bigger picture, but I don’t think they do,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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 PYD and 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.

Since then, the Turks have also accused the U.S. of providing weapons to Kurdish fighters in Syria that have been smuggled into Turkey and found their way to members of the PKK — a charge the U.S. denies.

The disagreement over the Kurds has also set back the State Department’s efforts aimed at ending the Syrian conflict. Last month, diplomatic talks nearly failed before even starting when the Turks threatened to boycott the discussions if Kurdish groups were included as part of the Syrian opposition slate.

The United States argued that Syrian Kurds represented a legitimate segment of the Syrian opposition and should be treated as such — and it wasn’t alone. Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, expressed similar views in an interview with Foreign Policy. “They are certainly part of the opposition. They are very effective against Daesh,” he said last week, using an alternate name for the Islamic State. “We have always advocated that they should be part of the process.”

But for Turkey, the Kurds represent an existential threat, and the low-intensity warfare in the country’s east between Kurdish militants and Turkish authorities has only solidified Erdogan’s hardline stance. Turkish officials claim that more than 200 of its policemen and troops have been killed in fighting with PKK members since last summer. Reports indicate that Turkey’s crackdown on PKK fighters have led to more than 500 guerilla deaths

Despite Turkey’s deep mistrust of the Kurds, it tried to find a way to accommodate America’s anti-ISIS strategy, but that has proven difficult. “There’s a difference over the level of involvement the PYD should play in the Syrian war,” Tabler said. “Turkey does not want that support to include any areas west of the Euphrates and doesn’t want it to receive heavy weapons, and that’s a major disagreement.”

The Turks became particularly irate last week when Kurdish YPG militia members captured a former Syrian military air base near the Turkish border with the help of Russian air support. In response, Turkey began shelling the area and insisting that YPG militia members withdraw from the base. The shelling killed at least two YPG members, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Thus far, the PYD has refused to withdraw and the Syrian government has called on Russia to raise Turkey’s breach of sovereignty at the United Nations Security Council.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola