Turkey may soon launch a new military operation against the Kurdish forces that partnered with the United States to dismantle the Islamic State group in Syria despite protests from American officials.
“We are completely unstinting in our efforts with the Turkish government to back them off on this ill-considered venture,” State Department Assistant Secretary Barbara Leaf told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a Wednesday hearing. “I couldn’t give you the assurance that they are going to.”
A cross-border assault could upend the U.S. approach to suppressing IS and perhaps even drive the most important American partner in the country into an alliance with Syrian President Bashar Assad, American leaders fear. Yet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who regards the Syrian fighters as terrorist allies of the Kurdish separatist group that has fought the Turkish central government for decades, seems keen to press disputes with the U.S. and other NATO members at a moment when the war in Ukraine has demonstrated Erdogan’s clout within the trans-Atlantic alliance — as evidenced by his Wednesday accusation that the U.S. and Greece have established military bases targeting Turkey.
“Nine American bases — where have those bases been established? In Greece,” Erdogan told reporters, per a Turkish public broadcaster’s interpreter. “And against whom? They answer ‘against Russia,’ but we will not buy into that. Sorry, but no.”
Erdogan made that comment alongside Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro, who is visiting Ankara after President Joe Biden banned him and other Latin American authoritarians from attending the Summit of the Americas this week in Los Angeles. His press conference renewed some of the most fractious controversies of Erdogan’s relationship with the rest of the trans-Atlantic alliance, as he reiterated his accusation that Sweden and Finland, who have applied to join NATO, give shelter to Kurdish terrorists.
“What we experienced with Greece, what we experienced with France, we do not want to experience the same with them,” Erdogan said.
Greece and Turkey have a fraught history despite their mutual membership in NATO. They entered the alliance together in 1952 during the Cold War, but the modern state of Greece fought a war of independence against the Ottoman Empire, which preceded the Republic of Turkey, in the early 19th century that succeeded in part due to the interventions of Great Britain, France, and Russia.
French President Emmanuel Macron came to Greece’s aid in 2020 after Turkish and Greek forces nearly came to blows during a dispute about energy exploration rights in the Mediterranean. Turkey reportedly responded by using a cutting-edge Russian anti-aircraft missile system, purchased in defiance of U.S. sanctions law, to track F-16 fighter jets flown by France, Greece, and Italy during a joint military exercise with the United Arab Emirates. More recently, Turkey has accused Greece of militarizing key islands in the Aegean Sea in violation of international agreements.
“Greece should disarm these islands. If not, the sovereignty of these islands will be open to discussion.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday, per Turkish media, in an apparent threat. “That’s what we clearly tell Greece.”
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis maintained that the two sides are “still very far” from the intensity that their disputes reached in 2020.
“Today, everyone needs to show restraint,” Mitsotakis said Tuesday, “especially at a time when we are facing a very big challenge at NATO with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We must be united.”
That invasion has galvanized the alliance and democratic allies in Europe, even spurring Sweden and Finland to abandon their historic posture of neutrality between Moscow and the capitals of NATO. Russia threatened retaliation for such a move during the Nordic states’ internal debates over the application process, but Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson countered that embattled Russian forces are too “occupied in Ukraine” to interdict their movement into the alliance — leaving Erdogan’s veto threat standing as the greatest impediment to their membership.
“NATO is an organization of security. NATO is not an organization that would pave the way for terror,” Erdogan said. “As long as these terror groups do run rampant in Sweden — and even in their own parliaments, there are terrorists — as long as these terrorists are in their parliaments and as long as these terror groups on the streets of Stockholm make demonstrations … and as long as interviews with terrorist leaders are broadcast on national TVs, we cannot tell them, ‘Go ahead and join NATO, and continue as such.’”
Erdogan appeared to be referring to Swedish lawmaker Amineh Kakabaveh, an Iranian Kurd who joined a Kurdish militia as a teenager during the Iran-Iraq War before fleeing to Europe. Now a political independent and deciding vote in Sweden’s divided parliament, Kakabaveh remains a supporter of Kurdish groups in Syria and rejects Erdogan’s allegation that those militias, the Syrian Democratic Forces and the YPG, are terrorists. The Swedish prime minister’s party endorsed Kakabaveh’s position on the Syrian Kurds in November as part of its effort to secure a governing majority.
“That freedom fighters who fought or sympathize with YPG or [the Democratic Union Party] are classed by certain state actors as terrorists is unacceptable. … The Social Democrats intend to deepen their cooperation with the [the Democratic Union Party],” the Swedish politicians agreed, as the Financial Times noted.
Erdogan makes no distinction between those groups and the PKK, a militant organization of Turkish Kurds that the U.S. and other countries have designated a foreign terrorist organization for decades. He wants to drive the Syrian Kurdish forces back from the Turkish border — as he attempted to do in 2019. And the SDF, an umbrella group of Kurdish and Arab militias, has said it would partner with Assad to fend off the Turkish assault if Erdogan carries out his threat.
“The meeting confirmed the readiness of [SDF] forces to coordinate with forces of the Damascus government to confront any possible Turkish incursion and to protect Syrian territories against occupation,” the group said Tuesday.
Such a conflict could make it harder for those forces to maintain custody of thousands of IS militants that they are holding in northeast Syrian prisons. IS fighters conducted a major attack to take one of those prisons in January.
“Any venture, any military operation across the border into northern Syria, first and foremost puts the civilian population in the crosshairs, and secondly, [it] severely puts at risk a critical mission that the global D-ISIS coalition, the U.S., is undertaking,” Leaf, the State Department’s lead official for the Near East bureau, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday. “And, obviously, it puts into the crosshairs our own partners in that mission.”