News / Middle East

    US Envoy’s Trip to Kobani Sparks Tension Between US and Turkey

    U.S. Presidential Envoy to Anti-Islamic State Coalition Brett McGurk arrived in Kobani over the weekend, officials said Feb. 1, 2016. (Facebook Photo Courtesy of Kurdish official Aldar Khalil)
    U.S. Presidential Envoy to Anti-Islamic State Coalition Brett McGurk arrived in Kobani over the weekend, officials said Feb. 1, 2016. (Facebook Photo Courtesy of Kurdish official Aldar Khalil)

    A February 1 visit by a top U.S diplomat to Syria's border town of Kobani for meetings with Syrian Kurdish leaders is at the center of a widening rift between Ankara and Washington.

    Turkish officials and Western-backed Syrian rebels are once again highlighting the trip by President Obama’s special envoy Brett McGurk to try to explain subsequent clashes between U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army factions and U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

    The daylong visit to the battered town of Kobani, which withstood a months-long siege by Islamic State militants partly thanks to American airstrikes, was controversial the moment news of the trip broke and prompted protests from Turkish officials.

    They were infuriated with McGurk’s meetings with leaders of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of Turkey’s own outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara sees as a terrorist organization.

    In characteristic bombastic style, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thundered: "How can we trust [you]? Is it me who is your partner or the terrorists in Kobani?”

    Washington’s support of the PYD, has proven to be one of the most contentious issues dividing the U.S. and Turkey — along with Washington’s insistence that defeat of the Islamic State should take priority over the removal of Syrian President Basar al-Assad from power.

    FILE - President Barack Obama's envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, is seen speaking to reporters during a news conference.
    FILE - President Barack Obama's envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, is seen speaking to reporters during a news conference.

    Washington views the PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as its most effective ground partner in the fight against the Islamic State. But Ankara fears Syrian Kurds are determined to carve out their own independent state along the border with Turkey.

    According to the U.S. State Department, McGurk’s visit, which came a week late for the first-year anniversary of the lifting of the IS siege on the town, was to review the U.S.-led international coalition’s fight against IS.

    McGurk tweeted during his visit: “Spent two days in northern #Syria this past weekend to review ongoing fight against #ISIL. #ISIS #Daesh.”  He tweeted also: “Paid respects to over 1,000 Kurdish martyrs from #Kobani battle. #ISIL's siege was broken 1-year ago last week.”

    The explanations did little to mollify Ankara — or Syrian rebels — then or now.

    Accusations PYD told US of plans

    With the YPG fighting Western-backed FSA factions in the northern Aleppo countryside, McGurk's visit is being seized on again with anti-Assad rebels and Turkish officials questioning whether PYD leaders divulged their plans to McGurk for a Kurdish land-grab in northern Syria.

    U.S. officials say YPG commanders didn’t, telling VOA that the Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near Aleppo are “a different group that has not been coordinating with the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State in northeast Syria.”

    "The State Department has seen no indication that the elements of the SDF that the U.S. is working with have moved west of the Euphrates” into the northern Aleppo countryside, an official said.

    If McGurk’s visit was controversial at the time of the trip, it has become even more so since the Assad regime unleashed a war-changing offensive on February 4 across the northern Aleppo countryside with Russian air support.

    A video grab made on October 12, 2015, shows an image taken from a footage made available on the Russian Defence Ministry's official website, purporting to show explosions after airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force.
    A video grab made on October 12, 2015, shows an image taken from a footage made available on the Russian Defence Ministry's official website, purporting to show explosions after airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force.

    Syrian rebels claim the Kurds have been assisting the regime by grabbing from them a series of towns, including Tell Rifaat, and an airbase anti-Assad insurgents have controlled since August 2013. And they claim the Kurdish-dominated SDF has been coordinating their attacks with the Russians and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The YPG denies the claim.

    Daily Sabah columnist Kılıç Buğra Kanat is one among several Turkish commentators re-examining McGurk’s visit and arguing it prompts “increasing questions regarding U.S. policy in Syria.” And for days social media sites have been full of postings by FSA supporters, Turkish nationalists and members of Turkey’s ruling AKP party questioning the purpose of the trip.

    “Is it a coincidence attacks on FSA by YPG have risen since @brett_mcgurk's visit to Kobani,” tweeted one FSA supporter.

    “No document has passed my table suggesting the U.S. knew beforehand what the PYD/YPG was planning to do — even so, the timing of the visit is in hindsight deeply unfortunate,” a European diplomat told VOA.

    US calls for restraint

    Last week, Turkey joined the fray in the battles raging in northern Syria, firing off salvo after salvo of artillery and tank shells at YPG positions.

    In the wake of the Feb 17 car bombing in Ankara that left 28 dead, which the Turks blame on the PYD, the threat by Turkish authorities to launch some kind of anti-Kurdish ground offensive inside Syria to help anti-Assad rebels has taken on an even more ominous character.

