They were once good friends
Last Friday, April 1, President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan had his first encounter with a group of American Jewish leaders, at his request. The full details of its contents were hard to sort out because the Turkish translator censored his master’s words with a heavy hand to make them more acceptable to his audience. But Erdogan’s bottom line, DEBKAfile’s New York sources report, was a request for help in explaining to the Obama administration in Washington and the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem why they must on no account extend support to the Syrian Kurdish PYD and its YPG militia or recognize their bid for a separate state in northern Syria.
The Turkish president did not spell out his response to this step, but indicated that a Turkish invasion to confront the Kurdish separatists was under serious consideration in Ankara. His meaning was clear: He would go to war against the Kurds, even if this meant flying in the face of President Barack Obama’s expectation that Turkey would fight the Islamic State.
Relations between the Turkish and US presidents have slipped back another notch in the last two weeks. When he visited Washington for the nuclear summit, Erdogan was pointedly not invited to the White House and his request for a tete a tete with Obama was ruled out. The US president even refused to join Erdogan in ceremonially honoring a new mosque built outside Washington with Turkish government funding.
At odds between them is not just the Kurdish question, but Erdogan’s furious opposition to Obama’s collaboration with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Syrian conflict, and the two presidents' tacit accord to leave Bashar Assad in power indefinitely until a handover becomes manageable.
On Feb. 7, on his return for a Latin American tour, the Turkish president warned Obama that he must choose between Ankara and the Kurds, whom he called “terrorists.” By last week, the US president’s choice was clear. It was the Kurds.
When Erdogan arrived home from Washington last week, he discovered that the roughly four million Syrian Kurds dwelling in three enclaves touching on the Turkish border had taken important steps to advance their goal for self-rule: They were drafting a plan for establishing a “Federal Democratic System” in their three enclaves – Hassakeh-Jazeera, Kobani and Afrin – and had announced the amalgamation of their respective militias under the heading the “Syrian Democratic Forces".
Cold-shouldered in Washington as well as Moscow (since Turkish jets shot down a Russian fighter last November), Erdogan found himself let down by the Jewish leaders whom he tried to woo. They refused to support him or his policy on the Kurdish question for three reasons:
1. Ankara had for years consistently promoted the radical Palestinian Hamas organization. To this, Erdogan replied by denying he had backed Hamas only acted to improve the lives of the Gaza population. And, anyway, he said he had reached understandings with Israel on this issue..
2. His hostility towards Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi. Erdogan’s response to this was a diatribe slamming the Egyptian ruler.
3. No clear reply had been forthcoming from Jerusalem by that time on Israel's relations with Turkey or its policy towards the Kurds, despite the Turkish leader’s positive presentation of mended fences.
The current state of the relationship is laid out by DEBKAfile’s sources:
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is caught on the horns of multiple dilemmas: While reluctant to respond to Ankara’s suit for warm relations with a leader who is shunned by Obama and Putin alike, Turkey is nonetheless offering to be Israel’s best client for its offshore gas.
Israel’s friendship with the Kurdish people goes back many years. The rise of an independent or autonomous state in Syria and its potential link-up with the semiautonomous Kurdish region of Iraq would create an important new state of 40 million people in the heart of the Middle East.
Israel has no wish to make enemies of its longstanding friends by disowning them in favor of Turkey.
Already, Israel’s evolving ties with the Syrian Kurds have given Israel’s strategic position in Syria a new positive spin, upgrading it versus the Assad regime in Damascus and its Hizballah and Iranian allies, who are avowed enemies of the Jewish state. Those ties offer Israel its first foothold in northern Syria.
And finally, Erdogan is not the only opponent of Kurdish separatism; so too are important Sunni Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. By promoting the Kurds, Israel risks jeopardizing its rapidly developing ties with those governments.