JUNE 29, 2015
Turkey Uneasy as U.S. Support of Syrian Kurds Grows
By TIM ARANGO and ERIC SCHMITT
ISTANBUL -- The United States has stepped up its military support for Syrian Kurdish militias fighting the Islamic State, efforts that have angered Turkey, a longtime ally and NATO member, which is now weighing new measures to contain the ambitions of the Kurds, including a buffer zone within Syria.
Ankara sees the Syrian Kurds as a serious national security threat because of their links to Kurdish nationalists in Turkey, who have waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. So it has looked on with growing concern at the expanding cooperation between the Syrian Kurdish militias and the United States military in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
The United States now maintains extensive surveillance over northern Syria with drones and aircraft to help the Kurdish militias, and American Special Forces officers have set up communication links to feed the Kurds intelligence and help them call in airstrikes by the United States-led coalition.
As one of the few fighting groups that can reliably be counted on to fight ISIS rather than the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian Kurds have become an ally of growing importance to the United States. The close coordination, begun last year during the fight for Kobani,  has grown and evolved in recent months, culminating in the recent rout of ISIS fighters from the strategic town of Tal Abyad,  just over the border from Turkey.
However, as the Kurds push south from Tal Abyad toward Raqqa, the Islamic State's de facto capital, their battlefield successes have further strained relations with Turkey.
Amid a flurry of reports that Ankara was weighing a military incursion in Syria to establish a buffer zone, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan convened a meeting of his national security team on Monday to discuss how to face the growing power of the Syrian Kurds. 
In comments on Friday, Mr. Erdogan offered some of his strongest words yet against the Syrian Kurds, whose main militia is the People's Protection Units, or Y.P.G. The Y.P.G. is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D., which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state.
"I say to the international community that whatever price must be paid, we will never allow the establishment of a new state on our southern frontier in the north of Syria," Mr. Erdogan said in comments delivered at an iftar meal to break the day's Ramadan fast and broadcast on Turkish television.
Speaking on television on Sunday, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey would "take the necessary measures to reduce the risks related to cross-border security."
The talk of a buffer zone established by Turkey inside Syria has been framed in the Turkish news media as a response to perceived security threats to Turkey from both ISIS and the Kurds operating on the Syrian side of the border. But analysts say that the gains of the Kurds in Syria lent new momentum to the idea, something Turkey has unsuccessfully lobbied the United States to support in the past.
Turkey, which has long supported groups seeking the ouster of Mr. Assad, has been accused by the United States and other Western allies of enabling the Islamic State through lax border policies that allow the free flow of foreign fighters and supplies. Turkey has denied this, but officials and the pro-government news media that support them have suggested they see Kurdish autonomy in Syria as a greater threat to Turkey than ISIS.
After the recent takeover of Tal Abyad, for instance, Sabah, a pro-government newspaper here, ran a headline that read, "The P.Y.D. is more dangerous than ISIS."
Analysts discounted the possibility that Turkey would unilaterally seek to establish a buffer zone, which would require a major military operation and, most likely, heavy fighting with both ISIS and the Kurds.
"The rhetoric is getting overheated," said Aaron Stein, an expert on Turkey and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. "I think the possibility of a ground invasion is remote."
He said establishing such a buffer zone within Syria would mean, in some areas, the Turkish Army "fighting ISIS street to street."
Any Turkish action in Syria would complicate Turkey's strained efforts to reach peace with its own Kurdish minority. Kurdish leaders said Monday that any action in Syria would undermine the peace process in Turkey.
"In effect, a buffer zone would hinder Kurdish gains more than it would curb the advances of ISIS," said Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, in an interview. "Turkey believes that the Kurds are establishing territories in areas where they have driven out ISIS and, therefore, they want to establish a military presence in this zone to prevent the Kurds from making further gains."
Military action in Syria could be deeply unpopular with members of the Turkish public, who largely oppose Turkey's aggressive support of anti-Assad rebels and have long been concerned about the strains on Turkey from hosting nearly two million Syrian refugees.
The talk of action in Syria also comes just after national elections in which Mr. Erdogan's Islamist Justice and Development Party lost its majority in Parliament. The party is still the largest but is now in negotiations over forming a coalition,  another reason analysts believe military action in Syria is unlikely.
A senior Turkish security official, speaking anonymously to discuss the matter openly, said that "Turkey is not preparing to send troops into Syria, but measures are being discussed to heighten security at the border against possible threats from both ISIS and Kurdish forces in Syria."
For the United States-led coalition, support for the Syrian Kurds has achieved two major victories against ISIS. The first came last fall in Kobani, a Syrian Kurdish city that ISIS fought over for months under heavy aerial bombardment, only to be pushed back at the cost of losing thousands of its fighters. In recent weeks, the Kurds pushed ISIS from Tal Abyad, a critical border town not far from Raqqa that American officials say was the most trafficked crossing for foreign fighters entering Syria from Turkey.
Kurdish leaders in Syria readily acknowledge the importance of coalition airstrikes in their progress against ISIS.
"The role of the coalition jets has been essential to these victories," said Idris Nassan, deputy chairman of the foreign affairs commission for the area of Kobani, emphasizing that the weapons used by Kurdish forces are not nearly as sophisticated as those ISIS has taken as booty from the Iraqi and Syrian armies.
While coordination with the Syrian Kurds has been successful, there are limits to the strategy because the Kurds are seen as willing to fight only for Kurdish territory and unlikely to lead an operation to capture Raqqa, for instance. It is a similar dynamic to that in Iraq, where the Kurds have defended their northern region well but are considered unlikely to play a major role in defeating ISIS in Mosul or other Arab lands in the country.
Still, for the United States, which is trying to ramp up a training program for rebels in Syria to fight ISIS -- as opposed to the Assad government -- the Kurds have been the only viable partners so far.
The biggest problem, a senior American official said, is "finding guys who want to fight ISIS. They all want to fight Assad."
Tim Arango reported from Istanbul, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, and Ceylan Yeginsu from Ankara, Turkey.