Washington and Ankara are tussling over the role to be played by Syria’s Kurds in sealing Turkey’s border as an ISIS supply line. The game of one-upmanship in the wake of the Brussels bombing is testing US credibility as an ally of the Kurds as never before. There could be tragic consequences for the credibility of US alliances worldwide and the war against ISIS if American resolve falls short.


The issue is whether Syrian Kurdish fighters should be used to block the ISIS supply line through Manbij that lies at the southeastern end of the 61-mile border Turkey shares with Syria.[1] The need to seal the border has become urgent since Brussels because ISIS can transport weapons through this route to attack more western targets.

In return for Turkey’s cooperation, Erdogan demands that Syrian Arab tribal forces be included in the Manbij operation. The Turkish president also wants to discard the Kurdish PYD-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the process. In their place, he wants the US to provide air support for Turkey-backed jihadists as well as Turkish soldiers on the ground.

Appeasing Turkey, however, means the US must give up on the PYD — the most effective force fighting against ISIS. What’s more, the US must also support jihadist groups that include al-Qaeda/al-Nusra. The jihadists, in turn, are likely to grab more Syrian territory. Their actions will also increase the risk of military confrontation with Russia over Syrian air space.

According to Hurriyet writer Verda Ozer who accompanied Erdogan on the US trip, Ankara told Washington: “Give up the PYD. Instead we will fight [IS] on the ground with Arab and Turkmen groups we support.”

Erdogan’s proposal, nonetheless, didn’t sit well with Washington which warned of Russia’s possible reaction if Turkish soldiers participated in the border-sealing operation.

Moreover, it was also viewed as antagonizing China since Erdogan’s support of Turkmen and Chinese Uyghurs jihadists in Syria is a thorny issue in bilateral relations.[2]

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 2.25.17 AM

Fehim Tsetekin in Al Monitor noted Turkey’s obstructionist posture towards the anti-ISIS campaign. He says Turkey’s unhelpful attitude is underscored by ISIS’ infiltration of Turkey through the 60-mile border gap. It was the role played by those infiltrators in terror operations in Europe and into Libya that made “Ankara’s game-spoiler attitude unbearable.”[3]

The world is waiting to see how the US will decide in the border operation and how it will treat its Kurdish ally. The bottom line is whether Washington would again abandon the Kurds to appease Erdogan’s demands.

Last year’s US decision to access Turkey’s Incirlik airbase in return for turning a blind eye to Erdogan’s war against the Iraqi Kurds has already damaged Washington’s credibility as a trustworthy ally.[4]

Continued support for Erdogan’s ambitions to overthrow the Syrian government and arming al-Qaeda groups during the Syrian ceasefire, sowed further perceptions that US isn’t serious about fighting ISIS.

On April 8, Jeremy Binnie from IHS Jane’s reported that Washington continues to ship weapons to al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria during the ceasefire agreement. This has been corroborated by the jihadist groups themselves. It lends credence to notions that purpose of the ceasefire on the US side was to break Russian and Syrian army momentum on the battlefield and buy time to rearm for the next offensive.[5]

Meanwhile, ISIS has been left to fester and grow, as oil, weapons, and fighters continue to flow in through its Turkish supply line.

In 2014, Germany’s Deutsche Welle showed a video that documented the fact that clothes, food, and various supplies addressed to Raqqa flowing from Turkey to Syria to support ISIS.[6]

Video of ISIS supply line via Turkey

Why Iraq distrusts US on ISIS

In fact, US inability to fully confront ISIS or cut its supply line in the past two years has increased Iraqi perceptions that Washington is secretly supporting ISIS.

On April 7, Military Times said a new internal US government polling shows that one in three Iraqis thinks the US is supporting ISIS.[7]

As Uncle Sam continues to support Turkey and Saudi/Qatar-backed al-Qaeda groups, it’s small wonder that American allies are questioning the moral legitimacy and credibility of US leadership.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) has previously highlighted the fact that Turkey and the Arab Gulf states are supporting al-Qaeda groups. These are the same groups that attacked Americans on 9/11 and killed US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in a development that’s already unpalatable to the American public.

But it would be an even greater breach of faith for the White House to support and arm such US enemies. That taxpayer money would be used to do so is a betrayal of the American people.

