Washington should address Turkish-PKK conflict to solve Syria problem -analyst

Washington should take a more aggressive approach in resolving rising tensions with Turkey over north-eastern Syria and should address the Kurdish conflict in Turkey which is the root cause of the problems, said Aaron Stein, Director of the Middle East Program for the Foreign Policy Research Institute on Friday.

Relations between the two NATO allies have soured over the last couple of years, with Turkey accusing the United States of ignoring Ankara’s security concerns by providing support to the Kurdish militia in Syria which forms the backbone of U.S.-led coalition forces fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.

Turkey sees the predominantly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union, and has been fighting inside Turkey for three decades. Some 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict, most of them Kurdish.

After months of negotiations, Turkey and the United States on Wednesday announced that they had decided to form a joint operations centre to further plans for a safe zone in northern Syria, which Turkey sees essential for its national security.

While the deal at the moment prevented an imminent Turkish assault against enclaves in north-east Syria controlled by the SDF, it does not indicate a U.S.-Turkish breakthrough, Stein said.

The two sides might not even have the same idea about the intent and purpose of the joint operations centre to be established, as Washington may see it as a tool to buy more time before a Turkish assault against the SDF, while for Turkey it may serve as a test to measure Washington’s commitment, Stein said.

“The core problem for the United States is that it needs the SDF for its Syria strategy, while outreach to Ankara is necessary to prevent a unilateral intervention that could upset America’s Syria policy, and (more broadly) to try and repair relations with a NATO ally,” Stein said. 

Turkey and the United States could leverage the forthcoming operations room to their advantage, and split the difference on the divergent safe zone conceptions which would require both Ankara and Washington to make a compromise over core national security issues, according to Stein. 

But any proposal in that direction will be shaky and will likely fail, as it will not address Turkey’s pressing problem of eliminating the SDF threat, the analyst said. 

“The United States remains stuck between its partner force, the SDF, and its NATO ally, Turkey, and needs both sides to make concessions that would make each party more vulnerable and feel less safe,” he said.

And even Ankara and Washington might reach an impasse over implementation of the safe zone deal, Ankara might try to use it as a pressure point for a potential military action in north-east Syria, Stein said. 

“To really solve the north-eastern Syria problem set, Washington has to get more aggressive in addressing the root cause: The Turkish—PKK conflict,” the analyst said. 

According to Stein, the U.S. officials could publicly push Turkey and the PKK to restart peace talks that collapsed in 2015.

Such a step might incite further Turkish anger but given that the United States has inadvertently created a PKK-allied statelet on Turkey’s border, and now has troops at risk from a Turkish invasion, it may worth thinking boldly about how to manage this crisis, Stein said.