Angered by Washington and Moscow's support of the secular, moderate Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), as well as by advances by the army of the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al-Assad around Aleppo and its cutting of all the supply lines to the Islamist rebels from Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP government have been making statements indicating that Turkey may make a desperate and dangerous attempt to act militarily and confront Russia in Syria - which may drag NATO into an unwanted conflict.
Erdogan and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu are claiming that the PYD, along with its armed wing, the Peoples' Protection Units (YPG), is a terrorist organization affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), against which Turkey is conducting massive operations in Turkey and in northern Iraq. The AKP government equates the PYD with the Islamic State (ISIS), and considers the High Negotiation Committee (HNC), the coalition recently formed in Riyadh by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, as the only legitimate opposition group. Under the HNC umbrella are jihadi organizations, such as Jaysh Al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Sham, which Russia considers terrorist organizations.
The PYD, along with like-minded Arab fighters, formed the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), as the other opposition group. Its secular, democratic-progressive nature contrasts with the sectarian Islamist Salafi nature of the Riyadh group. SDC members are the ground forces that the U.S. supports and relies on in its fight against ISIS.
On January 26, 2016, three days before the Geneva III talks were meant to begin between the Syrian government and these two main opposition groups, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Turkey would boycott the talks in Geneva if the PYD is invited to sit at the negotiation table as part of the opposition. Prime Minister Davutoglu reiterated the same threat a few hours later. The U.S. accepted this, with the aim of refraining from antagonizing Turkey, and U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said the next morning that the PYD would not take part in the negotiations at this time. At the same time, Russia demanded that UN special envoy for the Syria crisis Staffan de Mistura not give in to Turkey's "blackmail."
Following Turkey's ultimatum, de Mistura withdrew the invitation to PYD leader Saleh Muslim, who had already arrived in Geneva for the talks, but did invite Haytham Manna, Muslim's secular Arab partner in the SDC. Manna rejected the invitation, saying that he would not sit at the table unless his Kurdish co-chair, Saleh Muslim, was also invited. Members of the Islamist HNC were also unwilling to start negotiating with the Syrian government until it agreed to meet their preconditions. On the second day of the talks, the opening of which had been delayed until February 1, 2016, de Mistura declared them a failure and ended them.
Following are excerpts from Turkish media critical of Turkey's contrarian actions:
SDC Co-Chair Manna: Erdogan Wanted An Islamist Jihadi Syria
Following Turkey's blocking of the participation of the Syrian Kurds' representative, the PYD, at the Geneva peace talks, the co-chair of the U.S.-supported SDC, Haytham Manna, stated that the SDC would not participate in the talks, and that therefore the group would not abide by any decisions made during the talks. Manna told the Turkish opposition daily Cumhuriyet: "Erdogan has always been supportive of the extremists in Syria. You cannot bring in an extremist regime in Syria to replace a dictator. We need democracy. As someone who follows politics in Turkey, and as someone who maintains good relations with opposition figures, I can say that Erdogan never wanted a secular democratic Syria. He wanted an Islamist and jihadi one. The peace process, and these talks, can go nowhere without the participation of the Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim of the PYD. They [the international community] need us, because we control and have sovereignty over 16% of Syria."
Turkish Analyst: What A Shame It Is For Turkish Diplomacy, To Say 'If PYD Is At The Negotiation Table, ISIS Must Be Too'
In the Turkish opposition daily Diken, Cenk Sidar wrote that the international actors' finally agreeing on a road map for trying to resolve the tragic Syrian crisis that is threatening the entire region diplomatically through negotiations was a promising development, noting, "The constructive attitudes of the U.S. and Russia, despite their differences, gave hope for a possible solution." He continued with a condemnation of his country's shameful behavior: "From the very beginning of the crisis, the AKP government, which out of political calculations cut all ties and negotiations with Assad, has taken no steps towards peace building and has aided and armed all sorts of questionable groups. It must still not understand that Turkey has ended up as the loser, both politically and materially. Now, the AKP government has said that Turkey would boycott the Geneva talks if the Kurdish PYD is invited to participate. No actor but Turkey would make such threats. This is a source of shame for Turkey."
