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Biden Must Tell Erdogan to Stop Targeting US Partners

Erdogan. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Erdogan. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Turkey is suspected of having carried out a drone strike inside of Iraqi Kurdistan that almost killed the leader of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – General Mazloum Abdi. The strike, which narrowly missed Abdi, almost killed several US military officials, who were riding alongside him in his convoy. Luckily, there appear to be no casualties, but this was a close call. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made no secret of his enmity for the SDF– a stalwart partner of the United States, which has led the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Without SDF fighters- the broad majority of which are Syrian Kurds, the US would not have been able to eliminate the threat posed by ISIS.  Erdogan views the SDF as a terrorist entity that is a direct offshoot of its Turkish parent organization-the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a secessionist campaign in Turkey since the 1970s.

In truth, although the PKK and SDF do have organizational ties, the SDF has not threatened Turkey. They have two priorities: to ensure that Syrian Kurds are not murdered by the Assad regime and to defeat ISIS. Erdogan insists that the SDF is a major threat which must be eliminated, mainly because this defiant rhetoric plays well with Turkish voters, who are poised to vote in May to determine whether Erdogan remains as president for another five years.

Until now Washington has chosen to agree to disagree with Turkey on its partnership with the SDF. The Biden administration has tried to manage Turkey by indicating that they are closely working to ensure that Ankara’s security concerns are respected. Erdogan’s brazen act to assassinate General Abdi is an unacceptable escalation. Ankara and Washington may strongly disagree over the US’ continued partnership with the SDF, but attempting to assassinate its leader, and endangering the lives of US military personnel should not go unpunished. At present, there are close to 1000 US service members directly advising SDF forces, as they continue to eliminate the remnants of ISIS. What would be the US response if Turkey kills a US soldier? Must we really find out?

The White House must inform President Erdogan that any attacks on SDF forces is unacceptable, and that any harm that befalls US service personnel will not be interpreted as unintentional. It is understandable (to a point) that Erdogan seeks to present himself as a decisive leader before his constituents, but not at the expense of US service members. The White House and State Department have been too meek in dealing with Ankara, mainly because of their belief that Turkey is a pivotal actor in the Ukrainian conflict. It has been selling Kyiv combat drones, and ensuring Ukrainian grain shipments reach world markets. However, this has given Erdogan the impression that he can pretty much do whatever he wants inside Syria.

Washington must stop humoring Erdogan, as not doing so is going to get US personnel killed. Recent reporting also suggests that Turkey has been playing both sides in the Ukraine war. While it has sold drones to Ukraine, it has also been selling weapons to Russian mercenaries-specifically, the Wagner Group. Accommodating Erdogan is not yielding Washington much in terms of tangible benefits. In fact, the more one digs, the more we discover how defiantly Erdogan is working against our interests. There is a small chance that he may be voted out of office in May. Until then the Biden administration should tell the Turkish President that all hostile moves against the US and its partners must end. With luck, Washington can work with his successor.

Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow Sinan on Twitter @SinanCiddi.

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Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow Sinan on Twitter @SinanCiddi.

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