Former envoy says US ignores Türkiye’s security concerns in Syria
Robert Ford, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria, highlighted his country’s dismissal of Türkiye’s concerns over the presence of the PKK/YPG terrorist group on its immediate border with Syria
The United States’ support for the PKK terrorist group and its Syrian offshoot, the YPG, in Syria prevails as a major irritant in Turkish-U.S. relations. The last U.S. ambassador to serve in Syria, Robert Ford, says Washington does not understand Türkiye’s security concerns in Syria’s north, where the terrorist group holds swathes of land. Ford says Washington considers the situation a “security problem” when it is actually a “political problem.”
“I think Washington in general, and also many analysts in Washington, do not understand the extent of anger which American relations with the YPG causes generates in Türkiye,” Ford, who was the U.S. ambassador to Syria between 2011 and 2014, told Anadolu Agency (AA) in an interview. “They think it’s just a trivial matter, and it’s necessary because of Daesh, and the Turks should stop worrying about it. And it’s a kind of an American ignoring a major Turkish concern,” he continued.
The U.S. policy on Syria has been one of the most challenging issues between the two NATO allies. Türkiye has never accepted the U.S. backing for the YPG because of its ties to the PKK, which is recognized as a terrorist group by both Türkiye and the U.S. The U.S., on the other hand, sees the YPG as a partner in the fight against Daesh in Syria and does not recognize it as a terrorist group.
The PKK has waged a campaign of terror against Türkiye for more than 35 years and has been responsible for the deaths of more than 40,000 people.
Asked about the U.S. strategy of defeating Daesh in Syria, Ford, a veteran U.S. diplomat who is currently a fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, said: “I think the mission is impossible. And the fact that they have been there four years after the capture of Baghuz and still there is a Daesh insurgency tells me the mission cannot be achieved … They can stay in eastern Syria, but they cannot completely eliminate Daesh. It’s just a reality.”
According to Ford, the Sunni Arabs in Syria’s Hassakeh and Deir el-Zour provinces could eliminate Daesh, but they do not have the “incentives” and “means” to do that. “Americans need to think about how to de-radicalize fighters instead of just imprisoning them in remote prison camps, which we know from experience doesn’t work,” he stressed. On U.S. support for the YPG to defeat Daesh, Ford said it had an “immediate short-term benefit” between 2015-2019. “Like now, in 2023, can the YPG stop recruitment of unhappy young people that join Daesh in places like Deir el-Zour or Hassakeh? They can’t. If anything, there’s a lot of resentment among local Arab communities towards the YPG,” he said. “This is a question of empowering the local communities to do more,” he added.
In response to a question about the YPG’s link with the PKK, Ford said, “We have to be honest, there is not a big difference between YPG fighters and the PKK.” “And in fact, people who go to Qamishli and the autonomous administration tell me that they often hear Qandil accents among the people there. So we know they come from Qandil,” he said. The PKK uses the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq as its stronghold and is active in many cities and towns in and around the region.
“The Americans can deny it, but that would be naive. And I think, frankly, the Americans have stopped denying it. Now they simply say it’s a practical measure, a kind of cooperation,” he said. “I just think the Americans don’t take Turkish concerns very seriously. And they tend to think of this as a security problem when it’s a political problem,” he noted.
The recent tensions in Syria after an Iranian-backed group’s drone attack on a U.S. base and the U.S. targeting them with airstrikes put the spotlight on the continued presence of U.S. troops. The U.S. troops, who number nearly 1,000, will continue to stay in Syria, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said last week, adding, “The mission against Daesh is not going to change.”
Asked about the recent tensions, Ford said they “will continue.” “There will be more Iranian attacks, and when there is a death, probably the Americans will respond sharply. I don’t see an end to it,” he said. Neither side wants a “big war,” Ford noted, adding that it was “unusual” that President Joe Biden publicly said the U.S. does not seek conflict with Iran, which he thinks is a sign that “they did not want to provoke that escalation.”
According to Ford, the American mission in eastern Syria will continue “indefinitely,” and he sees “no clear end to it.” “The last Daesh stronghold in Baghuz fell more than four years ago.
The Americans are still there. The Americans don’t have a clear idea what they need to withdraw,” he said, adding public support in the U.S. is also “so far okay.” Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives voted against a resolution directing the Biden administration to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria in a 103-321 vote. “There is no critical majority in Washington yet that supports withdrawing troops from eastern Syria, or that supports withdrawing aid from the Syrian Democratic Forces,” he said. Ford said he believes the American troops in Syria “should come home.” “I feel terrible that an American citizen died a couple of days ago for a mission which will never be achieved, and we should be honest about it,” he said regarding the airstrike by Iranian-backed groups against a U.S. base in Syria, which resulted in the death of an American contractor and wounded several U.S. troops.