The ongoing conflict in Syria is increasingly a multi-faceted one. The Assad government with its Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah backers is pitted against a vast array of Western-backed moderate rebel groups including the Free Syrian Army which itself is also fighting against radical Islamist groups such as ISIS (daesh). In the North of the country there exists another group, the Kurds who are fighting against Assad and daesh in Rojava or Western Kurdistan. The Kurds have a bitter history with Turkey and Ankara fears that they will use the lawlessness in Syria as a means to achieve de facto independence and from where to launch attacks into Turkey along the 900 kilometer border.
To the U.S. and other western countries, the Kurds have been close allies and friends for over two decades. Ankara has long been suspicious over the role of the Kurds in Syria’s civil war and in fighting back daesh there and Iraq though these suspicions have grown into vocal protests especially over the past week. While the U.S. views the Kurds as the most formidable opponent to daesh in Syria, Turkey views them as a grave threat.
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Who are the Kurds?
To better understand the position of Turkey on the Kurds, it is helpful to know their mutual history. The Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East and have a population numbering between 25 and 35 million primarily inhabiting southeast Turkey, northern Syria and Iraq, and western Iran. Culturally and linguistically most similar to Iranian peoples, their dominant religion is Sunni Islam. Despite their large population, the Kurds have never had their own nation state. Hopes of the creation of an independent Kurdistan in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after WWI were dashed by successor states that refused to allow for its creation.
The 1970s saw Kurdish nationalism combine with Marxism and the creation of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), most active in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. In 1984, the PKK along with other Kurdish nationalist groups engaged in conflict with Turkish authorities, a conflict that persists today over 30 years later with ceasefires occurring between 1999-2004 and 2013-July 2015. In Iraq, the Kurds were targeted by Saddam Hussein for their support of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and after the Gulf War, received protection from the West in the form of the northern no-fly zone. This allowed Iraq’s Kurds to exercise a degree of self-rule embodied in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government which exists to today. In Syria, the Kurds in Rojava have not enjoyed the same situation.
In Iraq and Syria, Kurdish forces have provided some of the most stubborn resistance to daesh forces. As Iraqi ground forces for the most part folded in face of daesh offensives, (despite several instances of strong resistance) Kurdish Peshmerga (the military forces Kurdistan) have managed to hold the line and the same is true in Syria. Kurdish forces in Rojava of the People’s Defense Units (YPG) have provided significant resistance to oncoming daesh advances. Though Ankara is opposed to Assad and daesh, it is concerned by the tenacity and external support that the YPG has. Specifically Ankara fears that the successes had by the YPG in Syria will spill over the border into Turkey and encourage renewed separatism there.
In July, a double suicide bombing in the Turkish city of Suruç committed by daesh resulted in at least 30 killed in what was the deadliest terror attack on Turkish soil since 2013. This prompted Ankara to join the U.S.-led coalition against daesh though simultaneously, Turkey launched operations against the Kurds, specifically PKK bases in Kurdistan for the first time on four years effectively ending the 2013 cease-fire. Ömer Çelik, strategist and advisor to Turkish President Recep Erdo?an said then “We believe that each terrorist organization poses an equally serious threat,” he said. “But the main difference is that we’re fighting a unilateral campaign against PKK whereas we’re part of a coalition against Isis. It’s only us fighting the PKK.”
Recently, Çelik said that YPG forces are moving beyond territory traditionally claimed by the Kurds. He stated they are overrunning daesh territory and attempting to establish de facto Kurdish control by forcibly removing Arab and Turkmen populations. According to Çelik, “They [YPG] need to stop posing a threat to Turkey and cooperating with the PKK, and they need to stop exploiting the situation in northern Syria…Then we would have no problem.”
With the advent of Russian involvement in Syria and the changing role of the West, the tone from Ankara has grown more negative. Just this past week, a Turkish official said “The PYD (Democratic Union Party-a Rojava nationalist political party) has been getting closer with both the United States and Russia of late…We view the PYD as a terrorist group and we want all countries to consider the consequences of their cooperation.” YPG forces are accused by Turkey of “trying to capture land between Jarablus and Azaz, going west of the Euphrates”, something Ankara “will never accept”.
On Wednesday, Ankara summoned the U.S. ambassador, John Bass, to express its concerns over U.S.-Kurdish ties. At a televised news conference, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that the YPG could be cooperating with those currently fighting the Turkish government saying “Turkey cannot accept any kind of cooperation with terror organizations that have declared war against Turkey”. Additionally the Russian ambassador, Andrey Karlov was summoned and was warned over aligning with the Kurds. There have been reports that Russian officials have met in recent days with Salih Muslim, co-head of the PYD. While the Kurds have been somewhat divided over Russia’s intervention, Muslim said, “we will fight alongside whoever fights the Islamic State.”
Amnesty International in a recently released report has accused the YPG of destroying non-Kurdish villages in Syria upon liberation from daesh. The YPG has though admitted to some “isolated incidents” where such events have occurred, claiming they were against those civilians who harbored daesh sympathies.
The Kurdish issue is a complicated one, particularly for the U.S. Repeatedly, Kurdish forces have proven the most reliable in combatting daesh in both Iraq and Syria. While Washington wants to provide more support, it must do so carefully as to not anger Turkey. Though Ankara dislikes both daesh and Assad, it is more opposed to the idea of providing greater power to the Kurds as it fears for its own domestic stability. For the U.S. though, the Kurds are viewed as the best counter to daesh.
On the other hand, the Kurdish relationship with Assad and Russia is somewhat unsettling to more moderate anti-Assad groups in Syria. As Russia bombs the rebels groups that oppose Assad, some are wary of the growing influence the Kurds have and that they might have reached a deal with Assad. Furthermore, increasing ties between Russia and the Kurds will do little to enhance the fragile relationship between Moscow and Ankara. Several violations of Turkish airspace by Russian aircraft have resulted in strong government outcries and backing of the Kurds will certainly ensure more.
Turkey’s relationship with the west in recent years has been complicated to say the least. Under Erdogan the country has increasingly moved away from the secular state that Turkey’s founder, Kemal Atatürk created towards a more religious state and the relationship within NATO has become strained. The U.S. needs Turkey as a partner in the Middle East though at the same time must work with the Kurds who Turkey is opposed to. If the Kurds in Turkey launch a sizeable campaign against Ankara, Washington will be put in a difficult position in choosing between its long time NATO ally Turkey, or the Kurdish groups in Rojava which have the greatest chance of success in Syria’s conflict.