Commentary, Politics

Regional Powers’ New YPG Politics

On Wednesday, Defense Minister Fikri Işık met with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Brussels. One of the crucial points of the meeting was the U.S.'s support for the PKK Syrian affiliate Democratic Union Party's (PYD) armed People's Protection Units (YPG). Responding to Ankara's disapproval, Mattis replied to Işık saying: "This relationship with the YPG isn't one of choice. It is out of necessity and is a temporary, short-term relationship."
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On Wednesday, Defense Minister Fikri Işık met with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Brussels. One of the crucial points of the meeting was the U.S.’s support for the PKK Syrian affiliate Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) armed People’s Protection Units (YPG). Responding to Ankara’s disapproval, Mattis replied to Işık saying: “This relationship with the YPG isn’t one of choice. It is out of necessity and is a temporary, short-term relationship.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration’s YPG policy mirrors former President Barack Obama’s approach, basically because those directing U.S. policies on Syria have remained the same. With the Raqqa operation, Trump demonstrated that he would continue “regarding the YPG as a strategic piece in the struggle against Daesh”, despite Turkey’s disapproval of the support and the fact that a stronger YPG threatens Turkish national security. Despite the opposition, the U.S. administration continues to insist on its policy. The rhetoric of let’s support the YPG and mollify Turkey formulated during the Obama era is unfortunately still going on today. As a result of its support, the U.S. is arming the YPG with heavy weapons while also providing intelligence and air protection to YPG forces in the field. As a result, the U.S. provides the group with both physical and symbolic protection.

Parallel to aiding the YPG, the U.S. is also attempting to mollify Turkey. In the Trump’s meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this past May, the U.S. president made attempts to deliver a message of no need to worry. In fact, the U.S. confirmed that the distributed weapons would be collected in the end, and upon request, a list of the arms could be provided. Additionally, the U.S. stressed that the YPG was not being supported in its efforts to gain territory but rather supported in the fight against Daesh. In response to this, Erdoğan reminded them of the promises made about the YPG during the Obama era. This included the YPG settling in Aleppo, despite the U.S.’s assurance that the YPG would immediately leave Manbij, and emphasized that although the YPG would only be supported in its fight against Daesh, the group was being allowed to establish its own area of hegemony in liberated areas. During the meeting, Erdoğan asserted that the minute the YPG made a move toward Turkey’s southern border, it would be regarded as a threat and strong force would be used against it.

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The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) has been targeting YPG positions in Afrin for the past few days. Two days ago, the TSK also responded to YPG forces that attacked Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in Maranaz south of Azaz. After this clash, the YPG once again repeated its message that it would pull out of the Raqqa operation. A message clearly directed toward the U.S.

Predictably, the U.S. thinks it can once again control the situation through a policy of mollifying Turkey. The latest example is Mattis’s placating. By telling Turkey the YPG is their temporary ally, the U.S. thinks it can soothe Ankara while at the same time persuade it to forgo its negative YPG policy. However, the issue directly effects Turkey’s national security, and the PYD and YPG becoming more powerful on the southern border is not acceptable.

On the other hand, there is another matter to discuss: The developments of late in the Syrian areas the YPG regards as its own area of hegemony.

The YPG has found a comfortable place for itself since 2013 in Syria. What afforded it this comfortable area was, above all else, the presence of Daesh. Daesh’s existence gave three things to the YPG. First, the U.S. gave the group military and political support. Second, the Bashar Assad regime and its supporter Iran did not regard the YPG as an enemy. Lastly, Russia also gave the YPG support at critical times in order to ensure that it would not fully be under the control of the U.S.

Clearly, the end of the Daesh presence in Syria is nigh. Daesh has rapidly withdrawn from its strongholds, leaving them empty. Now, the question is who will fill the void. At this point, Russia, Iran and the Assad regime have come to regard the YPG as a threat. Russia fully regards the YPG as a U.S. proxy, resulting in a new strategy. On Syria, Russia and the U.S. are coming face-to-face in a manner not seen before.

In such an environment, it is not possible for Turkey to remain idle based on empty promises. For Turkey, the Syrian issue revolves around national security and it sees the YPG as an enemy.

Turkey saw that it could not fight against terrorism by staying on defense.


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Fahrettin Altun is a faculty member at Ibn Haldun University, Istanbul, Turkey. He earned his BA in Sociology from Istanbul University in 1998 and two years later he received his MA in Sociology from Mimar Sinan University. In 2006 Altun earned his PhD from Istanbul University and his thesis was entitled “Comparative Analysis of Media Theories of McLu-han and Baudrillard.” He was a visiting professor at University of Utah, Salt Lake City. Altun has written articles for Middle East Critique, Perceptions, Toplum ve Bilim, Türkiye Araştırmaları Literatür Dergisi, Euro Agenda, Sivil Toplum, Divan, Toplumbilim and contributed with chapters to The Turkish AK Party and Its Leader: Criticism, Opposition and Dissent, Modern Türkiye’de Siyasal Düşünce (Vol. 6 İslamcılık), Sivil Toplum: Farklı Bakışlar, Küresel Güçler. He is the author of the books Modernleşme Kuramı: Eleştirel Bir Giriş (Küre, 2011 (3rd edition), Türkiye’de Basın Özgürlügˆü (SETA Yayınları, 2016) and The Triumph of Turkish Democracy: The July 15 Coup Attempt And Its Aftermath (SETA Yayınları, 2016). Fahrettin Altun was a columnist for Akşam newspapers and currently he writes for Sabah and Daily Sabah newspapers. Moreover, he was editor-in-chief of Anlayış, and presently serves as the editor-in-chief of Kriter journal which covers political, economic and social topics and is monthly published. Altun also hosted Ayrıntı, a live television program aired in TRT 2 and TRT Haber for two years and currently he is part of two television programs: “Enine Boyuna” and “Dışa Bakış” aired in TRT 1 and TRT Haber respectively. Moreover, Altun is the General Coordinator of SETA Istanbul. Altun’s research focus covers sociology of media and communication, political communication, social media, Turkish modernization and political culture.