Sidar added that it is only normal that the PYD should be at the table, as it controls an important region in northern Syria and is the only political representative of Syria's Kurds. He asked: "If the PYD is a terrorist organization [as AKP government officials often claim], why has the AKP government hosted PYD leader [Saleh Muslim] multiple times in Ankara? Were they not committing the crime of aiding and abetting a terrorist organization by hosting its leader? And how can the AKP government, that sat to negotiate with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan [in a Turkish prison] be unable to sit with the PYD in Geneva for the humanitarian ideal of building peace? What a contradiction it is [for it to] reject the PYD's inclusion in the Geneva talks! And how shameful for our traditions of diplomacy to say 'if the PYD participates, so must ISIS.'"
Columnist Tastekin: Turkey Is "Part Of - Or Even The Source Of - The [Syria] Crisis"
In his January 27, 2016 column in the liberal opposition Turkish daily Radikal, Fehim Tastekin criticized the AKP government's Syria policy and its hostility towards the Kurds, and said that Turkey was livid because the peace initiative in Geneva was not aimed at guaranteeing that Assad would go. The Geneva process, he wrote, was a symbol of the end of Erdogan's and Davutoglu's dreams of having their Friday prayers in Damascus soon, as they had stated in 2012. Arguing that nothing that AKP government planned had worked, that the U.S. had not heeded its demands and ultimatums, and that the Kurdish PYD and YPG had become a rising force in the eyes of both the U.S. and Russia, Tastekin stated: "Turkey is using the Kurds to torpedo the peace process, sabotaging the peace table... and beating up Kurds, both inside and in Syria] to no avail... Some in Ankara [i.e. the AKP and pro-AKP media] may interpret this tactic of sabotage[ing the peace process] as a way of showing the power of the great Turkish state. But it not only diminishes Turkey as an actor in the resolution of the crisis, it makes it a part of - or even the source of - the crisis."
Turkish Analyst On Rise In U.S.-Turkey Tensions Over PYD
Prominent Turkish columnist and analyst Cengiz Candar of Radikal, wrote that around the time the Geneva talks began, in late January 2016, he had participated in two international panels in Europe on Kurdish issues. At that time, he said, he had told EU and U.S officials: "The attitude of the U.S. with regard to the developments in the Middle East reminds of Britain during World War I. They make similar promises that they cannot keep, to powers that are in conflict with one another."
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The previous week, Candar had written that faced with choosing between Ankara and PYD, the U.S., gritting its teeth, had at that point chosen Ankara, sacrificing the PYD, its ally and the only force fighting against ISIS, for Turkey. He also noted that the U.S. would have to do something to balance its act, to show that it cares about the interests of the Kurds, so as not lose an important ally to Russia. His advice was validated shortly thereafter, when Brett McGurk, the U.S. State Department's Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, visited the Kurdish town of Kobane on January 30-31 together with French and British representatives, and held talks for two days with the PYD, the YPG, and representatives of the Kurdish autonomous region. This visit was the first to Syria by a high-level U.S. official.
Candar wrote on February 3, 2016: "Erdogan and Davutoglu shout, every day, at the top of their lungs, that 'the PYD is terrorist,' and make nonsensical claims that 'the PYD is an accomplice to the massacres by the Assad regime' - [accusations] that no one in his right mind would believe. As they continue to scream, the highest-ranking U.S. representative to Syria visits the Kurdish town of Kobane - showing that when it comes to the PYD, the U.S. does not care about what Turkey is saying. At the time of this Kobane visit, the American and Russian delegations were each holding meetings in Geneva with PYD leader Saleh Muslim, promising him that the PYD would participate in later stages of the talks and that the Kurds would play a role in shaping the future of Syria."
Noting that as the Geneva talks are the focus, the Russians are at the same time continuing to bomb rebel targets; with their help, he stated, the Syrian army had retaken the area north of Aleppo, cutting off the road to, and Turkey's strategic supply lines to, the Islamist organizations that had controlled Aleppo and the surrounding area since 2012. He added: "The mentality of Turkey's rulers can promise only blood, death, and tears."
