A Turkey-PKK settlement offers a chance for stability in Turkey and Syria

The United States has taken steps Syria in recent months that suggest a shift towards reconciliation with Turkey. Even if this is so, however, there is still such a deep divide over strategic outlook that these steps could be easily reversed, opening a new round of uncertainty in northern Syria as 2018 draws to a close.

The first joint American-Turkish military patrols began outside the northern Syrian town of Manbij on Nov. 1. Manbij has troubled U.S.-Turkey relations for two years, since it was captured by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that Ankara accuses of being the Syrian extension of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting inside Turkey for more than 30 years.

The YPG seized Manbij from Islamic State (ISIS) in August 2016 with help from the U.S.-led international coalition. Turkey supported the coalition-YPG Manbij offensive, despite having laid down a red line against the YPG crossing west of the River Euphrates, because of American promises, publicly stated, that the YPG would be withdrawn and local Arabs would be allowed to rule their city. This promise was broken immediately.

The YPG pushed onwards from Manbij towards Turkey’s border, triggering Operation Euphrates Shield, which cleared ISIS from the border area in northeast Aleppo province. By holding this territory, Turkey prevented the YPG controlling the whole border by linking its eastern cantons with its Afrin enclave in the west. Turkey cleared YPG militants from Afrin in a two-month operation, Olive Branch, which ended in March.

The YPG makes up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), attaching some dependent Arab units to its forces, among them the Manbij Military Council (MMC).

To try to resolve the issues between the two NATO allies, two working groups were established in February: one to work on the Syria file, and the other on the broader issues afflicting relations - Fethullah Gülen, the Halkbank case, Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, and the Americans detained in Turkey. The “Manbij roadmap” reached in June sprang from the Syria track; it focused on getting the YPG to withdraw from Manbij and setting up the joint patrols to reduce Turkey’s anxieties.

In July this year, the MMC said YPG military advisers had completed their withdrawal. As with prior claims to have left the city, this was false. The only time the YPG has withdrawn from territory around Manbij was to hand over villages to Syrian government and Iranian troops.

The inherent problem is the nature of the MMC, a component of the YPG’s governing structure in the area it calls Rojava. To meet Turkey’s minimal security requirements would require totally restructuring the administration of Manbij, effectively localised regime-change. The United States is proposing something like this, with joint vetting of individuals for the MMC going forward. Considering the scale of the ambition, the details are worryingly few.

The joint patrols in Manbij, along the boundary between the Euphrates Shield area and the MMC, have proceeded without a hitch, but since they began shellfire has been exchanged between Turkey and the YPG around Kobani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has vowed to launch an offensive against the YPG east of the Euphrates, probably beginning at Tel Abyad.

Jennifer Cafarella, the director of intelligence planning at the Institute for the Study of War, said she was “not actually sure Erdoğan is going to attack this time. He’s not undertaking the kind of military preparation we would expect to see”. Reports that Turkey has already mobilised 1,200 Syrian rebel proxies are denied by the rebels themselves.

Whether or not Turkey does launch a new attack east of the Euphrates, the problem with the Manbij roadmap remains with its fundamentals: the United States thinks this concession is approaching the last one that will be necessary to secure Rojava against Turkish efforts to destabilise it, and Ankara thinks this is the beginning of the road to the United States dumping the YPG.

The YPG has cleverly blamed its pause of anti-ISIS operations against the final pocket of jihadists in Hajin, in eastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor province, on Turkey’s shelling. In fact, the YPG paused days before because of a vicious ISIS counter-attack. But claiming Turkey is providing direct support to ISIS meshes with the YPG strategy of presenting its political project as an anti-ISIS mission.

The YPG messaging, with its framing focused on ISIS, plays to official, as well as popular, sentiment in the West, the necessary support base for the YPG’s long-term success. The U.S. government’s priority in Syria is ISIS. Whether it should be or not is debateable, but even in its own narrow terms a policy that focuses only on ISIS will not defeat ISIS. U.S. officials argue against alterations in the Rojava zone because that area is stable. This is myopic. The trendline of the current arrangements is toward instability.

In Syria, there has not yet been an escalation of ISIS activity akin to the progress of its terror-insurgency in Iraq, but the jihadist group’s post-caliphate strategy of guerrilla attacks and assassinations is underway and the political fissures that the group will need to mount a similar comeback are more inflamed by the day. Raqqa is at boiling point and in Deir Ezzor things are unravelling.

The recent, visible wave of anger from people in Deir Ezzor toward their YPG overlords has been triggered by some particularly salient abuses, yet the cause goes deeper. “A large number of people in Deir Ezzor were counting on the Turks to intervene” after ISIS was gone, said Omar Abu Layla, the CEO of Deir Ezzor 24, a local reporting outlet. But they realised the distance was prohibitive and were prepared, despite huge reservations about the YPG, to try to work with them.

That honeymoon period between Deiris and the YPG is now coming to an end, said Abu Layla, because of what he said was the provocative style of governance by the YPG: authoritarian, exclusivist, and duplicitous, sending Arab SDF fighters to be consumed in battles with ISIS, while “the Kurdish fighters watch without actually participating”. The Americans would be best-served by “communicating directly with the real people of influence in the society”, Abu Layla said, to build a legitimate governing structure with al-hadina al-shabiyya (lit. “popular incubator”; a base of support). This is the only way to “stabilise and reconstruct the province, and eliminate the Iranian threat in the area”, he said.

Will the United States change course? Can it?

The United States could continue with the current muddle through policy, with its ad hoc concessions to Turkey on patrols and a jointly vetted MMC, and hope this settles things down. This is extremely unlikely. Alternately, the United States could clearly choose a side between Turkey and the YPG; either course would have serious costs and neither looks realistic at the present. Leaving the final option: the United States can position itself to mediate between its two partners. Such a solution cannot, ultimately, be found in Syria. The quandary in northeastern Syria is an outgrowth of Turkish politics, from where the YPG originates.

A Turkey-PKK settlement would be very difficult to get to, but it offers a chance for sustainable stability in Turkey and Syria, and it would be most strategically advantageous for the United States. A peace deal in the current climate is impossible; the United States has built up the PKK too far for it to feel the need to negotiate. The PKK would have to be weakened.

There are indications that U.S. policy is pushing in the direction of bringing a chastened PKK to the table. The Manbij arrangements can be interpreted as part of this. In August, it was reported that the United States provided intelligence for the Turkish raid that killed Ismail Özden (Zaki Shingali), a PKK leader in Iraq. And on Tuesday, the United States announced, for the first time, millions of dollars available from the Rewards for Justice programme for information leading to the apprehension of three top PKK officials.

It is impossible to tell at this point if the United States is undertaking a concerted policy to mend relations with Turkey, building on the release of pastor Andrew Brunson last month. It should be said that if this is what the United States is doing, it is not having the desired effect; the lack of explanation has confused the Turks and aroused dark thoughts. Turkish presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın expressed this in public. While cautiously welcoming the bounties put on the PKK leaders, Kalın expressed suspicions that the rewards were an effort to enforce the distinction between the YPG and PKK.

The United States has proven stubborn in staking its position in Syria on the YPG, justified by inertia and short-termist assessments of its stability. It can be doubted that President Donald Trump’s administration is capable of the clarity of thought, and persistence in implementation, needed to reorient U.S. policy in a more balanced direction. Nonetheless, the Manbij deal is a potential start, and stranger things have happened of late.