Anti-ISIS coalition faces divisive crisis

Turkish artillery fire from the border near Kilis toward northern Syria, in Kilis, Turkey, Monday, Feb. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Halit Onur Sandal)

After last Wednesday’s deadly bombing in the Turkish capital of Ankara, the United States is now scrambling to keep two key allies in its coalition against the Islamic State from going to war with each other.

For several months, the U.S. government has struggled to manage the competing interests of Turkey, a NATO ally bent on removing the Bashar al-Assad regime, and Syrian Kurdish rebels, whose priority is to expand their territory and autonomy within Syria.

The American plan is for both to focus their efforts on destroying the Islamic State, but as Turkey has started attacking the Syrian Kurds, the U.S. effort to balance between them is proving untenable.

The first problem for President Barack Obama’s administration is how to deal with the Turkish government, which is increasingly upset about the U.S. program to provide Kurdish fighters with light weapons and ammunition.

Within hours of the deadly bombing, Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said one of the attackers was a Syrian member of the U.S.-supported Kurdish fighting group known as the YPG.

A senior U.S. diplomat told us that so far the U.S. has not seen any evidence the YPG played a role in the Ankara bombing. The Obama administration is now trying to prevent Turkey from escalating its own war against Kurdish separatists, this diplomat said, and stop Turkish shelling and bombing of Kurdish positions in northern Syria and northern Iraq.

The second problem for the U.S. is how to deal with the YPG itself.

Earlier this month, YPG fighters began fighting other Western-backed Syrian rebels and drove them out of the Menagh air base near Azaz in the north of the country.

Even before the bombing in Ankara, the Turks began bombing YPG positions, warning that they were willing to render the air base unusable.

The U.S. diplomat told us that the YPG did not warn the U.S. or the coalition that it would be moving on the air base earlier this month.

But since the YPG took the facility, the U.S. has been telling them to stop advancing north toward Turkey.

Meanwhile, Russia has been working to drive a wedge between the U.S. government and the Syrian Kurds.

While the U.S. has seen no evidence of direct Russian military support for the Kurdish forces, the YPG has been taking advantage of Russian airstrikes to take territory from other rebels in the north.

Russia is also trying to take advantage of Kurdish tensions with Turkey by offering support for the YPG and promising to protect the Kurdish fighters from Turkish air strikes.

U.S. officials have tried to persuade the Turkish government that American support for the YPG is preferable to the alternative, which is letting the Kurds drift further into the Russian sphere of influence.

“If you don’t like our support for the Kurds, you really won’t like it when the Russians come in,” the senior U.S. diplomat told us.

Normally, Washington would side with Turkey, a NATO ally, against the YPG, which has roots in the Kurdish separatist movement known as the PKK.

The latter group is still designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

But the YPG is the most effective group of fighters today in Syria against the Islamic State.

Last Wednesday, Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S. operation in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State, pointed to a new offensive launched by Syrian rebels — including the YPG — in Shaddadi, an important border town crucial to the Islamic State’s supply line between Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria.

Nonetheless, Warren said he was aware of the fighting between various anti-Assad rebel factions.

Warren said the U.S. message to the rebels on the ground was to “convince them that focusing on Daesh really is in their best interests,” using the Arabic term for the Islamic State.

Many Syrian rebels are suspect of the Kurds’ true motives. General Salem Idris, former chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, told the Voice of America last Wednesday:

“The YPG is acting as a spoiler, tactically. They say they are not coordinating with the regime, but that is a lie.”

The administration has been stepping up its support to the Syrian Kurds and the YPG since last fall, when the United States airdropped 50 tons of small arms and ammunition in northeastern Syria for a group called the Syrian Arab Coalition, most of which ended up in the hands of the YPG.

Kurdish officials have said total U.S. military support to the YPG has been at least double that amount, and that the Kurds in October established a group called the Democratic Forces of Syria to coordinate the distribution of U.S.-provided weapons among local forces in the fight against the Islamic State.

For months, the Turkish government has formally complained to the U.S. that the weapons provided to the Democratic Forces of Syria have ended up in the hands of PKK separatists fighting in Turkey.

The senior U.S. diplomat told us the U.S. takes these charges seriously, but has not found any evidence that the arms supplied to the Kurds in Syria have wound up across the Turkish border.

This official said, however, it was true that some U.S. weaponry seized by the Islamic State in Iraq had found its way into Turkey.

Eric Edelman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2003 to 2005, told us:

“The concerns about weaponry we provide people in Iraq showing up in Turkey has been longstanding. From time to time I’m sure this actually happens.”

Turkey’s grave worry, however, is that the Kurdish rebels may be too successful inside Syria.

The area in between Kurdish-held territory in northeastern Syria and Kurdish areas near Aleppo in Syria’s northwest is controlled by a mix of rebel groups supported by Turkey.

If the Kurds are able to connect their two holdings, they would achieve what Ankara fears most: a de facto contiguous state that stretches from Lebanon to the Iraq-Iran border.

Turkey’s concerns about this have had diplomatic repercussions.

The Turks, in conjunction with Saudi Arabia, worked to keep the Syrian Kurds out of negotiations between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime.

The U.S. pushed for the YPG’S political entity, called the PYD, to be represented in the High Negotiating Committee that traveled to Geneva earlier this month for peace talks, but the Saudi government objected.

The Washington Post reported that the leader of the PYD showed up in Geneva anyway, but was asked to leave by U.S. officials after Turkey threatened to scuttle the talks.

The U.S. special representative to the anti-Islamic State coalition, Brett McGurk, then traveled to Rojava, inside Kurdish-controlled Syria, to mend ties.

The hope now for the U.S. is that it can persuade Turkey and the YPG to back off each other and turn their energies to defeating the Islamic State.

If that effort fails, then the U.S. may find itself supporting both sides of a Kurdish-Turkish war it has been trying for months to prevent.

Eli Lake and Josh Rogin are columnists for Bloomberg View.