In a press briefing on November 7, the US’ Special Representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, announced that the White House had made a significant gesture to appease Turkey, despite frayed relations between the two NATO allies, by offering up a reward for the arrest of three prominent leaders of the banned Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).

Tensions between Washington and Ankara have reached a boiling point in recent months, particularly in the wake of the Turkish government’s decision to purchase Russian-made air defence systems that are considered existential threats by the NATO alliance.

Ankara recently bowed to international pressure after it released an American Evangelical Protestant minister that had been jailed on charges that he was a supporter of terrorism for having been on good terms with Kurdish groups that are opposed to Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In a move that will likely be seen as a quid pro quo, the US State Department announced that it was offering a total of $12 million for information leading to the capture of PKK co-founders Murat KarayilanCemil Bayyik, and Duran Kalkan. Karayilan has been in command of the PKK since the capture of the organisation’s leader Abdullah Öcalan by Turkish forces in 1999.

The PKK was founded as a nationalist paramilitary organisation based in Turkey and Iraq in1978 and has been involved in an armed conflict with the Turkish state since the mid-1980s. Its initial aim was to achieve an independent Kurdish state founded on Leftist political ideology, but later changed its demands and has sought equal rights and autonomy for the 20-million-strong Kurdish minority in Turkey.

A member of the PKK rests at a checkpoint with her Soviet-made heavy machine gun and rocket propelled grenade launcher on the Iraqi-Syrian border shortly after an assault by ISIS militants, August 2014. EPA-EFE//OLYA ENGALYCHEVA
A member of the PKK rests at a checkpoint with her Soviet-made heavy machine gun and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on the Iraqi-Syrian border shortly after an assault by ISIS militants, August 2014. EPA-EFE//OLYA ENGALYCHEVA

Following the State Department’s announcement, Jeffrey affirmed the US’ longstanding position that while it considers the Turkey-based, Marxist PKK to be a terrorist group, Washington does not view its close Kurdish ally in northern Syria – the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – as a wing of the PKK.

“We have not designated the YPG as a terrorist organisation the way we have the PKK and we never did. (…) We understand Turkey’s concerns about the links between the YPG and the PKK.  Thus we’re being very very careful in several areas,” Jeffrey said.

Both the European Union and the United State have listed the PKK as a terrorist group. The YPG, however, has been a key ally in Syria as it acted as the most effective combat force in the four-year campaign to defeat ISIS. Jeffrey said the US, therefore, sees no contradiction between American forces and the YPG carrying out joint patrols in northern Syria while at the same time posting a $12-million reward for senior PKK members.

The US and Turkey continue to be at loggerheads over fundamental differences regarding the Kurdish issue in Syria.

Washington has stuck to its message that the Kurds in the north of Syria do not pose a threat to Turkey, a point that Jeffrey made when he explained that the United States had not supplied the YPG with heavy weapons precisely to address Turkish concerns.

The Turks, however, have stuck to their long-held view that all Kurdish political and paramilitary entities in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran pose a threat to their national security and view the YPG as nothing more than a branch of the PKK.

Following the US’ announcement, Turkey’s Defence Ministry spokesman, Hulusi Akar, said Ankara appreciated the gesture to post bounties on the PKK leaders, but then parrotted a message first made by Erdogan, who said he views the YPG and PKK as analogues of ISIS, as all three are classified as terrorists by the Turkish state.

Tensions over the future of Syria

The White House, like their counterparts in Ankara, remain concerned about Iran’s role in a post-war Syria.

Turkey and the United States have moved closer in their Syria policy since September when both supported of a ceasefire in Idlib, the last stronghold of the Syrian rebel opposition with three million residents.

According to Jeffrey, US President Donald J. Trump is believed to be committed to Syria until ISIS is defeated and constitutional reform, as well as elections, can take place. Washington remains steadfast in its position that it sees no role for Iran in Syria, an opinion shared by both the US and Turkey who see the Islamic Republic as “part of the problem, not the solution.”

Jeffrey also said that Turkey has not welcomed the heavy Iranian presence in Syria, but that fundamental differences exist as Ankara’s ties to Iran and its close ally, Russia, grow closer and more aligned by the day.