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US Opposition to Iraqi Kurdish Independence Stokes Turkish Hopes

  • Dorian Jones

FILE - A Kurdish fighter from the People's Protection Units looks at the damage after an coalition airstrike in Raqqa, Syria, June 16, 2017.

Emboldened by the United States' firm opposition to the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum in September, Turkey is pushing to persuade Washington to abandon its support for Syrian Kurdish militia, YPG, as it fights the Islamic State militant group.

Washington's robust opposition to its long time ally, the Iraqi Kurds, came as a welcome surprise in Ankara. Turkey fears the establishment of any Kurdish independent state would fuel the secessionist demands of the Kurdish minority in southeastern Turkey.

International relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University, said the U.S. stance challenged widespread Turkish suspicions of Washington's motives in the region.

"Everyone in Turkey who had a word to say about the matter of the Kurdish referendum was 200 percent certain that the Americans were behind it," he said. "The referendum took place and the Americans sold [out] the Kurds. That opens a space for dialogue — that it is obvious the Americans did not want, at least at this juncture, an independent Kurdish State."

Emboldened by this opposition, Turkey hopes to persuade Washington to abandon its support of the YPG. Ankara accuses the group of having its own secessionist aspirations and of being affiliated to Kurdish rebels fighting in Turkey.

Ozel said history is on Turkey's side.

"Would the same thing happen to the Syrian Kurds? That is the million dollar question," he said. "I always go back to that very unkind sentence uttered by Henry Kissinger when they dropped aid to Iraqi Kurds back in 1975. He said international relations is not charity work. Will the United States do the same to the Syrian Kurds? I suppose the Turks hope they would."

During the 1970s, then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger presided over the policy in which the U.S. cut off military support to an Iraqi Kurdish insurgency against Baghdad, following a deal between Iran and Iraq. Analysts say that decision continues to cast a shadow in the minds of many Kurds and raise questions of how much they can depend on Washington as an ally.

FILE - Kurdish members of the Self-Defense Forces stand near the Syrian-Turkish border in the Syrian city of al-Derbasiyah during a protest against the operations launched in Turkey by government security forces against the Kurds, Feb. 9, 2016.
FILE - Kurdish members of the Self-Defense Forces stand near the Syrian-Turkish border in the Syrian city of al-Derbasiyah during a protest against the operations launched in Turkey by government security forces against the Kurds, Feb. 9, 2016.

But Haldun Solmazturk, head of the Ankara based research group 21st Century Turkey Institute, said the geopolitical situation in the Middle East today is far more favorable to Syrian Kurds.

"Iraq and Syria have become the main battleground for Americans and Russians," he said. "So in a sense it's like a chessboard, so Kurds are very valuable pieces on this board. So both sides would like to be in friendly conditions with them. So neither Americans nor Russians will abandon Kurds."

The United States considers the Syrian Kurds its best fighting force on the ground against Islamic State militants, but has to balance that interest with maintaining good relations with Turkey, a NATO ally.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is expected to again press for an end to U.S. support of Syrian Kurds during his visit to Washington this week. U.S. officials likely will be only too aware Moscow is waiting to exploit such a move.

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