Distrust about the reliability of the US as an ally isn’t confined to the Middle East. America’s partners in the Far East are also watching.

YPG fighters
YPG fighters

When Russia’s invasion of Crimea brought a meek US response, Tokyo threatened the US. It made clear in diplomatic exchanges that if Washington behaved the same way towards Japan in its territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, Japan would abrogate its defense treaty with the US, kick American soldiers out of bases on Japanese soil, and build nuclear weapons.

Sensing that the White House is dismissive of the security concerns of various US allies, some US pundits are stepping in to offer these allies advice on defense planning.

Arthur Waldron, a highly respected China hand and advisor to the Pentagon,penned an article in Nikkei Asian Review in March 2014 calling for Japan to develop its own military might and nuclear weapons.

Questioning US commitment, and fearing a scenario that “Japan will face, at some point, a conflict with a larger, nuclear capable aggressor, at a time when it has no countervailing power of its own, nor reliable ally,” Waldron argued Japan “must use the years ahead to develop an all-around independent military capacity, including the sort of minimal nuclear deterrent that Britain, France and other countries possess.”

Doubts about its alliance with the US  also prompted Taiwan to embark on a clandestine nuclear program in the 1970s. After the US abandoned Taiwan in 1979 to recognize Beijing, Taipei suddenly found itself an orphan that had been isolated and de-legitimized in the eyes of the international community.

The CIA in this instance cultivated a spy in Taiwan’s nascent nuclear weapons program and brought it to a halt. Currently, as, Washington increasingly sees China’s absorption of Taiwan as a foregone conclusion, Taipei finds itself with “no countervailing power of its own, nor reliable ally.”


To return to the Middle East, the Kurds also find themselves an isolated and de-legitimitized orphan in the region with only Russia championing them to be included in the peace process.

If America again asks Syrian Kurds to sacrifice their lives to fight on behalf of the world against ISIS, then hand them over to be bombed by Turkey as they did with the Iraqi Kurds after saving the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, Washington should not be surprised if the Kurds and other US allies begin to align with Russia and China, and look elsewhere for leadership. Nor should it be surprised if some allies seek the nuclear option, and begin to unravel the global nuclear non-nonproliferation treaty (NPT) regime in a post-American new world order.

[1] http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-american-delegations-meet-to-seek-a-formula-over-pyd-role-.aspx?pageID=238&nID=97294&NewsCatID=510

[2] http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2016/03/02/China-s-proxy-war-in-Syria-Revealing-the-role-of-Uighur-fighters-.html

[3] Fehim Tastekin, “Can the Islamic State be defeated without Kurds?” Al Monitor, April 8, 2016, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2016/03/02/China-s-proxy-war-in-Syria-Revealing-the-role-of-Uighur-fighters-.html

[4] Adel E. Shamoo, “The US is betraying the Kurds again”, Foreign Policy in Focus, September 4, 2015,  http://fpif.org/the-u-s-is-betraying-the-kurds-again/ ; https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/a-brief-history-of-american-betrayal-of-the-kurds/

[5] Jeremy Beinnie, “US arms shipment to Syrian rebels detailed”, IHS Jane’s 360, April 8, 2016, http://www.janes.com/article/59374/us-arms-shipment-to-syrian-rebels-detailed; http://www.moonofalabama.org/2016/04/us-delivers-3000-tons-of-weapons-and-ammo-to-al-qaeda-co-in-syria.html; Thanassis Cambanis, “Around Aleppo, It’s Not Peace—Just a Break”, The Century Foundation, March 28, 2016, https://tcf.org/content/commentary/around-aleppo-its-not-peace-just-a-break/

[6] “ISIS supply channels through Turkey”, Deutsche Welle, November 26, 2014,  http://www.dw.com/en/is-supply-channels-through-turkey/av-18091048

[7] Andrew Tilghman, “1 in 3 Iraqis thinks the U.S. is supporting ISIS. Seriously,” Military Times, April 7, 2016, http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2016/04/07/many-iraqis-believe-conspiracy-theories-us-supporting-isis/82754502/

Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University where she specializes in China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations, and a research consultant for Jane’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Intelligence Centre at IHS Jane’s.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

Christina Lin

Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst. She has extensive government experience working on US national security and economic issues and was a CBRN research consultant for Jane's Information Group.

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