Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that US President Donald Trump “clearly stated that weapons will not be given to the YPG anymore” in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday and tweeted that he would be talking about bringing peace to “the mess that I inherited in the Middle East.”
The People’s Protection Units (YPG) are the major Kurdish component in eastern Syria that has been fighting Islamic State for more than three years.
Cavusoglu’s statement, made during a press conference with a delegation from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, comes as ISIS has been largely defeated in Syria and after the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the YPG, which forms a major part of the SDF, liberated Raqqa in October.
According to Anadolu news agency, Cavusoglu said that “essentially this nonsense should have ended before.”
The Turks have opposed arms deliveries to the YPG for years, arguing that the YPG is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and a terrorist organization. “We have seen that some armored vehicles were also given. Our president once again conveyed our discomfort to Mr. Trump,” said Cavusoglu.
Erdogan was more circumspect in describing the conversation. “I had a fruitful phone conversation with the US President Donald Trump today,” he tweeted. He posted a photo of him speaking with Trump alongside Cavusoglu, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and chief adviser Ibrahim Kalin.
Turkish news agencies have closely followed the story, with the Daily Sabah and Anadolu tweeting the breaking news.
“No more arms for terrorist PKK/PYD Trump tells Erdogan,” wrote Anadolu.
The PYD is the civilian arm of the YPG.
According to Turkish media, the White House confirmed that the phone call was “consistent with our previous policy, President Trump also informed President Erdogan of pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria, now that the battle of Raqqa is complete and we are progressing into a stabilization phase to ensure that Daesh [ISIS] cannot return.” This statement is not on the White House website, so it appears the statement was made to Turkish media.
The arming of the Kurds in Syria to fight ISIS has been a central issue of concern for Turkey. On May 19, US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford told a Department of Defense press briefing that the US was preparing to support the SDF in taking Raqqa.
“[We are] taking measures on the ground to mitigate their [Turkey’s] concerns.
For example, weapons getting into the hands of the PKK or moving into Turkey, and we’ve taken steps to make sure that the Turks have transparency on what we’re doing and measures to take place that the equipment that we’re providing to the SDF is appropriate only for operations in Raqqa,” Dunford said.
In May, Dunford said the weapons had been stockpiled for the SDF and consisted of “small arms, ammunition and machine guns.”
The Trump administration has been careful not to use the word YPG in these press briefings, but it has taken credit for the decision to arm the SDF. In June, the US appeared to zigzag a bit and initially indicate that it would take back the weapons it had provided the SDF.
Then-secretary of defense James Mattis told reporters on June 27 that “we’re going to equip them [US partners in Syria] for the fight. If they have another fight and they need, you know, the light trucks that they’ve been using, we’ll get them that.”
Much of the details about the US arming of the Kurds and other partner forces in eastern Syria have been opaque.
In September 2016, before Trump took office, US officials were quoted in The Guardian as saying that light arms were being provided by the US-led coalition to an “Arab contingent” of the SDF.
In January 2017, the SDF received a delivery of armored vehicles. SDF spokesman Talal Silo said “previously we didn’t get support in this form, we would get light weapons and ammunition.”
The Pentagon in January insisted that these armored vehicles had been given to the “Arab coalition” within the SDF.
Given the careful wording the US administration has employed, including among its various components in the war on ISIS – the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House – the US can say that its policy is “consistent.”
However, from Turkey’s view the distinctions between the SDF, YPG, PYD and PKK are largely illusory. For instance, Mete Sohtaoglu, a former news editor at CNN Turk, tweeted in October that the US-backed YPG had dedicated the victory in Raqqa to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is jailed in Turkey.
Banners with photos of Ocalan had appeared in Raqqa. However, the US can say that it only works with its “partners,” whom it says are non-YPG. Similarly, in Iraq the US makes the same bifurcation between working with the Iraqi army and not working with the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units that are part of the Iraqi Security Forces.
The question now is whether or not Trump’s assurances to Erdogan represent a policy shift in eastern Syria and whether or not that means the US will reduce its presence there.
Recent comments by Mattis had appeared to indicate that the US intended to stay in eastern Syria to conduct a stabilization mission. For Kurds, a drawdown of US weapons would represent a second blow to relations, after the US did not stand by the Kurdistan Regional Government in its dispute with Iraq.
Turkey also recently met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi in hopes that Putin will listen to Turkish demands regarding Syria. Turkey appears to be hedging its bets in Moscow and Washington. If Turkey doesn’t think it can make progress on its demands for Washington to end military support to the YPG, it may look for a potential Russian route to rolling back the YPG in eastern Syria.
An emailed response from the public affairs office of the US-led coalition said that “our tactical partnership with the SDF is focused on defeating ISIS in Syria. Our attention is strongly focused on that fight, which recently liberated ISIS self-declared capital of Raqqa. The SDF is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance of Arabs, Kurds, Arabs, Assyrian, Turkmen, Armenians and other ethnic groups who have fought valiantly against ISIS to free their fellow Syrians. Their commitment and sacrifices have enabled local, representative governance.”
The coalition also says that the it continues to provide material support, training, advice and assistance to the SDF in their ongoing effort to defeat ISIS in Syria. “While ISIS is on its way to military defeat in Syria and Iraq, there is still much work left to be done to ensure their lasting defeat in the region.” Asked if the coalition sees the SDF as a separate entity from the YPG, they responded: “We will continue to provide assistance to the forces comprising the SDF as long as they remain committed to the goal of fighting and defeating ISIS. We have pledged our support to the SDF through the Geneva process.”
The coalition will not comment on the remarks of Foreign Minister Cavusoglu or the conversation between President’s Trump and Erdogan. “As we have done since offensive operations began in Raqqa, any divestiture of equipment to Kurdish elements of the SDF is shared with Turkey. We have been transparent on these divestitures with our NATO ally and fellow Coalition partner. That has not changed.” The coalition added that today there are less than 3,000 ISIS terrorists “being hunted down in the desert regions in eastern Syria and Western Iraq.”