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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Turkey Warns US About Kurdish Advances in Syria

by Jamie Dettmer June 22, 2015

Turkey has warned the United States and Western powers of red lines when it comes to the Kurds and their military advances against Islamic extremists in northern Syria, including a firm position the Kurds must not threaten the territorial integrity of Syria by seeking their own autonomous Kurdish State.

There should also be no demographic changes or population shifts on the Syrian side of the border as a result of Kurdish military offensives against Islamic State (IS) militants, also known as ISIL, according to a policy document reportedly approved by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The document was drafted during two high-level security meetings at Turkey's foreign ministry, after Kurdish fighters captured the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad from the Islamic State last week. "No one can act in their own interest just because they are fighting ISIL.... The demographic structure of the region cannot be changed through a fait accompli," states one section of the document leaked to Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper.

The military gains by fighters from the Kurdish YPG, or People's Protection Units, which are dominated by Syria's Democratic Union Party (PYD), are increasingly alarming President Erdogan. The PYD is an offshoot of Turkey's own outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has pursued a campaign for Kurdish self-rule since 1984. Peace talks between Ankara and the PKK have stalled.

Kurdish gains

Backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against the IS, the Kurds have united two cantons along the border, establishing a contiguous Kurdish region stretching from Kobani in the west to Hasakah province in the east.

The Turks fear the United States is giving a green light to the Kurds' post-civil war ambitions. And some analysts agree.

The backing of Kurdish advances with airstrikes "signaled U.S. support for some form of contiguous Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria, despite continuing Turkish reservations regarding the expansion of YPG's influence on its southern border," argue Christopher Kozak and Genevieve Casagrande, analysts with the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-backed think tank.

According to the Turkish policy document, Ankara's alarm has been communicated to Washington, NATO and the U.N. Security Council. "The United States has recognized Turkey's claim and conveyed it to the PYD administration at the highest level," the document notes.

But it remains unclear whether the Obama administration at a later stage will support Syrian Kurdish calls for a separate autonomous state or whether it is focused only on the fight against IS.

Last year, when the United States dropped supplies to Kurdish fighters battling to defend the border town of Kobani, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he understood Ankara's concerns about the PYD's ties to the PKK. He appeared to indicate U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds was temporary in nature. "It would be irresponsible of us, as well morally very difficult, to turn your back on a community fighting ISIL, as hard as it is," he said.

Tal Abyad

On June 11, as Kurdish forces, supported by some anti-Assad Arab rebel militias, closed in on Tal Abyad, President Erdogan warned: "The West, which is hitting Arabs and Turkmen of Tal Abyad from the air, is sadly settling the PYD and PKK terror organizations in their places." On June 14, he said the YPG seizure of Tal Abyad "could lead to the creation of a structure (independent state) that threatens our borders".

More than 20,000 people from the mainly Arab town of Tal Abyad and surrounding villages fled over the border into Turkey as the battle between Kurdish fighters and jihadists raged, prompting Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc to accuse the Kurds of engaging in "ethnic cleansing" in Tal Abyad.

Some Syrian rebel militias fighting to oust Syria's President Bashar al-Assad have repeated the charge, maintaining the PYD is trying to effect a demographic change along the border to expand Kurdish territory by perpetrating abuses against Arab civilians as they advance, including the burning of Arab homes.

But the accusation has been denied vehemently by Syrian Kurds, including by the PYD leader Salih Muslim, who in an interview with CNNTurk insisted the claim is not true and dismissed the allegation that his fighters are creating a "Kurdish corridor." "There is no corridor," he said. "We are fighting against ISIL's jihadists and the international community sees us as the ones who are the most effective in this fight against the ISIL. And we are satisfied with it."

He warned, "Some circles are trying to ignite a Kurdish-Arab military conflict."

The PYD is currently in negotiations with various independent Syrian civil society groups to arrange for them to conduct a fact-finding trip to Tal Abyad and surrounding villages. There has been no independent verification of Ankara's allegations about Kurdish fighters trying to engineer population shifts along the border.

The allegation just in itself, though, may complicate the next steps in the Kurdish offensive against IS. "YPG gains will also likely exacerbate tensions between Syrian Kurds, the Turkish government, and the Assad regime in a way which limits the options available to both the YPG and the United States," predict Institute for the Study of War analysts Kozak and Casagrande. "These accusations may threaten to disrupt the current cooperation between Kurdish forces and the Syrian opposition" during preparations for an offensive on Raqqa City, the Islamic State's de facto capital in Syria.

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