“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” So goes the old adage. But in Syria today, alliances are as changeable as shifting sand.
The Turkish army and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are both fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). But they have also engaged in military conflict with each other.
Turkey’s incursion into northwestern Syria on August 24th, 2016, labeled Operation Euphrates Shield, consisted of Turkish Special Forces, tanks, warplanes, and rebels opposed to Assad who are backed by Turkey. Those forces were aided by air power from the U.S.-led coalition. Within the day, they took control of the town of Jarablus from IS militants. At first glance, this valorous action seems directly consistent with the stated U.S. aims of defeating IS in Syria and aiding Turkey, a NATO ally, with combating terrorism.
The truth is not so simple. In reality, Turkey’s latest military operation into Syria reflects a desire on its part not only to eradicate IS groups close to its borders, but also to keep Kurdish forces such as the YPG away from Turkish borders. Turkey is so afraid of an independent Kurdistan that it views Kurdish military forces as a threat equal to that of ISIS.
Turkey’s antipathy towards Kurdish groups presents a conundrum for the US, which has vested interests in supporting both the Turkish government and Kurdish militias. In Syria, the multitudes of groups fighting on the ground present a situation intractably difficult to solve.
To understand the current situation in Syria, one must understand the history of Turkey and the Kurds. The Kurdish people have been around a long time. Historically, they inhabited the regions surrounding the Zagros Mountains. The Kurds resisted Arab invasions for a long time during the ancient reign of militant Islam, but later became mostly Sunni Muslims. In the past two centuries, they have continually attempted to form their own state without success.
The historical origin of the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds stem from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres guaranteed the Kurds a state of their own. But the Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk annulled that provision of the deal, and Turkey repressed attempted Kurdish uprisings in the following decades.
Other more recent leaders, such as former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, have also brutalized the Kurds, most notably when he used chlorine gas to massacre Kurdish towns in northern Iraq including Halabja on March 16, 1988. The Kurds have suffered long periods of oppression and uncertainty about their future. However, with the coming of the Syrian civil war and instability in other Middle Eastern states such as Iraq, the Kurds have exploited every opportunity to increase their influence in the region.
Over the past few years, Kurdish forces have proven to be a very effective American ally in fights against both dictator Bashar Assad and IS. But, the Kurd’s military successes have rattled Turkey. The YPG, the principal Kurdish military force fighting IS in Syria, is supported by the U.S., and has obtained U.S. materiel nominally meant for other anti-Assad fighters. Turkey accuses the YPG of having links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group currently fighting the Turkish state within Turkey’s borders. The U.S., EU and NATO have designated the PKK a terrorist organization. Furthermore, Turkey claims that the YPG and its parent political organization, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), want to establish a Kurdish state just south of Turkey’s southern border.
Both the YPG and PYD have denied such intentions. But they want to ensure that in the Syria to come, there will exist an autonomous region for the Kurds, similar to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) that has prospered in northern Iraq. That organization has had relatively good relations with Turkey, strained slightly by recent Turkish shelling of Syrian Kurds, and the KRG’s recent economic success can be attributed in part to diplomacy with Turkey. In an ideal world, an independent Kurdish region in a Syrian polity could learn from the KRG how best to engage with Ankara.
But theory can only go so far in a world of realpolitik. Firstly, the “Kurdistan” that Turkey fears is not a highly unified state. It is an abstract region that stretches across Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, and it contains roughly 30 million Kurds. Kurds are considered the largest stateless ethnic group in the world, and they are made up of disparate factions such as the Kurdish National Council (KNC), the YPG, PYD, PKK, and a whole alphabet soup of other Kurdish organizations. Each has their own interests and agendas, and there have even been civil wars among Kurdish groups in recent decades.
Couple these facts with the infighting among the anti-Assad forces in Syria, and there is no clear path for a Kurdistan to emerge from the ashes. Still, Turkey fears the military power and influence of the YPG and groups aligned to or comprised in part by the YPG. Kurdish forces have almost fully created a corridor of control in northern Syria along the length of the adjacent Turkish border, stretching from east of Ras al-Ain to west of Manbiji. Given that the YPG and PYD are aligned with the PKK, and that violent conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK has resulted in over 40,000 deaths since 1984, Ankara has due reason to be concerned about the possibility of intensified PYD and YPG support for PKK operations within Turkey.
Following Operation Euphrates Shield last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan clearly stated Turkey’s intentions: “Operations will continue until the ISIL, PKK/YPG threat ends.” Turkey’s military campaign in Syria is nominally temporary, but Turkey has many paths forward. Twelve days into Operation Euphrates Shield, the Turkish military and Turkey-aligned Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces have the option of extending further into Syria, possibly by expanding towards al-Bab, where IS has fortified positions, to demonstrate that Ankara is prioritizing the defeat of ISIS in northern Syria. Alternatively, Turkey could push south 40 kilometers to attack YPG forces in Manbiji, thereby signaling their intent to emphasize defeating Syrian Kurds.
