This isn’t about whether or not the U.S. knows that the PKK and YPG are connected. It’s about Washington’s feelings about Turkey choosing the Iranian corridor over the Kurdish one. On Feb. 13, Daniel R. Coats, the director of national intelligence, released the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, which captures the two allies’ conflicting priorities: “Iran is… seeking to establish a land corridor from Iran through Syria to Lebanon. The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit — the Syrian militia of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — probably will seek some form of autonomy but will face resistance from Russia, Iran and Turkey.” The intelligence community directly links PYD and its military wing, YPG, to PKK.
The PKK was established in 1978, and with the 1980 military coup its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, fled to Syria. Until he was forced to leave in 1998, Ocalan directed all PKK attacks against the Turkish state from Damascus. Turkey lost over 30,000 men and women to this fighting; millions of dollars that could have been spent on better developing Turkey went to fighting terrorism. But even though Ocalan has been in prison in Turkey since 1999, this Kurdish problem has become a necrosis, and no one seems to have a clear idea how to address it.
The PKK has used the American war on terrorism to branch out in the region and beyond. In Syria, it created the YPG; in Iran, it created the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK); in Iraq, it created the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PCDK). These organizations all officially reside under the umbrella of the Kurdistan Communities’ Union (KCK). “The constituents of the KCK are not “affiliates” or “offshoots” or “sister groups” of the PKK,” writes Kyle Orton of the Henry Jackson Society. “[T]hey are organically integrated components of the same organization — sharing membership, ideology, and a command structure under the ultimate authority of Abdullah Ocalan and his deputies in the PKK’s headquarters in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq.”
Andrew Self, a reserve US Army officer, and Jared Ferris, an M.A. candidate at George Washington University, concur in a publication of NATO’s Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism, writing that all these “armed wings should be analyzed as integrally connected groups fighting in a unified regional strategy for Ocalanian Kurdish-autonomy.”
On April 29, 2016, then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter admitted at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that YPG and PKK are directly linked. Carter also stated that “The PKK is a terrorist organization, not only in the eyes of the Turkish government but in the eyes of the U.S. government as well.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked him, “Is it surprising to you that the Turks may be upset with us arming the YPG in Syria, since they are closely aligned with the PKK?” Carter said only that the U.S. is in “extensive consultations with the Turks.” Sen. Graham retorted that Turks “think this is the dumbest idea in the world, and I agree with them.”
Yet the U.S. continued cooperating with the PYD. In July 2017, Gen. Raymond Thomas, commander of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM), told the Aspen Institute Security Forum that because the Turks would equate the YPG to PKK, the U.S. asked them to change their name. “We played back to them that you’ve got to change the brand: ‘What do you want to call yourselves besides the YPG?’ “In about a days notice, they declared that they were the Syrian Democratic Forces. I thought it was a stroke of brilliance to put ‘democracy’ somewhere, but it gave them a little bit of a credibility.”
Andrew Exum, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy, also wrote in The Atlantic on May 9, 2017 that without question the YPG and PKK are directly linked. He also, however, argued that the U.S. had to arm the Kurds to take Raqqa back from IS, and spelled out the dilemma that policy creates for Turkey: “Assad will never be strong enough to exercise anything that looks like pre-2011 sovereignty over Syria, so the creation of another Kurdish statelet along Turkey’s borders now looks like an inevitability,” he wrote. “Syria’s Kurds want the same thing Iraq’s Kurds want: semi-independence backed by a strong commitment from the United States.”
And that brings the U.S.-Turkey relationship into uncharted territory. While Turkey’s membership in NATO has questioned because it disagrees with American policy in Syria, Ankara’s problem is not with Brussels. Only the U.S. is arming the Kurdish-led militia at Turkey’s border with Syria. “Turkey has been fighting the 5,000 PKK force for years and the result is well known,” one former Turkish military intelligence officer has said. “The US is now arming 30,000 of them. The picture is clear.”
“It is not that NATO equals the US,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday. “All NATO member countries are equal to the US in the alliance. If you claim that YPG [and] PYD is not a terrorist organization, and if these terror groups are attacking one of your NATO allies, you should stand against them… If this issue is not justly resolved, the relationship can no longer be defined in the concept of a partnership, alliance or a model partnership.”