Return of Obama-era officials could rekindle U.S.-Turkey differences over Syria - report

Ankara is braced for Joe Biden to reappoint figures associated with U.S. Syria policy under former President Barak Obama, when differences over Kurdish-led forces reached a high-point, Arab News said on Thursday.

Obama’s decision to provide military support for Kurdish fighters known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) was staunchly opposed by Turkey, which regards the group as the Syrian-branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

In October 2015, the YPG became the dominant faction in the newly formed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which now controls much of north and east Syria, including large parts of the border with Turkey, after leading the campaign to defeat ISIS with the backing of the United States.

Biden is expected to reselect Brett McGurk, the official Turkey blames for the SDF strategy, as National Security Council senior director for Washington’s policy in the Middle East and North Africa, Arab News said.

“McGurk may be a controversial figure for Turkey, but he is quite mainstream for the Democratic Party and popular in those circles, therefore it will be no big surprise if he gets a senior job within the Biden administration,” Özgür Ünlühisarcikli, the Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund, told Arab News.

“This will be a challenge Turkey will need to live with, particularly regarding differences over the YPG,” he added.

McGurk resigned from his position as U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS in December 2018 following President Donald Trump’s announcement that U.S. troops would leave Syria.

An eventual U.S. withdrawal took place in October 2019, precipitating a Turkish military offensive against the SDF, before Trump reversed course and retained a reduced military force on the ground.

Biden criticised the withdrawal and is expected to restore more steadfast U.S. support for the SDF. 

“The U.S.-Turkish relations might be more tense moving forward, but they have common interests to work together on Syria if Ankara recognises that Washington will ultimately not sell out the YPG,” Arab News cited Joe Macaron, a Middle East analyst at the Arab Center in Washington, as saying.

SDF figures have repeatedly warned of the threat of a new Turkish attack in the period of instability in the United States ahead of Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

Local press agencies on Wednesday reported further clashes between the SDF and Turkish-backed fighters close to Ain Issa, a strategically significant city on the M4 high-way running east to west across SDF territory.