Sertaç Aktan
Jun 11 2018

NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s “blunder” endangers relations with Turkey

The state of Turkey’s relations with the United States and other NATO allies have recently been so poor as to spawn rhetoric from both sides more befitting dialogue with an enemy state.

There are diverse reasons for the tension, including Turkey’s drift towards Russia, exemplified by Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems despite NATO objections, and an authoritarian turn that has seen U.S. citizens locked up on specious charges.

One of the most complex and stubborn issues separating the two sides is northern Syria, where U.S. forces have taken sides with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Ankara views both groups, as well as their affiliates in Syria, as extensions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an organisation that pursues Kurdish self-rule through armed struggle in Turkey, where it is considered a terrorist organisation and grave security threat.

Turkey NATo

The Turkish stance on the Syrian Kurdish groups’ links to the PKK was reflected in a recent draft drawn up by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly during its May 25-28 Spring Session in Warsaw, Poland, reportedly at the insistence of a Turkish delegation led by Ahmet Berat, a deputy for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Officials from the assembly, however, are already attempting to play down the draft, with several telling Ahval it stands to be changed “at the first opportunity” due to a lack of clarity in the text.

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The international classification of the PYD and YPG as terrorist organisations is an important objective for Turkey, as it would provide legitimacy for military operations against the groups as justifiable acts of self-defence.

The Turkish government has been unable to convince the world that the groups had a hand in terrorist attacks within Turkey, however, so it viewed the description linking the group to the PKK, which the United States and NATO have designated a terrorist organisation, as a significant success.

Yet the United States has frequently drawn a line between the Syrian-Kurdish groups and the PKK, and has been in close cooperation with the YPG and affiliated groups in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.

This collaboration intensified in 2016 with the U.S.-led coalition’s ground operations against ISIS, which eventually led to the Kurdish forces capturing large areas of northern Syria from the extremist jihadist organisation.

Despite assurances from the United States that the YPG would leave, it and affiliated groups have remained to govern territories bordering Turkey, triggering cross-border military operations against the YPG by the Turkish Armed Forces and laying the ground for an unprecedented rift between Ankara and its Western allies.

While recent bilateral talks went some way to healing that rift by creating a “roadmap” for the YPG’s withdrawal from the northwest Syrian area of Manbij, the United States maintains that the group is distinct from the PKK and is not a terrorist organisation. The wording of the NATO PA draft, and the definitions of the group by international organisations more generally, therefore retain a special importance to Turkey.

So, Ankara will not be enthused by statements from NATO officials indicating a desire to remove this description.

Firstly, the sentence in the text linking the YPG and PKK is ambiguous, said NATO PA Political Committee Director Steffen Sachs in statements to Ahval, adding that the document the description appears in is a draft and does not reflect the NATO PA’s official position.

The Turkish position may be accepted in the final document, but whatever happens, the “ambiguity” in the draft’s wording must be removed, he said.

 

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The rapporteur in question, Julio Miranda Calha, accepts that the sentence in question is unintentionally ambiguous, and has stressed the NATO allies’ “differing approaches” in Syria.

Calha confirmed that the text would be corrected in the updated version of the report, to be presented at the NATO PA’s Annual Session in Halifax, Canada.

Referring to the “differing approaches” on Syria in his assessment of the situation for Ahval, European Geopolitical Forum's head of research George Niculescu’s view of the NATO PA draft was scathing.

“(It) is just a diplomatic blunder,” he said, given that it ignores a point of contention between NATO allies that has been brewing for years.

“If this political dispute was not eventually toned down, it risked throwing both Turkey and its NATO allies into a lose-lose situation, with potential disastrous consequences for both parties,” he said.

Those disastrous consequences, said Niculescu, include the potential breakdown of the NATO alliance, which despite rhetoric remains critically important for Turkey as well as its Western European allies, if not “Trumpian America”.

“The main problem for Turkey and its NATO Allies is not whether or not YPG/PYD is the same with PKK, but, as I see it, how could both Ankara and Washington meet their strategic objectives in Syria without endangering their NATO alliance,” said Niculescu.

That means collaboration between Turkey and the United States to find a way out of the “Syrian maze” is vital, according to Niculescu, who applauded Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s overtures to his U.S. counterparts that resulted in the Manbij roadmap.

In this sense, the NATO PA’s draft was a “double mistake” in that, after attempting to please Ankara with the initial description, “back-pedalling might create even more turmoil between the U.S. and Turkey" according Brussels based expert in geopolitics Karl Druart told Ahval.

Druart offered a damning closing statement on the NATO alliance’s current muddled objectives, which he said did not bode well for the future.

“It appears NATO suffers internal wars, showing a total lack of leadership, and the dawn of a new geopolitical era where realism takes over supposed common interests.”