February 5, 2018
Washington designated Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. Last week the Department of State also designated its leader Ismail Haniyeh as a terrorist. Some in the Arab world were no doubt delighted whereas Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu strongly criticized the decision because the government regards Ismail Haniyeh a freedom fighter. The truth is such disagreements between nations are not uncommon. It all depends on countries’ perception of national interest as well as ideology.
In August 2014, President Obama told Thomas L. Friedman,
“…the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.” (*)
Thus, particularly after the operations to dislodge ISIS from Raqqa, the PYD/YPG emerged as Washington’s principal local partner in Syria.
For Turkey, the PYD/YPG is a PKK affiliate, hence a terrorist organization. The U.S. designated the PKK as a terrorist organization in 1997 but the PYD/YPG is not on that list.
Apart from Turkish Armed Forces, “Operation Olive Branch” in Afrin also involves fighters of the Free Syrian Army. Some have said that these are jihadist terrorists and Turkey’s political leadership has reacted sharply, equating them with the nationalist forces of the Turkish War of Liberation which followed the First World War. In fact, those who liberated Turkey were never proxies. Their epic struggle was a solo performance.
Interestingly, Carlotta Gall reported in The New York Times last Friday that,
“Turkey is relying on a newly reconfigured, 20,000-member American-trained force with three army corps as it tries to carve out a buffer zone within Syria. The force has already taken 16 casualties in two weeks of fighting on the front lines.
“But, the soldiers are not Turks. Rather they are the mostly Arab fighters of the Free Syrian Army, once trained and assembled by the C.I.A. and Western allies to oust President Bashar al-Assad of Syria…” (emphasis added)
Not surprising in a conflict with more than a hundred fighting groups, external meddling, shifting alliances and murky relationships.
“Operation Olive Branch” is in its third week now. The U.S. is continuing with its calls of restraint. General Joseph Votel, Commander of the U.S. Central Command, said that withdrawing US forces from Manbij is “not something we are looking into.” Last week, at a press conference at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis responded to persistent questions on the current picture with the following:
“Turkey, number one, is a NATO ally; number two, they’re the only NATO ally that confronts an active insurgency on their own home territory; number three, it is by a group of PKK, a named terrorist group by the U.S. State Department, and they have murdered innocent Turks. That is the legitimacy of the Turkish concern. And when rockets come over a border, or insurgents come over a border — and not just in — in this Syria complex situation, but also out of northern Iraq and all — then we are with Turkey 100 percent.
“At the same time, we’re trying to take down ISIS, and there’s only one group that’s proven capable of doing that that we’ve worked with… right now, we are trying to balance the finishing off of the ISIS with Turkey’s legitimate security concerns…”
Russia invested a lot in the Congress of the Syrian national dialogue in Sochi. Some observers also saw a domestic policies dimension to it with the upcoming presidential elections in March. The meeting ended with a strong statement but the opposition stayed away preventing it from becoming a landmark development in Syria’s political transition. The PYD, not invited to Sochi, directed strong criticism at Moscow for allowing Turkey to use Syrian airspace during the Afrin incursion. The Independent reported that Vitaly Naumkin, a Syria-expert closely associated with the Russian government, told journalists in Sochi that Russia understood the Kurdish grievances, but had prioritized its alliance with Turkey and Iran. Neither the PKK nor the PYD/YPG is on Moscow’s list of terrorist organizations.
Turkey is carrying out its Afrin operation in a narrow path between the U.S. and Russia. Soon, one may witness an upsurge in Russia supported regime attacks on Idlib leading to further disagreements as to who is a terrorist and who is not.