Syrian Kurds are snag in U.S.-Turkey strategy against Islamic State

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden talks during a joint news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, right, following their meeting in Istanbul, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016.


By KAREN DEYOUNG | The Washington Post | Published: January 23, 2016

ISTANBUL — Turkey and the United States continued on Saturday to disagree about the status of Syrian Kurdish forces who have become a key part of the U.S. strategy to defeat the Islamic State in Syria.

In statements after two hours of meeting here, Vice President Joe Biden and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu praised the U.S.-Turkish alliance. The partnership is "enduring, it's rooted in history, it's in the hearts of our people," Biden said. "Turkey is a strategic partner."

But while saying ties with the United States were strong, Davutoglu repeatedly referred to the Syrian group — called the People's Protection Units and known by its Arabic initials as the YPG — as a terrorist organization on par with the Islamic State and as a component part of Turkey's own Kurdish militants, who have long used violence to try to carve out their own state inside the Turkish border.

"We shared this vision" with Biden, Davutoglu said. "It's good to see we're on the same page."

Biden, standing beside Davutoglu as the two delivered statements without taking questions, agreed that the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, is a terrorist group and has been labeled as such by the U.S. government. But he never mentioned the Syrian Kurds.

"We want to make sure, in such an important relationship, that there's no misunderstanding," Biden said. "Where we are in agreement, we agree with precision. Where we have disagreement, we state it flatly." On strategic issues, including the need to work together to defeat the Islamic State, he said, "there is no disagreement."

Biden also briefly made additional headlines when he appeared to say that the United States was prepared to use military force in Syria's civil war if negotiations to forge agreement over a transitional government failed.

"We do know that it would be better if we can reach a political solution. But we are prepared if that's not possible to have a military solution to this operation and to taking out Daesh," he said, using the Arabic term for the Islamic State, which is also referred to as ISIL and ISIS.

Biden officials later said there was no change in U.S. policy not to interfere militarily in the civil war, and that Biden was referring to ongoing U.S. commitment to the military fight against the Islamic State, regardless of what happens in the Syrian negotiations.

"The Vice President was making the point that even as we search for a political solution to the broader Syrian civil war, we are simultaneously pursuing a military solution against Daesh. There is no change in US policy," said a senior Biden official, speaking on condition of anonymity to clarify the vice president's remarks.

Later Saturday, Biden met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The status of the Syrian Kurds has become a major sticking point in both U.S.-Turkey collaboration in the fight against the Islamic State, and in the upcoming negotiations between President Bashar al-Assad's regime and Syrian opposition forces fighting against it.

The negotiations, scheduled to begin Monday in Geneva, now appear to have been postponed, at least until later in the week.

As much of the Syrian opposition has turned its attention to Assad, the United States has found the Kurds among the only available forces, and one of the most capable, to fight against the Islamic State on the ground as U.S. airstrikes pummel the militants.

Meanwhile, Russia, which along with the United States is shepherding the Assad-opposition negotiations, is at odds with Turkey and has insisted that the YPG, as a potent force in Syria, be included as part of the opposition delegation. The rest of the opposition has refused, and Turkey, an important backer of the process, has said it will withdraw its support for the talks.

Biden also said that as the administration official with the most experience dealing with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, he hoped to settle a related dispute between Iraq and Turkey.

Turkey has increased its troop presence in northern Iraq near the Turkish border, where it is training Iraqi Kurdish forces, in what Iraq charges is an attempt to take action against the PKK, whose guerrilla camps are located nearby.

Calling it a violation of Iraqi sovereignty, Abadi has demanded the Turks withdraw, and has threatened to invite Russia in to bomb them. Since September, Russia has been using airstrikes against anti-Assad forces in Syria.

"I'm self-appointed to see if I can work out something between my good friend, the prime minister of Turkey, and my good friend, the prime minister of Iraq, to see if we can work out a modus vivendi on the same page," Biden said.

Biden and Davutoglu also said they pored over maps of the Turkish border in northwest Syria, where they hope to join together in support of Arab Syrian opposition forces fighting to remove a remaining border pocket of the Islamic State. The two governments have struggled to agree on which Syrian groups are sufficiently vetted to be supported by airstrikes, and to receive increased weapons support.

Turkey, which also has long been accused of allowing foreign fighters and weapons to reach the militants along the border, has "taken some very important steps to improve" the situation, Biden said. "American and coalition aircraft are operating out of Turkish bases" and have "ramped up the air campaign against Isil targets to the highest tempo since the beginning" of the coalition operation in the fall of 2014, he said.

The two discussed "how we can better support local forces on the ground that we jointly" support to move into the area on the ground. The United States has also offered increased intelligence and border security equipment to Turkey, discussed in visit here early this month by Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In talking about their "shared mission" against the Islamic State, Biden said, "we got very precise. We do believe that our plans together have matured, gotten more coordinated, and we're increasingly making progress."

Biden's delegation also includes experts on regional energy issues. The Obama administration sees Turkey as key to rerouting gas and oil supplies to eastern Europe that currently come from Russia. European dependence on those supplies has made those countries reluctant to cross the Russians on a range of issues. At the same time, the administration is promoting a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel, which would like to sell natural gas.

Davutoglu also referred to Biden's critical remarks about human rights in Turkey. On Friday, the vice president met with civil society leaders and journalists and criticized the Turkish governments moves to curtail freedom of speech and the media — including the recent arrest of dozens of academics who called on the government to stop military operations against alleged PKK-allied villages in Turkey's southeast.

"We will always listen to the opinions of our allies and friends," Davutoglu said. "But no ally, no friendly nation, should expect us to tolerate any armed forces other than the legitimate armed forces" of the government, on Turkish territory.

"If al-Qaida was present in any province of the United States or Europe, Turkey's stand would be loud and clear" in support, he said. "We expect the same clear vision from the United States, which deems the PKK a terrorist organization. We are happy this is the case."

Biden, while continuing to about the question of the YPG — the Syrian Kurds — said that "we agree with you" that there is "no substantive difference" between the PKK, the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, the other main Islamist terrorist group in Syria. "Here in Turkey, they threaten and do harm," he said. "We do recognize that."

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