American officials have confirmed that Syrian Kurdish troops have agreed to stay east of Iraq’s Euphrates River, a demand imposed by the Turkish government. The Turks’ public concerns over Syrian Kurdish expansion come as the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, visits Ankara to reaffirm his solidarity with Erdogan.
Barzani landed in Turkey this weekend to discuss, among other concerns, Turkish investment in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq and the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey announced Operation Euphrates Shield — a military measure designed to keep both the Islamic State and the Syrian Kurdish militias far from Turkey’s border with Iraq — this week before Barzani attended meetings with Turkish officials on Tuesday.
In meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim made clear one of the objectives of Operation Euphrates Shield was to keep the YPG and YPJ on the eastern side of that river. Biden threatened to withdraw American support for the Syrian militias — which have been some of the most effective troops against ISIS on the ground — if they did not accept the Turkish terms: “They cannot – will not – under any circumstance get American support if they do not keep that commitment.”
On Thursday morning, American officials confirmed that Syrian Kurdish leadership had begun to withdraw east.
The meeting with Barzani, then, at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s request, is an indication of Turkish support for an independent Kurdish republic in Iraq that openly rejects the Syrian Kurdish militias, the YPG and YPJ, and opposes the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist terrorist organization long at war with the Turkish government. It clarifies that Turkey’s objections are against the Syrian Kurdish groups, which it sees as indistinguishable from the PKK, and not the greater Kurdish ethnic group.
Barzani told reporters that he sees the war against the Islamic State as one of the most important issues for cooperation between Turkey and the Kurdish government and its military, the Peshmerga forces. “Certainly, the ISIS war one of the focal points of our conversation and we agreed on how to cooperate on combating this terrorist organization… It is clear that big changes are coming to the region and they call for more cooperation,” he said. Among the projects Turkey seeks a role in cooperating with is the battle to retake Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq and the Islamic State’s de facto capital in that country.
In addition to matters of war, Turkey’s prime minister confirmed that Turkey is interested in investing in Iraqi Kurdistan. “We understand that there are financial difficulties in the Kurdistan Region, which is why we have decided to broaden our economic support,” Yildirim told reporters Wednesday. “We will promote our partnership in the energy sector and we will open a new border gate with the Kurdistan Region,” he added.
Barzani did not appear to comment on the Syrian Kurds moving back east of the Euphrates. For Barzani, who has referred to the PPK as “arrogant” and demanded Syrian Kurdish troops withdraw from Iraq and let the Peshmerga fight ISIS, Syrian Kurdish moving further east would complicate the fight against the PKK. The Syrian Kurds are sandwiched between enemies, and moving too far in either direction will cause a diplomatic problem.