The recent visits of top US generals to Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria were no coincidence and prove that foreign powers seek a weakness in the Turkish government, according to Hilal Kaplan, a columnist in the pro-government Sabah newspaper.
Kaplan was referring to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Mark Milley, who visited a US base in northeast Syria in early March, and General Michael Kurilla, the Commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), who travelled to the same area last week.
According to US sources, both visits were related to the efforts to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Syria, led by Kurdish armed groups on the frontline.
Turkey, which sees the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeast Syria as a national security threat, summoned the US ambassador on 7 March and asked for an explanation for Milley’s visit.
“It is not a coincidence that those visits took place in a period we were preoccupied with the earthquake disaster and the opposition was interfering in the domestic politics of the country, said Kaplan, referring to the aftermath of the 6 February twin earthquakes and the opposition parties’ discussions around presidential candidates for the 14 May elections.
“They will descend on us with all their force the moment a power vacuum emerges. I am sure the majority of the country can see this simple fact,” said the columnist, a staunch supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
According to Kaplan, the stance of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the presidential candidate for the Nation Alliance of six opposition parties, is also related to the US strategy in Syria.
The columnist said that Kılıçdaroğlu had defined the PYD as a patriot group and had written a letter to the Syrian president Bashar Assad, making him certain promises to be realised after the Turkish elections.
Kılıçdaroğlu said during a Q&A session with university students in 2014 that he saw the PYD and its armed forces the YPG not as a terrorist group but an organisation established by people to protect their homeland. The opposition leader made this comment at a time ISIS was attacking the Kurdish-populated northeastern Syrian town of Kobane.
The recently-declared presidential candidate wrote a letter to Assad last month offering his condolences to the victims of the earthquake that hit north Syria as well as Turkey, adding that he hoped the neighbouring countries would in the future share “their hopes and not their griefs”.
The Syrian policy of the Nation Alliance that nominated Kılıçdaroğlu as presidential candidate is still not clear, but the CHP leader is known to be in favour of working with Assad to ensure the safe return of almost four million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey to their homeland.
Meanwhile, Kaplan is not the only person who thinks the US generals’ recent visits to northeast Syria has motives other than the struggle with ISIS.
“The north of Syria and the PYD is way too important for somebody of Milley’s stature to make a trip there,” said Henri J. Barkey, a Turkey expert and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations last week.
“And I think that’s the clearest way we could send a message to Erdoğan saying, ‘Don’t mess with Northern Syria’,” said Barkey , during an event entitled “Turkey after Erdoğan” organised last week by the US think-tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Maybe Milley wanted to go. It may not be political. Nobody has told me one way or the other. But to me, that was a very clear signal. So yes, we can send, we meaning Europe and the United States, can send messages. But whether or not Erdoğan listens is another matter,” he added.
Barkey was referring to Erdoğan’s plans to launch a new ground operation into northeast Syria aiming to remove Kurdish forces from territories close to Turkey’s borders. Turkey has been shelling Kurdish targets in the region since November and has not stopped its drone attacks despite the great destruction caused by the earthquake.