Michael Doran, senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy, wrote an excellent piece yesterday that pointed out how the United States’ Middle Eastern policy under President Barack Obama is alienating traditional regional allies in favor of Iran, which he notes has thus far yielded little tangible positives if the nuclear negotiations are used as a barometer. However one ally that the United States is emboldening is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), to the ire of fellow NATO member Turkey.
The United States and the KRG have been allies for quite some time. Particularly during the 2003 Iraq war, cooperation between the two was crucial. Iraqi Kurdistan is far more stable than the rest of the country (evidenced by events this past year) and, unlike many groups in Iraq, the KRG likes the United States. This is grudgingly accepted by the Turks, who, to their credit have attempted to negotiate with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a group that has connections throughout greater Kurdistan.
As Turkey drags it feet regarding the Islamic State situation, sometimes appearing as though it is willing to cooperate and other times demonstrating it is not (at least until the US includes removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in its policy), the United States has steadily moved forward with support of the Kurds. Indeed, the airstrikes that are currently targeting the Islamic State began when the extremists began to shell Erbil (capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) in August and, allegedly, the United States is planning to build three military bases in Iraqi Kurdistan to further that support.
The United States is engaging other Kurdish movements as well. The coalition has worked in close tandem with the YPG in defense of Kobane. The two have apparently been in direct contact with one another and strategized identifying targets for strikes and providing supplies to the besieged defenders. Thelatter was conducted through the PYD, the political group that the YPG is part of. This has particularly enraged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who considers the PYD (and YPG) as akin to the PKK -- a terror organization that has plagued Turkey for decades. It is important to note that the United States lists the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization as well, so if the PKK and PYD are as linked as Mr. Erdogan claims, then the United States is in effect aiding a group associated with an acknowledged terror organization. Erdogan is not far off as the YPG is considered by many to be the Syrian affiliate of the PKK.
Calling the aid an “error” (even beyond the fact that some crates were blown off-course and landed in the hands of Islamic State fighters), Mr. Erdogan believes that the military aid in particular will cause Turkey problems in the future. He’s probably right -- once (if) the Islamic State is defeated, Turkey’s Kurdish problem manifests stronger. Already the PKK has threatened to abandon peace with Turkey, and, aided with new weapons, a surge in morale, and greater unity across Kurdish autonomy movements, it is likely to want a greater share of the pie than Turkey may be willing to sacrifice for peace.
For the moment, the United States appears unconcerned with the Turkish plight, choosing instead to arm those actually fighting the Islamic State in a way that does not put the United States up against Mr. Assad, as Turkey wants. Mr. Doran’s piece explains in detail why Mr. Obama is wary of acceding to Turkish demands, mainly that he does not want to step on any Iranian toes during nuclear negotiations. Helping the YPG advances the goal of fighting the Islamic State while not confronting Mr. Assad, for the Syrian Kurds have (largely, though not entirely) steered clear of openly entering the Syrian civil war, preferring instead to establish a fringe area of autonomy in return for not joining the rebellion.
Will this policy hurt the United States? It certainly damages the relationship with Turkey, but considering Turkey’s snubs toward the coalition, that goes both ways. Saudi Arabia, for example, wants Mr. Assad to go too but has joined in on the campaign against the Islamic State anyway, meaning Turkey could too if it so chose. But it has chosen not to, maybe explaining why its concerns over the United States arming Kurdish elements have fallen on deaf ears.
Long term the United States may find there to be negative ramifications from directly assisting the YPG and of course, there is always the possibility of negatives from just about any policy option. But crucially, in the short term, the policy appears to be working if one considers Kobane as a test case. No, the YPG is not the coalition’s go-to for saving Syria (it is interested in saving its own territory), but if the thus-far successful Kobane defense is any indicator, the airstrike campaign can achieve its goals with the right partners. The defense of Kobane mirrors the accomplishments of the Peshmerga, coupled with American airpower, in defending Iraqi Kurdistan from invasion. Turkey may dislike this, but the United States is going to support those that make its policy work, and that, for the time being, appears to be the Kurds.