Over the strong opposition of Ankara one week before a May 16-17 state visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the U.S. for talks with President Donald Trump, Washington announced its decision to furnish the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)-led Syrian Democratic Forces with heavy weapons. The move is preparation for a looming ground campaign, backed by U.S. air power, to lay siege to the Syrian city of Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State.
After a short private meeting, Erdogan and Trump met with the White House press and, putting their best face forward, said a “new era” was opening in relations. Trump said it was a “great honor” to welcome Erdogan, and he “looked forward to having a long and productive discussion” and an “unbeatable” relationship. Erdogan said he hoped the trip would lead to a new foundation for relations.
Ankara claims the YPG — which controls 20,000 square miles of northeastern Syria and aims to forge an autonomous Kurdish region along the entire length of the 560-mile Syria-Turkey border — is a wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ankara, Washington and the European Union have listed the PKK as a “terrorist” organization.
Ankara has begun to soften some of its criticism of Washington’s decision to collaborate with the YPG in Syria, with some officials saying the U.S. military has “no choice” but to do so. But, standing at Trump’s side, Erdogan said, “It is absolutely unacceptable to take the YPG into consideration as partners in the region.”
“We support Turkey in the fight against terror and terror groups like ISIS and the PKK, and ensure they have no safe quarter,” Trump told reporters, making clear Washington has no quarrel with Ankara’s moves against the PKK in Turkey and Iraq.
For most of the last three decades Ankara has oppressed its 15-million- strong Kurdish population and warred against the PKK, an armed party with Stalinist roots that wages guerrilla actions against the Turkish rulers in the name of Kurdish autonomy.
At the end of April Ankara bombed YPG positions in Syria. In response, Washington sent troops driving jeeps flying U.S. flags to accompany YPG forces on the border.
The 30 million Kurds spread across Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq were denied their own homeland by the imperialist victors of WWI, who imposed artificial borders on the workers and farmers of the Mideast to advance their own political and economic interests in the oil rich region.
Today the imperialist order in the Middle East is unraveling — the result of weakening U.S. power and more than a decade of Washington’s unresolved wars in the region. In this context, the historic struggle of the Kurdish people has come to the fore. This is also reflected in the recent decision by the main political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan to hold a referendum on independence.
The rulers in Baghdad, Ankara, Damascus and Tehran — all of whom fear their Kurdish population fighting for self-rule — oppose the referendum. Washington shares their view, declaring they are for Iraq’s “unity and territorial integrity.”
In its effort to push back Islamic State, part of its broader campaign to reimpose stability in the Middle East and protect U.S. imperialist interests, Washington seeks whatever alliances it deems useful in the short-term.
Islamic State captured huge swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory in 2014. It filled the vacuum created by three wars: the U.S.-backed war waged by the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq against the people of Iran in the 1980s, and Washington’s two subsequent “regime change” wars. The Syrian civil war, which began in 2011 after the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus met mass mobilizations for democratic rights with brutal repression, widened that vacuum.
The U.S. military is convinced the YPG-led SDF is the only force with sufficient, tested combat experience that can defeat IS in Raqqa with a minimum of U.S. “boots on the ground.” There are currently over 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria.
Erdogan has raised that the YPG could be replaced with Syrian troops it has trained, known as the Free Syrian Army, and troops from Ankara’s own army. The Syrian Democratic Forces responded at a press conference May 12 in Tabqa, a town 25 miles from Raqqa their fighters had just captured from IS. “We thank anyone who wants to help but our forces are capable enough to liberate Raqqa,” SDF Commander Abdulqadir Hevidli said, adding it’s better if the people of Syria “solve their own problems.”
Washington has tried to maintain its relations with Ankara, including use of the Incirlik Air Base for U.S. bombers. The Pentagon promises it will only supply operation-specific weapons to the SDF; cut off the supply if the weapons are smuggled elsewhere or misused; ensure that most of the fighters in the assault on Raqqa, a majority Arab city, will be Arabs and not Kurds; that the YPG will not occupy the city after Islamic State has been ousted; and pledged to boost intelligence cooperation with Ankara to strengthen its war against the PKK.
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