United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is visiting Turkey this week, and he's likely to find himself in an unfriendly environment. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said today the U.S. decision to continue its support to the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia would most likely affect Turkey's future decisions.
"Our ally's decision to give financial support to the YPG... will surely affect the decisions we will take," said Erdogan in a speech to members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in parliament.
This comes after the U.S. Department of Defense made public its 2019 budget, in which the Pentagon requests US$300 million to “train and equip activities” in Syria and US$250 million for border security requirements. Even though the budget doesn't specify where this money is going, the Turkish media and state have interpreted it as a US$550 million pledge of support for the YPG in 2019.
"It will be better for them not to stand with the terrorists they support today. I am calling on the people of the United States, this money is coming out of the budget of the United States, it is coming out of people's pockets,” said Erdogan.
Turkey launched the Olive Branch military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces in Afrin on Jan. 20, to “liberate” the zone from what they call Kurdish “terrorists.” While the SDF are composed of militias of different ethnic backgrounds struggling for similar beliefs, the YPG play a leading role.
The Turkish government considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which have led a long-armed insurgency for freedom against the Turkish state. Their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was arrested in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison after the death penalty sentence was revoked.
Tensions between Turkey and the United States, both NATO members, have escalated since then, as the U.S. considers the YPG an essential ally in the fight against the so-called Islamic State, and they were responsible for expelling them from Raqqa, their self-proclaimed capital.
But the U.S. gave Turkey a “green light” for Afrin because they were no longer interested in it. According to U.S. senior officials, their only interest with the YPG is in the front line against the Islamic State group, and they no longer represent a problem in Afrin. However, this may change as the YPG priorities are also changing. Many are leaving the front lines against the Islamic State group to go to Afrin and fight against the Turkish military and their allies, the Free Syrian Army.
In Manbij, about 60 miles east of Afrin, the U.S. has ground troops and keeps assisting the SDF, as a strategic point in the fight against the Islamic State group and other armed organizations. So far, Turkey has remained on the sidelines of the conflict in that area, but have repeatedly threatened to invade it, regardless of U.S. decisions.
On Feb. 7, U.S. Lt. Gen. Paul Funk and Maj. Gen. James Jarrad, the special operations commander for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group, visited Manbij. “We’re very proud of our positions here, and we want to make sure everybody knows it,” said Jarrard. “You hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves,” Funk added.
As a response, Erdogan said today in parliament: “It is very clear that those who say 'we will respond aggressively if you hit us' have never experienced an Ottoman slap.”
Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag warned the U.S. about future collisions. “If U.S. soldiers wear the garb of terrorists and hang around with them, and if they attack Turkish soldiers, no doubt we will not have a chance to distinguish between them,” said Bozdag last week.
Many activists and organizations worldwide, including the Kurdish diaspora, have expressed their objection towards what they call the “Turkish invasion” of Afrin.
In Switzerland, activists organized the “Long March” protest calling for the United Nations to stop the Turkish military operation. Participants chanted slogans such as “Everywhere Afrin, everywhere resistance” and “Freedom for Ocalan” in different languages as they are heading towards Geneva.
The march will end with a rally in front of the United Nations on Feb. 16.
Leila Khaled, one of the most popular voices of the Palestinian struggle and a leading member of the People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine, also spoke against the Turkish military intervention on Monday during the Third Congress of the People's Democratic Party (HDP) and compared the Kurdish struggle to the Palestinian one.
Khaled said she saw in Turkey “the same picture we see in Palestine,” as she saw the Congress surrounded by policemen.
“Wherever there is colonialism, oppression, and violence; resistance will gain strength. You are resisting. You are the voice of those who resist colonialism. I greet you on behalf of the fighting Palestinian people. We also raise our voice against the war in Afrin,” concluded Khaled.
Many members of the HDP, including its leaders, have been arrested or murdered since 2016.
Even thou Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says they are avoiding civil casualties, several organizations report bombings on residential areas, and the Syrian Civil War Map organization has registered 201 civilians dead since the operation began.