Choosing sides in the Middle East is a fool's game. The enemy of today could be an ally tomorrow. There is little doubt that the Kurdish People's Defense Units have been the most effective American partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), despite the fact these units are often ill-equipped. However, the role of these units has complicated matters for Turkey, worried that Kurdish influence along its border with Syria could lead to a Kurdish homeland. Recently, Turkey's forces shelled Syrian-Kurdish defense units, known as the YPG, wounding several, although Turkish officials insist the YPG "does not fall within the scope of its war on terror."
This episode underscores the fragility of the U.S.-Turkey agreement that allows American jets to use Turkey's air bases to strike ISIS positions. But as the U.S. tries to compartmentalize longstanding differences between Turkey and Syrian Kurds, hostility between the two sides has intensified.
The YPG controls a swath of territory that abuts the Turkish border. Their leaders claim that Turkish forces have been attacking their villagers, rather than ISIS terrorists. Metin Gurcan, a former Turkish special forces officer, said, "On the one hand, the U.S. has a combat proven partnership with the YPG; on the other hand, it needs Turkey to be an active player to use its air bases and set up a buffer zone in northern Syria." Coordinating these conflicting interests is the American dilemma.
Turkey's war against ISIS is accompanied by a crackdown on the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization in Europe and the United States. However, the PKK is closely affiliated with the moderate YPG, a presumptive ally in the war against ISIS. U.S. officials may draw a line between the PKK and the YPG, but it is not a position widely embraced by Turkey's military leaders. In some respects, it is a distinction comparable to American efforts to separate Shiite militias in Iraq that answer to Iran and Shiite forces that are loyal to the Iraqi government. At some point, it appears as if these distinctions are not only arbitrary, but pointless.
On the ground, there is little to distinguish between strikes on the PKK and the YPG and Turkish officials have long maintained they are one and the same. Still, there are Turkish denials that the YPG is being targeted. In the Middle East, there are layers and layers of complicated assertions. One thing is clear: Turkey is adamantly opposed to a Kurdish state on its border and it is equally true that Kurdish leaders are intent in pursuing that goal.
While the U.S. has not declared its intention, it is attempting to steer a course between Scylla and Charybdis reflects a need for Kurdish fighters in the field and Turkish air bases for our jets. What American officials guaranteed Turkey's leaders to secure air rights to Incirlik air base in unknown. Were the Kurds sold out? This is now a question on the mind of Kurds throughout the world. Needless to say, it would not be the first time the Obama administration threw an ally under the proverbial bus. The Kurds represent one of the few reliable fighting forces willing to stand against ISIS.
Yes, this is the Middle East.
London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.