Turkey’s threat to Kurds demands US protection

Turkey’s threat to Kurds demands US protection
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Responding to a Turkish military buildup on its border with northeastern Syria, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat of a new incursion into Syria, President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussia's election interference is a problem for the GOP Pence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Iran oil minister: US made 'bad mistake' in ending sanctions waivers MORE has warned Turkey not to attack the Syrian Kurds. Kurdish forces have been allied to America and the coalition it leads; have borne the brunt of the ground war with ISIS; have suffered heavy losses in doing so. On the other hand, Turkey considers both the Syrian Kurdish militia — the People’s Defense Units, better known as the YPG — and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to be a terrorist organization, essentially a branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, with which Ankara has been at war for decades.

Trump has threatened the Turks with “economic devastation” if their forces, which already occupy some 2,200 square miles of Syrian territory, penetrate farther into that country to take on the YPG. When asked what the president meant by “economic devastation,” Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoMore money at the gas pump may be the price of pressuring Iran The Hill's Morning Report - Dem candidates sell policy as smart politics Kim to meet with Putin as tensions with US rise MORE did not clarify Trump’s use of the phrase, other than to note that it probably meant economic sanctions. Given its increasingly weak economy, sanctions could indeed spell economic disaster for Turkey.

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It is not hard to understand why Trump decided to turn on Turkey, and his erstwhile friend, President Erdogan. In the aftermath of his impetuous tweet announcing that the United States would pull its troops out of Syria, Trump was stung by accusations from both sides of the political aisle that he was betraying America’s Kurdish allies. Moreover, Trump continues to need the Kurds on his side; they are still fighting ISIS, whose “defeat” has been Trump’s nominal justification for America’s withdrawal from Syria.

Though threats via Twitter are not exactly the most effective way to formulate American policy, Trump is fundamentally correct in warning off the Turks. A Turkish attack on the Kurds will further undermine what little credibility Washington still has with its allies in the region — and elsewhere. Moreover, a Turkish-Kurdish shootout would work to the advantage of Iran and Russia, whose respective hands are strengthened by Trump’s ill-considered troop withdrawal. Both countries could present themselves as the only stabilizing forces remaining in Syria and, were the Turks to attack the YPG, could offer to broker a ceasefire while Washington would remain on the sidelines. Better, then, that the United States make it clear to Erdogan that it simply will not tolerate Turkish incursions into Syrian territory.

In addition to threatening Turkey, however, the administration should work to reassure Ankara that the YPG and PYD will not be permitted to work hand in glove with the PKK. The Syrian Kurds insist they are not doing so, but Washington could make it clear to the leaders of both organizations that if there is evidence of their cooperation with the PKK, the United States would look the other way in the event of a Turkish attack.

Washington is uniquely situated to maintain the fragile state of non-belligerence — peace is too strong a word — that exists between the Turks and the Syrian Kurds. Unlike Russia or Iran, Washington is allied to both parties. The Trump administration should make the most of this advantage, and perhaps then take the next step of attempting to achieve a modus vivendi between the Turks and the Syrian Kurds. Doing so would mitigate the many stresses that continue to undermine the stability not only of Syria but of the region as a whole, and would cast Trump in the role of peacemaker, thereby feeding his insatiable ego.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.