WASHINGTON (Today’s Zaman) — The United States has insisted on backing Syrian Kurdish militias in their fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), dismissing the Turkish president’s demand that Washington end its relationship with Syrian Kurds and recognize them as terrorists.
US State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner avoided responding directly to the comments of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and repeatedly highlighted the importance of Turkey, a major US ally, in efforts to destroy ISIL. Toner, who spoke to reporters in Washington, reiterated that the US has not changed its position in viewing Kurdish militias as their partners and not terrorists.
The war of words between the US and Turkey has continued for a third day straight, with Erdogan bashing Washington for refusing to recognize the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units, (YPG) as terrorists. The intercontinental squabble was kicked off after US President Barack Obama’s envoy Brett McGurk visited Kobani — a Syrian border town that was a symbol of Kurdish resistance to ISIL’s advance — and met with Kurds there.
Erdogan asked the US to choose between his country and the “terrorists in Kobani.” He questioned Washington’s alliance with Ankara when they refuse to recognize the PYD, the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as a terrorist organization.
He continued his criticism on Thursday. Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Spokesperson Omer Celik also directed criticism toward Turkey’s ally over its relation to PYD.
The PKK is considered a terror group by Turkey, the European Union and the US. It has escalated a recent violent campaign against Turkish security forces, digging trenches, setting up barricades and attempting to carve out autonomous areas. At least 280 members of Turkish security services have been killed since last summer when a cease-fire was broken, forcing tens of thousands of civilians out of their homes in the country’s restive Southeast.
Toner demanded that the PKK immediately cease its “campaign of violence,” saying that the latest bout of violence in the region has undermined all that was achieved during the Kurdish peace process. He noted that Turkish authorities have the responsibility to respond to PKK attacks but urged both parties to de-escalate the situation and return to the negotiating table.
Turkey has been alarmed by recent Kurdish gains in northern Syria and fears that the growing Kurdish footprint in neighboring Syria could risk separatist sentiments among its sizeable Kurdish minority.
The spokesman said the US understands Turkey’s concern about the perceived threat the YPG poses to Turkey, but it does not agree with its ally that the YPG is a security threat to Turkey. He stressed that the US believes the Syrian Kurdish militants are focused on fighting ISIL within Syria.
Toner specifically avoided commenting on the sharpened rhetoric by Erdogan, who accused the US of being one of the culprits in the “sea of blood” in Syria. While journalists grilled the spokesman on what concerns Turkey might have about Syrian Kurds who have been fighting ISIL, Toner’s response was curt, saying Turkey is an ally and they appreciate the role they have played in anti-ISIL efforts.
Turkey says the PYD is another extension of the PKK, which has been attacking Turkish security forces since last summer. It claims that Kurds from both countries are crossing the borders to fight in both countries and that weapons provided to Syrian Kurds somehow ended up north of the border. The US previously said it has no evidence to back up that claim and said they only provided ammunition, not weaponry, to the Kurds.
“They clearly make the link between the PKK and the YPG. We don’t,” Toner told the daily press briefing. “The Turkish government has expressed concerns about the YPD [PYD] and their connection with the PKK. We don’t make that connection, period.”
While Erdogan escalated the tensions between the two countries over the PYD, the State Department played down the rhetoric and highlighted the significance of the partnership with its NATO ally.
“Our commitment to the US-Turkey partnership and alliance, we take that very seriously and we’re in constant communication with the Turkish government to address any concerns they may have. They’re a critical partner in the anti-Daesh or anti-ISIL coalition, and we coordinate closely with them across a variety of fronts and all lines of effort, and we’re going to continue those discussions moving forward, but I think no one should question our commitment to our alliance with Turkey,” Toner noted.