Another option for Turkey is to solidify its territory in northern Syria and secure its border. But Ankara may prefer to escalate in order to signal its intentions to the Un.S. and to gain more influence in Syria. The issue is complicated further by Turkey’s desire to see all Kurdish forces west of the Euphrates move back to the eastern side of the river. The Euphrates serves as a symbolic waypoint for the maximum amount of territorial influence Ankara considers acceptable for the YPG and PYD to have in Syria, at least with respect to those groups’ proximity to the Turkish border with Syria.
These goals present a challenge for the U.S., which wants to accommodate President Erdogan’s demands while also maintaining good relations with Kurdish allies. On August 24, in an interview with The Washington Post, Vice President Joe Biden warned the Kurds that unless they moved back east across the Euphrates, “[they] cannot, will not, and under no circumstances get American support.” The Kurds, Biden said, must keep their commitment to return to the east. While the YPG says that they have complied with the demand, Turkey maintains that Kurdish forces are still present in Manbiji, Syria. Unsurprisingly, with the stakes in Syria so high, trust on all sides is in short demand.
Furthermore, even as the U.S. has pressures Turkey to increase military operations against IS in Syria, Turkey has been accused of not being a reliable ally against IS. Former IS members have stated that Turkey turned a blind eye when IS groups and Salafists (Sunni extremists) crossed the Turkish border into Turkey. Only after IS bombed Turkish civilian targets, such as when leftist, pro-Kurdish political party demonstrators were killed during a rally in October 2015, did Ankara respond more severely.
In the same vein, Turkey also sees IS as partly useful. After all, they fight the YPG in Syria. A professor at Yale who chose to speak anonymously told The Politic that in one battle against ISIS, Turkey only assisted Kurdish forces after a sufficient number of Kurdish fighters had been killed. Whether or not that incident can be verified, the fact of the matter is that whenever Turkey chooses to attack IS, it is also weakening its own hand against the YPG.
To understand how the U.S. is approaching it’s relationships with Syria, Turkey and the Kurds, it is important to understand the principle aims of the Obama administration in Syria and the surrounding regions. According to Professor Charles Hill, Distinguished Fellow of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, Obama’s goal is “To draw [the U.S. and its military entanglements] away from the Middle East. ” According to Professor Hill, achieving that goal has been increasingly difficult: “A major point is the red line [President Obama warned Assad about over the use of chemical weapons].” The president’s decision not to use US military forces to engage the Syrian army possibly contributed to an extension of the war, giving time and space for extremist groups to settle into Syria.
When the war in Syria was seemed to be between Assad’s army and moderate rebel groups—such as the FSA, composed mainly of defectors from the Syrian military—a path to victory for either side seemed clearer. But since 2011, numerous other groups, including IS and former offshoots of al-Qaeda such as Jahbat Fateh al-Sham (originally Al-Nusra Front) have become dominant forces. Iranian-supported militias, Iranian military advisors, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah have all entered the fray on Assad’s side. Russian aircraft pound both IS and moderate opposition targets over U.S. objections, and Russia’s military advisors buttress Assad’s army.
Perhaps the confluence of Syria’s porous borders and the proximity of radical extremists made the rise of terrorist groups in Syria such as IS inevitable. But whatever the case, the rebel factions opposed to Assad now fight not only him but also each other, not to mention terrorist groups. A unified front among moderate rebel forces and Kurdish fighters may well have provided the necessary military force needed to oust Assad and his foreign backers. Unfortunately, warlords, infighting, and raw human ambition have created a bloodied stalemate in Syria.
The United States has several goals for the Syrian region and a myriad of interests it must balance. For instance, the U.S. does not want to concede influence to Russia, but Russia’s military presence in Syria and alliance with Assad means that some form of diplomatic engagement is necessary to help quell the war in Syria.
The goal of peace may be achieved by the new deal announced on Saturday, September 10 by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The deal aims to prevent further violence through a cessation of hostilities, a joint U.S.-Russia airstrike command to target extremists in Syria, and other measures.
Although Assad gave his assent, rebel groups expressed doubt at whether Moscow and Damascus would stay true to the terms. Even Secretary Kerry conceded: “No one is building this [agreement] based on trust.” The previous peace agreement that the US brokered with Russia fell apart within a month, so hopes are not high for the newest arrangement.
Another objective of the Obama Administration is to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement reached between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the U.S.), the EU and Iran on July 14, 2015, to reduce Iranian nuclear capabilities. According to Professor Hill, Iran has leveraged the American desire for JCPOA compliance to frustrate America efforts to reduce Iran’s sphere of Shiite influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon by preventing the US from taking more proactive retaliatory measures. Should the U.S. push too hard, Iran can always walk away from the deal.
In addition to diplomacy with Iran, the U.S. is working with both Turkey and the Syrian Kurds to create an acceptable middle ground. Kurdish desires for their own independent region in Syria must be balanced with Erdogan’s designs to restrain Kurdish gains and extirpate the YPG. The combination of U.S. arms shipments that invariably end up in YPG hands as well as U.S. air support for Operation Euphrates Shield provides a snapshot of how difficult the U.S. position is. Either way, the U.S. is walking a fine line, and there is mutual suspicion on all sides.
Though the future is uncertain, the U.S. has no choice but to navigate a path forward. The challenges ahead are great. The world, and the Syrian people, look on with apprehension.