Can Trump And Erdogan Agree to Disagree on Syria’s Kurds?
Turkey and the US share certain common interests in the Syrian civil war, from defeating the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and checking Iran’s influence to calling for President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power. Yet Ankara and Washington are not on the same page in terms of strategies for achieving their objectives. Syria’s unresolved “Kurdish question” is the main source of tension between these two NATO allies. The Trump administration backs the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), the dominant Kurdish militia in Syria, as a vital ally in Washington’s struggle to eradicate IS, just as Barack Obama’s administration did. Washington also supports the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella of militias of which the YPG is the strongest one. Yet, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government perceive this Syrian Kurdish faction as a terrorist threat to Turkey’s national security and finds US support for the group to be unacceptable.
Ankara and Washington’s failure to see eye-to-eye on the YPG is not new. The US position on the YPG has strained Washington’s alliance with its key NATO ally for several years. However, the situation has recently become increasingly dangerous. Ankara stepped up its military action against YPG forces on April 25 with airstrikes that left 25 of the militia’s members dead in Mount Karachock, near Derik.
US military forces, deployed along the Turkish-Syrian border, are tasked with preventing Turkish-YPG clashes. Given the Syrian Kurdish militia’s important contributions to the fight against IS, Washington sees the Turkish military killing its fighters as highly problematic. From NATO’s perspective in maintaining cohesion, the worst-case scenario could involve the Turkish military unintentionally bombing US forces, which would obviously disrupt Trump’s relationship with Erdogan.