With Turkey and Kurds, U.S. wants to have cake and eat it too

The U.S. State Department put multi-million dollar bounties on the heads of three Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leaders last week. The timing of the move suggests Washington aims to placate Turkey, which earlier this month shelled the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), America's ally in Syria against the Islamic State (ISIS).

While Turkey surely welcomes the bounties, taking a “better late than never” attitude, it also wants the U.S. to relinquish its support of the YPG, which it insists is indistinguishable from the PKK. “We know very well how those who declare PKK terrorists and place bounties on their leaders work together with them,” Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan recently declared.

While the US officially views the PKK a terrorist organization, as it has since 1997, it sees the YPG as a distinct and separate organization.

“Our position on PKK is clear, but we do not classify YPG as a terror organization. We never did,” James Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement, said last week. “We understand Turkey's security concerns. We understand the concern over ties between PKK and YPG. That's why we are acting very, very, carefully. We inform Turkey about what we do and why we do it.”

The YPG is the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) which was founded in 2003 to promulgate the beliefs of the PKK's jailed founder Abdullah Öcalan through the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). The KCK is an umbrella organization that includes the PKK, PYD, and the Iranian Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK).

Serhat Warto, a KCK spokesman, told Ahval News that the U.S. bounties on the PKK are nothing new, arguing that it amounts to a continuation of a U.S. policy that has long helped Turkey target PKK leaders. He pointed out that it was Washington that helped Turkey capture Öcalan in 1999, which he views as a prime example of how U.S. policy toward the Kurdish issue in Turkey has always favoured the Turkish state.

Warto also said that they view the bounty as a clear intervention in the Kurdish affairs in Turkey and other parts of Kurdistan, adding that all Washington cares about is its own interests.

Regarding Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava), where the Kurdish-dominated administration works closely with U.S. forces against ISIS, he said that the United States is there to serve its own interests, and that Rojava Kurds may continue to cooperate with the U.S. despite the bounties.

However, he insisted that the Kurds of Rojava are aligned with the PKK and its jailed leader. Thus, the American bounties may “raise doubts and fears about U.S. policy versus Rojava.”

On Nov. 2, U.S. forces began patrolling the Syrian border with Turkey in a clear attempt to deter Ankara from shelling YPG positions there. Placing bounties on PKK leaders a mere four days later may have been Washington's way of trying to placate an increasingly agitated Ankara.  

Nicholas A. Heras, the Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, thinks something like this might well be the case.

“The Trump team is trying to buy Erdogan's support in Syria by placing the bounties on these PKK leaders,” Heras told Ahval News.

“This is a gamble meant to show Turkey that the U.S. might work with the YPG in Syria, but that it has Turkey's back when it comes to the PKK inside of Turkey,” he elaborated. “The Trump team is trying for a classic 'cake and eat it too' strategy here, hoping that Erdoğan will be happy with the U.S. in Syria if the Americans go after the PKK in Turkey. Sadly for the Trump team, Erdoğan is not buying this move, and wants the Americans to kill PKK everywhere, even in Syria.”

Similarly, Lawk Ghafuri, an independent Kurdish analyst, sees the bounties making an impact beyond the battlefield. “U.S. bounties on the PKK change nothing as the PKK are already on the U.S. terror list,” Ghafuri told Ahval News. “However, it is a good step for Ankara in regards to improving relations with the Americans.”

Dr. Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Iraqi Kurdish diplomat, condemned Washington's move in a tweet, arguing that the bounties are “unacceptable and completely counterproductive” before insisting that, “The U.S. must work toward reviving the peace process between the PKK and Turkey instead of encouraging Erdoğan’s futile war against Kurds.”

A ceasefire to the Turkish-PKK conflict, successfully implemented in early 2013, collapsed in July 2015. Ankara, in a clear bid to mitigate criticism of its ensuing crackdown, permitted the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS to use its strategically important Incirlik Airbase before initiating a brutal crackdown on the PKK in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast.

Yerevan Saeed, a Research Fellow at the Middle East Research Institute (MERI) noted that the decision about the bounties came as the U.S. Deputy Secretary Assistant of State Matthew Palmer visited Ankara.

In a press release about this visit, Palmer declared that the U.S. “values its counter-terrorism cooperation with our NATO Ally Turkey” before going on to say he was “pleased to announce” the bounties targeting the three senior PKK members.

“This appears to me to have been prepared by Washington to appease Ankara,” Saeed told Ahval News. “The irony is it should have been Ankara trying to appease the U.S given all the baggage Turkey has due to its unhelpful foreign policy in the area. Having said that, the decision is more symbolic for the moment, given the close cooperation of U.S military with the YPG in Rojava.”

While the bounties are little more than symbolism, Saeed explained, the decision has enraged Kurds.

“There have been extensive social media reactions, condemning the U.S decision to support Ankara while Turkish President Erdoğan continues to back Islamists in Syria by funding and training them,” he explained, also pointing to Ankara’s unlawful imprisonment of thousands of Turkish Kurds, including politicians and journalists. “Kurds consider Washington's decision as a stab in the back of one of its staunchest allies in the Middle East, who have been the shield against international jihadism and extremism over the last five years.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.