Turkey is turning up the pressure on Syrian Kurdish forces, which could put Ankara on a collision course with its Western allies. According to local media, Turkish prosecutors have issued an international arrest warrant for Salih Muslim, the leader of Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD.
Turkish authorities link Muslim to February’s suicide bombing in Ankara, which was reportedly carried out by a splinter group of the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK. The issuing of an international warrant — also called a red notice — could put Turkey’s European allies in a difficult spot.
The PYD leader is a frequent guest of European governments, and the PYD, along with its militia, the YPG, are viewed by Turkey’s Western allies as one of the most effective forces against the Islamic State group. But Ankara accuses both the PYD and YPG of links to the PKK.
On Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed the European Union for its support of Syrian Kurdish forces, calling it support for terrorism. The previous day, Erdogan said the Turkish military forces in Syria would step up operations against the YPG.
Such a threat, coming at a critical moment in the war against IS, will likely cause Washington deep concern.
“The most efficient element ... today in the fight against ISIL are the Kurds, not only the Iraqi Kurds but also the Syrian Kurds,” said Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat.
Earlier this month, the YPG launched an offensive to capture Raqqa, the Syrian city that is the de facto Islamic State capital. Several Western countries have deployed special forces to help the YPG, while the U.S. is providing it with air support.
That joint operation goes against Ankara’s express wishes.
“(Our) redline is not to involve PYD and YPG in Raqqa operation,” said Ayse Sozen Usluer, Erdogan’s chief of international relations.
Line is drawn on Manbij
Erdogan said this week that Turkey’s forces operating in Syria will move against the strategically important town of Manbij, which the YPG took control of earlier this year after clearing it of Islamic State forces.
Ankara claims Manbij is not a Kurdish town and that its capture by YPG forces is part of the group’s strategy of seizing predominantly Arab towns and villages and ethnic cleansing them — a charge the YPG denies. Usluer claims Turkey’s military intervention in Syria against both Islamic State and YPG is enjoying strong local support inside Syria.
“They welcome Turkish soldiers, they are very happy to see Turkish soldiers in the region because they do not see any other troops or soldiers who protect the rights of local people,” he said.
The YPG claims its forces have withdrawn from Manbij to join efforts to capture Raqqa. Brett McGurk, the U.S. special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, tweeted earlier this month: “Milestone: all #YPG units to depart Manbij.”
Ankara has openly questioned those claims. But Selcen says Free Syrian Army forces backed by the Turkish army are unlikely to receive a warm welcome if they do advance on Manbij.
“The Manbij Military Council elements are in control in Manbij,” he said. “These are people of Manbij, so they are protecting their own land, Arab people, Turkmen people, others. And now if other Turkish-backed elements from the north try to push those out of Manbij, then they will be an open clash. And that won’t be in the interests of the United States.”
Retired Turkish Brigadier General Haldun Solmazturk, who now heads the Ankara-based 21st Century Institute, warns against Turkish forces entering Manbij.
“It doesn’t make any sense, military, politically,” he said. “It’s a built-up area. Why should the Turkish army move into this built-up area, risking huge casualty rates.”
The YPG has warned it may end its Raqqa operation if Turkish forces move against Manbij. But some say Erdogan’s threat to move on Manbij could be empty rhetoric.
“The latest report is Turkish jets have not been able to fly (in) Syrian airspace because of Syrian opposition, which basically means Russian opposition,” said Semih Idiz, a political columnist for the Al-Monitor website. “So, given this environment, this warning (that) we will take the necessary steps seems a bit hollow to me.”
Observers say domestic politics may be behind Erdogan’s latest condemnation of the Syrian Kurdish forces. Such rhetoric plays well with nationalists Erdogan is currently courting in order to secure support for his bid to turn Turkey into a presidential system.
But with the head of the Turkish armed forces, Hulusi Akar, visiting troops deployed along the Syrian border, and more Turkish reinforcements being sent into Syria, observers say Western countries will likely be unnerved by the actions of their increasingly unpredictable Turkish ally.