Turkey awaits Biden’s verdict on anti-terror campaign
Turkey has hardened its rhetoric and is likely to speed up its anti-terror operations in neighboring Iraq and Syria following recent developments that threatened its national security. Last week’s killing of 13 Turkish nationals, including soldiers, police and civilians, who were held for years by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in a cave in Gara, northern Iraq, created nationwide outrage.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, addressing his ruling party on Monday, harshly condemned the US and accused it of “clearly” supporting the Kurdish forces, which Turkey considers to be terrorists. “I am hereby openly telling the world once again: After the massacre committed in Gara, no country, no organization, no group or no person can question, criticize or oppose Turkey’s operations in Iraq and Syria anymore,” Erdogan vowed, adding that such anti-terror operations would continue in the coming weeks.
As stated by the president, the scope of Ankara’s fight against PKK terrorism will be much broader and tougher following the Gara incident. This campaign will not only have implications in Turkey’s domestic politics, but it is also likely to take a crucial place in the country’s policies toward Syria and Iraq, as well as its relations with other actors, such as Russia and the US. While Turkey has long been conducting operations in northern Iraq, where the PKK has its main headquarters and facilities, the situation in northeastern Syria is troublesome. Due to Turkey’s intensified campaign, the PKK had to move some of its bases to the southern parts of northern Iraq and to Sinjar district on the Syrian border.
In recent weeks, attacks by the Syrian wing of the PKK, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), on civilian settlements in northern Syria have increased, further threatening the country’s path to peace and stability. Separate assaults on Azaz, Al-Bab and Afrin show that the YPG has focused its attacks on the districts of northern Syria that are under Turkish management. The attacks coincided with the new US administration of Joe Biden taking office in Washington. While the Biden White House, whose Syria policy remains unclear, has yet to communicate its policy toward the YPG, the latter seems to have been revising its position. Moreover, the coincidence of these attacks coinciding with the new administration taking office raised eyebrows in Ankara, whose concerns about US support to the YPG are not without foundation.
Erdogan has signaled that 2021 will be a year of foreign policy for Turkey, as he called on Washington to open a fresh page in their relationship this year. To date, the most high-level contact between Ankara and the new US administration was a phone call between presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. However, Kalin has said Erdogan and Biden may have a phone conversation in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar last week stated that Turkey will raise the issue of American support for the YPG as a priority with the Biden administration.
While both sides have expressed a commitment to improving bilateral relations, it is yet to be seen what policy Biden will adopt to help its NATO ally in its anti-terror campaign. Biden harshly criticized former President Donald Trump’s 2019 decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria, deeming it a “betrayal” of the YPG. Moreover, Biden’s decision to bring back Brett McGurk, the architect of America’s cooperation with the YPG, indicates a policy that is likely to increase tensions between Ankara and Washington. McGurk has been an outspoken critic of Turkish policy on Syria and is likely to play a significant role in shaping Turkish-US ties.
Turkey’s first military involvement in northwestern Syria was an operation with the US Army against Daesh. Then, in Afrin in 2018 and again in 2019, after Trump withdrew American forces, Turkey carried out two more operations to wipe out YPG/PKK elements in northern Syria. Russian forces have also settled into some military bases after US troops withdrew. Since then, Moscow has enhanced its presence in the areas under YPG/PKK occupation east of the Euphrates, increasing the number of military bases and outposts.
Last October, Ankara and Moscow reached a deal, under which YPG/PKK terrorists would pull back 30 km south of Turkey’s border with Syria and Turkish-Russian security forces would conduct joint patrols there. Russia also started to establish a military unit consisting of local elements in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province — a move that caused tension between Assad regime forces and the YPG/PKK.
Turkey will raise the issue of American support for the YPG as a priority with the Biden administration.
Is Russia a much more reliable partner than the US in Turkey’s fight against the PKK in Syria and Iraq? That is doubtful. However, Turkey has been involved in delicate cooperation with Russia through the Astana/Sochi process, which allows these actors to both limit and widen their positions in Syria and act in accordance with their interests. Turkish-US relations lack such a mechanism in Syria. Moreover, while the US pushes Turkey to binary choices, Moscow — despite having its differences with Ankara over the Syrian regime — does the opposite and provides room for Ankara. If Turkey fails to find the US alongside it in its anti-terror campaign in the coming weeks, it is likely Russia will be eager to play that role instead.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz