Turkey sees U.S. backing Syrian Kurdish YPG as support for PKK - spokesman

Turkey does not differentiate between what it sees as terrorist organisations and any support for Syrian Kurdish forces means supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), state-run Anadolu news agency quoted presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın as saying on Wednesday in reference to U.S. backing for Kurdish fighters in Syria battling Islamic State.

Turkey sees the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), that control most of northeast Syria as part of the PKK that has been fighting for self-rule inside Turkey for more than 30 years. The YPG denies being part of the PKK, but both groups share the same democratic confederalist ideology and are part of the same umbrella organisation.

While the United States recognises the PKK as a terrorist organisation, U.S. troops have armed and trained YPG fighters who make up the bulk of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that has pushed Islamic State (ISIS) out of most of northern Syria. 

“Our position against the PKK is clear. Contrary to the PKK, we do not define the YPG as a terrorist organisation. We have never done that,” Washington's Syria envoy James Jeffrey said.

Turkey last week announced that it would launch a large-scale operation against the YPG east of River Euphrates in Syria and began shelling YPG positions. As a result of the Turkish shelling, the SDF called a temporary halt to its offensive against the remnants of ISIS in Syria. Jeffrey said on Wednesday that eliminating ISIS in Syria was Washington’s top priority.

“Unilateral military strikes into northwest Syria by any party, particularly as American personnel may be present or in the vicinity, are of great concern to us,” State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said last week in response to the Turkish shelling of Kurdish-controlled areas.

Kalın said on Wednesday that it was impossible for Turkey to accept the argument that its measures against YPG, which he said meant measures against the PKK, weakened the struggle against ISIS.

“Contrary to that, in fact countries that support this terrorist organisation, that cooperate with it, should reassess where they stand in the struggle against terror,” Kalın said.  

Security experts say Turkey’s Islamist government turned a blind eye to hundreds of foreign fighters crossing its territory to join ISIS and other hardline jihadist groups in Syria after the civil war broke out in 2011 and sees Kurdish nationalism as a greater threat.

The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday it would be offering millions of dollars in rewards for information leading the identification or location of three PKK leaders.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said the U.S. move was a positive but a very late step and called on Washington to adopt the same policy towards the YPG. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said it expected the United States to support the announcement with concrete action in Syria and Iraq against the PKK and what it said were PKK extensions.

But Turkish leaders are nevertheless cautiously optimistic over the U.S. rewards for top PKK leaders, pro-government columnist Abdulkadir Selvi wrote in the Hürriyet newspaper.

“There is no such thing as extreme happiness, but that does not mean that the step taken is underrated,” Selvi said. Turkish leaders, he said, “see it as a decision that has an important political and symbolic value”.

Selvi said Turkey expected the United States to cut its ties with the PKK, meaning the YPG, and that would be one of the topics discussed at a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump expected to take place in Paris this week.