Arming the Kurds

Implications for U.S.-Turkish Relations

From left to right: Aykan Erdemir, Amberin Zaman, Luke Coffey, David Pollock, and John Hannah.

On June 7, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies hosted a lunchtime panel discussion titled “Arming the Kurds: Implications for U.S.-Turkish Relations.” Moderated by FDD senior counselor John Hannah, the discussion featured experts who offered critical insight on the ramifications of President Trump’s approval to arm the Syrian Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) as a means to overcome the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa.

Kaufman fellow and director of Project Fikra, Dr. David Pollock, Director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, Luke Coffey, columnist and Turkish expert, Amberin Zaman, and FDD Senior Fellow Dr. Aykan Erdemir all joined Hannah offering a diverse range of perspectives on the current and future situation regarding Syria and how it might impact relations between the U.S. and Turkey.

The panel responded to four main questions: was President Trump’s decision to arm the YPG the right one, could it be successful in defeating the Islamic State, what will the YPG do next with their advanced weaponry, and where will all of this leave U.S.-Turkish relations?

Pollock called the group’s arming a good move based on “security rationale,” since the intention was to fight the Islamic State as effectively as possible, and not to further the rift between the U.S. and Turkey. Weighing the risks of handing over advanced weaponry to a group founded on “Marxist ideology” and connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization, Coffey countered Pollock’s response by saying the U.S. has “no idea where arms are going or how they will be used” once the immediate threat of the Islamic State is eliminated.

Zaman considered the move necessary, presenting it as an “accident” instigated by Turkey’s inability to find a worthwhile alternative. Erdemir reminded that the Turkish government could be more flexible than believed on the issue of U.S. cooperation with the YPG, and gave examples of Ankara’s earlier cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) and YPG between 2013 and 2015. He argued that despite strong rhetoric and posturing by the Turkish government against the U.S. policy, Ankara is more interested in having a say in post-ISIS Raqqa.

The conversation then moved to a discussion of the likely success or failure of this alliance, with Pollock seconding Erdemir’s prediction that Turkey will come around to U.S. tactics, considering the lack of hostility shown by the YPG and the border security offered in YPG-controlled territories. However, Coffey and Zaman respectively cautioned against the potential consequences of “fighting terrorism with terrorism” and connected the PYD to the PKK in ideology, referencing the groups’ founding members. The experts all emphasized the domestic Kurdish problem facing Turkey, with Erdemir stressing that “the best first step for Turkey’s foreign policy would be to relaunch the peace process at home.”

Shifting from analysis to informed projections, the panelists considered what the YPG would do after the operation in Raqqa. Zaman and Pollock agreed that the YPG would likely try to control it similarly to Manbij, which their leadership considered a successful situation. Coffey, later seconded by Pollock, advised the YPG instead to withdraw after the victory to the primarily Kurdish regions of Syria as a gesture of good will, noting that “if the YPG hangs around and thinks they will govern in any significant way in Raqqa, they will plant the seeds for ISIS 2.0.” Considering the transnational Kurdish movement, the experts agreed that, as Zaman stated, “the YPG has reached the limits of its expansion and influence” and, as Pollock added, they need to “moderate their ambitions” and focus on their own region in Syria.

The discussion served as an important clarification of the complex triangle of relations trying up the US, Turkey and the YPG/PYD by addressing current and consequential concerns. Drawing from a month of international reactions to the decision, the experts analyzed the future ramifications and offered pointed recommendations on possible policies going forward.

Watch full recap video from the event here.

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