Thursday, February 25, 2021

US-Turkey: Kurdish and S-400 remain thorns in US-Turkish relations


The deaths of 13 Turks detained by PKK militants in northern Iraq are in some ways a major political test for the Turkish government, as an operation with such an outcome can only be considered a failure. It is no coincidence that many say that in the end it will be Defense Minister Hulusi Akar who will pay the price for a failed operation in an area where Ankara had a tolerance from both the Iraqi central government and the local government of Iraqi Kurdistan to operates against the PKK.

But it is trying to turn it into an opportunity to come out even more aggressively to claim its right to operate abroad and, of course, to maintain a military presence abroad, meaning in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria.

At the same time, this issue remains a source of tension in relations with the West. This is not just about the silence of the western countries in the opinion of the Turkish president in relation to the murder of the 13 Turkish citizens – “West, why do you remain silent?”, Was his characteristic disgust at the AKP congress in Trabzon. It mainly concerns the issue of the support that in his opinion the US continues to offer to the PKK.

Combined with the issue of Russian S-400 missiles, Kurdish remains a key thorn in US-Turkish relations, despite the Turkish government’s efforts, especially after the change of government in Washington, to improve bilateral relations.

The significance of developments in northern Iraq

At first it seemed that there was a political alarm in Ankara after the first State Department statement that “if the reports of the death of Turkish citizens at the hands of the PKK, an organization classified as terrorist, are confirmed then we condemn this action with the most intense terms “.

The wording of this statement seemed to challenge the official version of the Turkish government and to be partly in line with the PKK statements that blamed the Turkish side for the death of the Turkish prisoners.

In fact, the words used by Erdogan on February 15 were particularly harsh. “You are with them and behind them, simply and clearly,” he insisted, adding that “if we are together in NATO and if we must continue [τη συμμαχία μας] in NATO, you have to be honest with us. ”

Let us not forget that this issue has become widespread in Turkey. The leader of Erdogan’s nationalist allies, Devlet Bahceli, said “nothing will be the same as before” and that “everyone must take a stand”, while Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu vowed revenge on the victims. On the other hand, Erdogan is under fire from the opposition, which blames him for the 13 deaths.

On the other hand, the “People’s Defense Forces” (HPG), as the PKK’s armed wing in northern Iraq is called, insist that the bombing of the area by Turkish planes was carried out by Turkish planes and clashes with Turkish forces. attempted to enter, with some speculating that the deaths of Turkish prisoners were in fact the result of a failed rescue operation.

However, pro-Kurdish and left-wing HDP officials came under fire from the Ankara Prosecutor’s Office when they tried to challenge the ruling version, with Bahceli calling for the party to be banned. Erdogan does not want to go so far as not to isolate himself from the Kurdish section of the electorate, but he wants to take advantage of the situation to ensure that the opposition does not cooperate with the HDP.

In any case, Turkey’s problem is more comprehensive. Although there is a degree of balance with the other factions in Iraqi Kurdistan, the PKK bases in northern Iraq have always been a matter of concern. An even greater source of concern is the Kurdish action in northeastern Syria, where the formation of a quasi-Kurdish state entity was the reason why Turkey pressed and secured the possibility of having a military presence and a “security zone” there.

All of this is directly related to relations with the United States. The main US-backed force in northeastern Syria, starting with the previous fight against Islamic State, is the Kurdish militias. The United States has so far systematically avoided calling them a terrorist organization, in contrast to the PKK, which has been described as such for years (which also explains why the United States has no objection to Turkish operations in northern Iraq), despite to a large extent and the Kurdish armed forces in Syria are politically controlled by the PKK. In fact, given that the current US administration does not share the Trump administration’s insistence on withdrawing from Syria, this support, which includes the presence of US military personnel on the ground, is expected to continue, as well as the US facilitation of Kurdish forces. from the oil wells that exist in the area.

For its part, the Turkish government is making an extensive effort to convince the Kurdish militias in Syria (YPG) that they are “terrorist organizations”, circulating information that it is forcibly recruiting children, while escalating “anti-terrorist” operations against the PKK and within Turkey.

The careful Blinken messages

The situation was tried to be handled by the new US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. In a telephone conversation with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoγlu, Blinken stressed the long-term importance of bilateral relations between the United States and Turkey, the two countries’ common interests in the fight against terrorism and the importance of “democratic institutions” and “democratic governance”. “And” respect for human rights “, and both sides pledged to strengthen cooperation and support for a political solution to the conflict in Syria. The US Secretary of State expressed his condolences over the deaths of Turkish hostages in northern Iraq and confirmed the US position that the “PKK terrorists” were responsible. At the same time, Blinken urged Turkey not to keep the S-400 missiles and expressed his support for the exploratory contacts between Greece and Turkey.

It is clear that Blinken’s communication, with its explicit reference to the responsibility of PKK terrorists, was intended to reassure the Turkish side and symbolically capture a US secession, albeit without a commitment that this characterization extends to Kurdish forces in Syria.

At the same time, however, the reference to the need for a democratic process, human rights and “inclusive governance” was an almost directly critical reference to the way in which Erdogan exercises power and an indirect urge to change attitudes, including the way he treats “Internal” dimension of the Kurdish issue.

And of course the fact that in a supposedly “reassuring” and “corrective” phone call he did not fail to underline the US firm position on the S-400 issue, it was also a clear mood of pressure on Turkey in this direction.

The difficulty in the “exchange” requested by Turkey

As a result, Blinken’s phone call showed that it would not be so easy to reach an agreement, a quid pro quo, that Ankara has proposed to the United States on the issue of Russian missiles.

A few days ago, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said there could be an agreement with the US on the S-400s, but only if the US stopped supporting the Kurdish militia (YPG) in Syria: ” We can find a solution for the S-400s in our negotiations with the US, but we also expect them to see the reality of the YPG. If we can not find a solution [σε σχέση με το YPG] “We can not go anywhere in relations with the United States.”

As for the type of solution, he referred to something similar to the S-300 in Crete, which is essentially on guard and not in operational condition.

Although the proposal was seen as a move towards a compromise, it is not a given that the US is still willing to give up the force that allows it to have a direct presence in Syria at a critical time when the political conditions for the transition to the next day are being shaped. at a time when of course in relation to the S-400 they would like to see a more decisive move on the part of Turkey.

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