Erdogan gives "rabi'a" hand sign: "Hey America!" Haberexpress, February 10, 2016
Erdogan Lashes Out At U.S. And Russia
For his part, President Erdogan lambasted the U.S. over McGurk's visit to Kobane. On February 5, 2016, he told reporters on his plane on his way back from his Latin America tour: "The PYD and YPG are terrorist organizations just as the PKK is. We have warned you about this all the time. Now, Obama's representative visits Kobane at the time of Geneva talks. The PYD cannot participate in Geneva, but these [people] go all the way to Kobane to meet with them! He [McGurk] is awarded a plaque by a so-called YPG general! How can we trust you [i.e. the U.S.]? You choose: Is it I who am your ally, or is it the terrorists in Kobane?"
Asked about a Russian statement the previous day that the activity along the border showed that the Turkish military was getting ready to invade Syria, Erdogan lashed out at Russia too: "Why are you in Syria? You are an invader there. You are acting together with a murderer [i.e. Assad] who killed 400,000 people through state terror. You continue to kill civilians. The Turkish military never did that. Our 911-km border [with Syria] is under threat - of course we will take all measures [they deem necessary]. We must be ready at any given moment. Furthermore, our kinsmen [i.e. the Turkmens] are there [in Syria]. Hey Russia! What's it to you? Do you have a border there? Do you have kinsmen there? What business do you have there?"
In response to Erdogan's criticism, State Department official John Kirby said, on February 8, that the U.S.'s difference of opinion with Turkey on the issue of the PYD was not new, and added: "We do not recognize the PYD as a terrorist organization, unlike the PKK." This official statement escalated the tension between two countries, and U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass was summoned to the Turkish Foreign Office in Ankara to be told of Turkey's displeasure.
At a February 10 meeting with village and neighborhood administrators, or mukhtars, a furious Erdogan slammed the U.S. again: "Some people abroad say that the PYD and the YPG are not terrorist organizations. They certainly are, just as the PKK is. It is a shame that those who make these statements are advocating for terrorists. Are you with us, or with the terrorist organizations? There is no difference between the PKK, the PYD, and the YPG. We are telling America that they are terrorists, [and] they [i.e. the U.S.] get up and say they do not consider them as such.
"Hey America! We have asked you many times: Are you with us or with the terrorist organizations PKK and PYD? Hey America! You cannot teach us about the PKK and the PYD. We know them very well. We know ISIS, and we know them [PKK, PYD, and YPG]. It is because you do not know any of them that there is a bloodbath in the region. What kind of partners are you? Impossible to understand.
"They [i.e. U.S. officials] listen quietly when we repeatedly explain, and then behind our back they make those statements. We don't hear anyone criticizing the PYD, an organization that uses children and women. On the contrary, countries that we consider allies are defending this organization."
Erdogan further said that Turkey would continue its fight against terrorism, and added: "The azans from our mosques will never be silenced. No one will be able to divide our people or fracture our country. La Galibe illallah ['there is no victor but Allah']."
U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner responded to Erdogan's recent statements the same day, confirming the U.S.'s non-recognition of the PYD and YPG as terrorist organizations: "There is a big difference between the PKK and the PYD/YPG. We do not share Turkey's view on the YPG, which is an effective fighting force on the ground, and a partner against ISIS. The responsibility for the bloodbath in Syria lies with ISIS and the Assad regime [i.e. not with the U.S., as alleged by Erdogan]."
 Cumhuriyet, February 2, 2016.
 Diken, January 26, 2016.
 Radikal, January 27, 2016.
 Radikal, February 3, 2016.
 Radikal, January 28, 2016.
 The Syrian takeover of areas north of Aleppo led to tens of thousands of more Syrian refugees arriving at Turkey's borders.
 Radikal, February 3, 2016.
 Milliyet, February 7, 2016.
 TodaysZaman, February 9, 2016.
 Hurriyet, February 10, 2016.
 Yeni Akit, February 10, 2016.
 Hurriyet, February 10, 2016.