US President Barack Obama with his Defense Chief Ashton Carter. Photo: AFP
In recent months the Turkish government’s alarm at US policy in the region, especially towards the Syrian Kurds, has begun to echo that of Israel’s alarm over the Iran nuclear deal in the months leading to the July 2015 agreement. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to, in January 2015, circumvent the incumbent Obama administration by addressing his political opponents in Congress directly, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more recently questioned America’s long established friendship with his country and went so far as to say last month that it had to make a choice between Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG).
In both cases Washington has sought to placate these traditional regional allies and reassure them they were sensitive to their concerns. One way they have tried to do this is to allow those allies to purchase advanced American weaponry to give them a technological edge over their enemies. Israel was offered the most powerful bunker buster in the US arsenal to give it the means to decisively cripple Iran’s nuclear program, parts of which are in reinforced underground sites, if it feels circumstances necessitate taking such an action.
The Israeli case is a little different from the Turkish case, obviously in the former the US hasn’t established any alliance with Tehran. Instead it sought to solve the nuclear issue through negotiation as opposed to risking going to war. Regarding Turkey and the YPG however Washington found that the best ally they had to work with on the ground in Syria in the war against Islamic State (ISIS) was in fact the YPG (Ankara didn’t join the multinational American-led coalition or even allow the US to use its Incirlik airbase until July 2015, nearly an entire year after the US-led campaign against ISIS begun). Turkey is against the YPG and views it as little more than the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and treats it as such. While the US seeks to focus on the distinctions between the two, largely to legally justify supporting that indispensable ground ally in the anti-ISIS war, it agrees with Ankara in regard to the PKK and has even voiced support to Turkey’s ongoing conflict against the group.
And amid Turkey’s continued airstrikes against the PKK in the Qandil Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan the US has just announced it will deliver sophisticated bunker buster bombs to Turkey. This may well be Washington’s way of seeking to dissuade Ankara from trying to crush the YPG. After all it doubtlessly recognizes that the Turkish military establishment is very hesitant about launching a protracted ground campaign to destroy the YPG in northern Syria and that the Turkish political establishment is wary of looking weak at a time when it feels it is being pushed into a corner in the region by Iran and Russia. Therefore providing the Turks with such a weapon which would help them afflict more devastatingly lethal blows against the PKK in Qandil is a potentially shrewd move on the part of Washington which is maintaining an extremely delicate balancing act.
Turkey has tried for years to clear the PKK from that mountain. A major 1997 ground offensive of some 30,000 Turkish troops failed to decisively uproot the group from there and airstrikes over the subsequent two decades have also had diminishing returns. However bunker busters could potentially hurt the PKK who have spent years using caves to shield themselves from airstrikes. Turkey likely knows where many of these cave complexes are and such advanced munitions could do some real damage to the PKK there. Something Ankara needs and something which would allow it not to act upon its frequent threats to destroy the YPG while also saving face.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.