Call Turkey’s bluff on arming Syrian Kurds
THE White House’s announcement that it would start directly arming the Syrian Kurds fighting Islamic State was greeted as big news. It was no such thing for the Kurds themselves, who have been receiving US weapons for more than two years, and opposition from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shouldn’t deter the plan from going forward.
It’s not as though Turkey was unaware that US weaponry was ending up with Kurdish Democratic Union forces, which Ankara considers a terrorist group allied with Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. But for the White House to announce that such shipments are now official policy, and will include heavier equipment such as mortars and armored cars, is a direct warning to Erdogan, who has become increasingly autocratic as a leader—and problematic as an ally—since he put down an attempted coup last summer.
It’s a delicate balancing act for Washington to maintain relationships with both the Turks and the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. At the moment, however, annihilating Islamic State is the overriding priority in the Syrian civil war—reason enough to make arming the Kurds official US policy. They have been the most effective proxy force for the anti-Islamic State coalition, and should take the lead in the final push to defeat the jihadists in their self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.
Moreover, and uncharacteristic for Donald Trump’s White House, the decision on the Kurds seems to have been taken carefully. Trump’s top military advisers, including National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster, are said to have been the prime advocates of the plan, arguing that the push for Raqqa should be made quickly while Islamic State is concentrating on the fight for Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Former President Barack Obama also reportedly favored stepping up Kurdish arms shipments and had his aides present the incoming Trump administration with a plan to do so.
Once the terrorists are defeated, the US can turn to longer-term issues such as patching up relations with Erdogan, as well as reaching some sort of peace deal involving protected, autonomous zones for US-supported factions and, eventually, the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous reign.
Erdogan has responded to the arms announcement with typical bellicosity, raising concerns he will step up attacks on anti-government Turkish Kurds. This presents a complication for the US, but not necessarily a bad one. The US also considers the PKK a terrorist group, and it is a bitter rival of the Iraqi Kurdish groups that have been fighting on the American side for more than two decades.
As frustrating as Erdogan can be, Turkey remains a vital Nato ally and a bulwark against terrorism and instability in the Middle East. So the US can make some concessions to ease Turkey’s concerns: promising that it has no intention of recognizing a sovereign Kurdish state, for example, or that it will cut off the arms flows if there is strong evidence weapons are flowing across the border to Turkish Kurds, or that Turkish forces can remain in control of the city of al Bab, west of Raqqa, which they conquered in February.
But Trump’s strongest case—which he should make to Erdogan in their scheduled meeting next week in Washington—is that it’s in Turkey’s interest to accept this policy. Not only does Turkey have a greater stake in defeating Islamic State and ending the civil war on its southern border, but drifting away from the West and Nato toward Russia’s orbit would result in an economic disaster for a nation whose economy is looking increasingly vulnerable.