    The U.S. is urging both Turkey and the YPG/PYD to show restraint — an appeal that is infuriating Ankara, which sees Washington placing the Turkish government on the same par as the PYD, an organization it considers a terrorist group.

    In turn, the Turkish shelling is frustrating for Washington. U.S. officials fear unless it stops, Moscow will persist with airstrikes in northern Syria, dooming any chance that a cessation of hostilities agreed in Munich by foreign powers on Feb. 12.

    FILE - Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) members stand guard during a Labour Day celebration in Efrin. The U.S. is urging both Turkey and the YPG/PYD to show restraint.
    FILE - Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) members stand guard during a Labour Day celebration in Efrin. The U.S. is urging both Turkey and the YPG/PYD to show restraint.

    On Friday, in a phone conversation lasting one hour and 20 minutes, Ankara said President Obama had told Erdogan that Turkey had a right to self-defense, and expressed worries also over advances by Syrian Kurdish militias near Turkey's border in the northern Aleppo countryside.

    Obama stressed to Erdogan that YPG forces should not seek to exploit recent gains by the Syrian regime in northern Syria to seize additional territory themselves, the White House said in a statement.

    Turkish officials say Erdogan did bring up McGurk’s February 1 visit to Kobani.

    Amberin Zaman, the long-serving Turkey correspondent for The Economist, argued this weekend on the American news-site Foreign Policy that McGurk’s Kobani trip was prompted by U.S. fears about the Syrian Kurds defecting to the Russian camp.

    “The Kurds are skillfully playing the Russians and Americans off of each other to extract as much influence as possible,” she maintains.

    With U.S.-backed groups now clashing with each other in northern Syria, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, said the only way people can make sense of it all is to “search for some hidden conspiracy.”

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Alice from: Canada
    February 22, 2016 10:43 AM
    Syria should be divided into different countries or perhaps create a Syrian confederacy of cantons/provinces for each ethnic/religious group. The same is true for Turkey. Give Turkish Kurds their own canton/province or if they wish allow them their own country to be taken from Turkish territory.

    Indeed all the phony arbitrary borders created 70 years ago by colonial powers that once ruled the Middle East should be done away with and new, probably smaller countries created for each different ethnic/religious group. This is the only solution for the Middle East.
    In Response

    by: Anonymous
    February 22, 2016 12:11 PM
    You seem to be supporting and sympathizing ISIS and AQ.

    by: Marcus Aurelius II from: NJ USA
    February 22, 2016 10:02 AM
    NATO is a defensive organization. The US will not go to war against Russia to support Erdogan's reckless adventures. Nor will it support Erdogan's efforts to attack Kurds in Syria who are proving to be an effective ground force against IS. The US should give Turkey a clear warning. If they continue on their current course they will be on their own. Erdogan is a reckless and dangerous sectarian who has compromised Turkey's modern secular state for his own aspirations of power. He should be removed and the secular state Ataturk envisioned should be restored, by the army if necessary.

    by: Robledal Pedregoso
    February 22, 2016 2:24 AM
    If I was the YPG, I would keep fighting and side w/best offer - remember when amateurs in White House/Pentagon said Kobane was not that important !! 50 million Kurds need at least four autonomous regions and we need 2 state solution for Palestine or I predict 15 more years of war!

    by: Igor from: Russia
    February 22, 2016 1:14 AM
    Erdogan said: "Turkey has right to conduct ops in Syria, elsewhere to protect itself from terrorists"
    Absurd enough! Even a president of a NATO member such as Turkey acts as a villain or pirate, considering international laws as rubbish but the 1st superpower on Earth continues to support Turkey's piracy policies.
    How dare Turkey invade any where it likes with its most absurd excuse? Because it is sitting under the umbrellar of NATO, which gives cover for pirate countries.
    In Response

    by: theox
    February 22, 2016 2:40 PM
    There are only a few neighbors Russia has not invaded or occupied since WW2, so, not sure why Russians are outraged when others even think about doing a fraction of what Russia has done. It's hypocrisy. Russia can "protect interests" but when others even talk about self-defense, like Ukraine or Turkey, it's an outrage.
    In Response

    by: meanbill from: USA
    February 22, 2016 9:31 AM
    Hey Igor _ The Turks just follow the same US and NATO rules to pursue any terrorists in any country and bring them to justice by whatever means, (even to the gates of hell), except in western European countries, and Erdogan is doing what the US and NATO have been doing since 2001, [but now], Erdogan forgets that other countries (like Russia) might go after one of the many terrorist groups that are in Turkey to kill them? .. What goes around, sometimes comes back around, and might just bite Turkey in the butt? .. Because Turkey has a lot of terrorists hiding there? .. don't they?

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