Amid Dispute Over U.S. Arming Syrian Kurds, Mattis Says Relationship With Turkey ‘Not Always Tidy’

By Patrick Goodenough | May 11, 2017 | 4:21 AM EDT

Under the flag of the Syrian Democratic Forces, fighters of the U.S.-backed militia operate south-west of the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. (Photo: SDF/Facebook)

( – Defense Secretary James Mattis expressed confidence Wednesday that a dispute with Turkey over a U.S. decision to arm Syrian Kurdish fighters in the campaign to dislodge ISIS terrorists from their Raqqa stronghold will not affect a relationship between the NATO allies which he described as “not always tidy.”

“We have very open discussions [with the Turks] about options and we will work together,” he said during a visit to Lithuania. “We’ll work out any of the concerns. I’m not concerned at all about the NATO alliance and the relations between our nations.”

“It’s not always tidy,” he added of the relationship. “But we work out the issues.”

The row looks set to overshadow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s scheduled visit to the White House next Tuesday – a trip which Turkey’s official opposition Republican People’s Party now says Erdogan should call off in protest.

Erdogan said Wednesday he hopes President Trump’s decision to provide heavy machine guns, anti-tank weapons, mortars and armored vehicles to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia will be reconsidered during his Washington visit.

“I want to believe that Turkey’s allies will side with us, not with terrorist organizations,” he said.

The U.S. regards the YPG – the armed wing of the Syrian-based Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) – as one of the most effective fighting forces in the campaign against ISIS in Syria.

But Turkey’s Islamist-leaning government says the YPG/PYD is a terrorist entity due to its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed group that has waged a violent separatist struggle in south-eastern Turkey for more than three decades.

The U.S., too, considers the PKK a terrorist organization, and Mattis on Wednesday voiced support for Turkey’s security.

“It’s the only NATO country that confronts an insurgency in its own ground from the PKK,” he said. “And we will work very closely with Turkey in support of their security on their southern border.”

But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu suggested Wednesday that U.S. weaponry provided to the YPG would end up being used against Turks.

“The YPG and the PKK are both terrorist organizations,” he said during a visit to Montenegro. “There is no difference, only the name is different and every weapon they obtain is a threat to Turkey.”

A third Turkish leader, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, went further, saying arming the YPG would have consequences not just for Turkey but “have a negative impact on the U.S. too.”

“We are against using a terrorist group against another terrorist group, and we have conveyed this clear message to our counterparts,” he said.

‘A very reliable force’

The YPG is a leading component of a broader U.S.-backed alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which also includes Arab and Turkmen factions.

According to Col. John Dorrian, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve – the military mission aimed at destroying ISIS – Syrian Kurdish fighters make up about half of the 50,000-strong SDF.

In a briefing from Baghdad last week, he said the SDF has liberated some 8,000 square kilometers (about 3,100 square miles) of terrain from the jihadists in Syria.

“They’ve fought bravely and taken back a tremendous amount of territory from the enemy, and they’ve proven to be a very reliable force for defeating ISIS,” Dorrian said.

Turkey has offered to take part itself in the drive to liberate Raqqa from ISIS, so long as YPG fighters are excluded from the battle.

A senior Turkish delegation has been visiting Washington in preparation of the Erdogan-Trump meetings next week

Turkish state media say that during their meetings with U.S. officials, the delegation – which included Turkey’s intelligence chief and chief of general staff – tried to convince their counterparts that Arab forces should lead the battle to retake Raqqa.

Late last month, Turkey upped the ante in the dispute by carrying out airstrikes against what the government called “terrorist havens” inside Syria and Iraq, targeting PKK positions but also those of the YPG, reportedly killing 20 fighters of the U.S.-backed group.

That prompted then-State Department spokesman Mark Toner to warn Turkey not to pursue its fight against the PKK “at the expense of our common fight against the terrorists that threaten us all, and that obviously means ISIS.”

“We recognize their concerns about the PKK, but these kinds of actions, frankly, harm the coalition’s efforts to go after ISIS and, frankly, harm our partners on the ground, who are conducting that fight,” he said.

“The force that was attacked was the Syrian Democratic Forces, and those are our partner forces,” Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Dorrian said in reference to the Turkish airstrikes.

He said the airstrikes “were not especially well coordinated” and had been “conducted with less warning than would allow our forces to safely leave, or to properly coordinate what should have been done.”

The U.S.-Turkey dispute over the Kurds is just one of many complicating elements in a convoluted conflict that has drawn in a cross-section of outside parties, with agendas sometimes that overlap and sometimes clash.

A major concern for Turkey is that the civil war will leave YPG/PYD forces in control of a large expanse of Syrian territory not far from the Turkish border, and that that in turn could boost separatism among the large Kurdish minority in south-eastern Turkey.

Scattered across Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, more than 30 million Kurds comprise the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of its own.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow