Syria’s Kurds: A Major Factor Dividing the U.S. and Turkey over Syria

Despite their long-standing alliance and partnership in NATO, as well as being two of the most important actors that could influence the future of Syria, the U.S. and Turkey are nearly on opposite sides of the war when it comes to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). For the U.S., the YPG has in many ways been a Godsend, proving to be the most dependable partner on the ground in Syria, while for Turkey, the YPG and growing Kurdish successes in Syria is an unacceptable outgrowth of the civil war. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to prioritize defeating the Islamic State (I.S.) over the Syrian regime, while for Turkey Assad continues to be the priority target, as they consider him to be at the root of the entire conflict, which can not be resolved while he remains in power. I.S., on the other hand, can be tolerated for the time being.

The U.S., at least in theory, should also not be thrilled with growing YPG power in Syria, given the damage this can cause to relations with Turkey, as well as the fact that the YPG’s Turkish affiliate, the PKK is on the US list of terror organizations. However, as the administration so highly prioritizes the defeat of I.S., such issues can be put aside. In a similar vein, the U.S. at times comes to the aid of the regime via airstrikes against I.S. as it advances on the military’s positions. The U.S. found comfort in its alliance with the YPG, which is secular in nature, well organized and cohesive when compared to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which for all intents and purposes does not exist as one unified organization with a clear ideology, and not tainted with radical Islamist ideologies or affiliations with global jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda.

Turkey, for its part, seems to be more comfortable sharing a border with the Islamic State’s “Caliphate” than with a YPG-run de-facto Kurdish state. This is evidenced in Turkey’s reactions to developments in northern Syria; Turkey showed little concern when I.S. and its previous manifestations controlled most of Syria’s northern border, and even appeared pleased when the group nearly captured the town of Kobane. Prior to some of these previous manifestations declaring allegiance to I.S., rumors suggest that Turkey may have even supported them in driving the Kurds from part of northern Syria. Conversely, the Turkish leadership protested support for the YPG in defending Kobane, and began to panic as the joint YPG-FSA forces linked the central Kobane Canton with the Cizre Canton in Syria’s northeast, establishing territorial contiguity and taking over the border town of Tel Abyad in the process. This led Turkey to accuse the YPG of ethnic cleansing. While these accusations seem to be grossly exaggerated, this is less relevant than the very fact that the Turkish government was harsher in its condemnation of the YPG’s alleged ethnic cleansing than it ever was of I.S, which certainly has no shortage of blemishes worth noting in its human rights’ record.

Turkey’s position towards the YPG is not without justification. Over 40,000 individuals lost their lives due to the conflict with the PKK, and few look at the YPG as much of a separate entity from them. Moreover, Syria’s support for the PKK was at one point so central that Turkey threatened a military confrontation, and backed it up by amassing thousands of troops along the border. Furthermore, Turkey does have serious fears of separatist ambitions among its own Kurds, which they feel will be bolstered by the YPG’s successes. Meanwhile, despite natural concerns from Turkey over I.S., the two appear to have an understanding to not substantially interfere with one another for now.

Almost since the creation of the U.S.-led coalition against I.S., in which Turkey’s participation has been reluctant and limited at best, with Turkey refusing the U.S. to even use its Incirlik Air Base for strikes, Turkey and the U.S. had trouble reconciling their approaches towards the Syrian conflict. For Turkey to participate, it was and is critical to include the toppling of Assad high on the agenda; while the U.S. has at times agreed in principle that Assad has to go, this seems to be the case less and less as the White House does not have a plan for, and has legitimate concerns of, a post-Assad future especially since the I.S. emerged as a possible replacement. Thus, the two allies are at odds in identifying a common stance. Shortly after the coalition was created, the gap between the U.S. and Turkey expanded as rapidly as the I.S. convoys could drive towards the city of Kobane, which was rescued by hundreds of U.S. airstrikes and several arms deliveries. Prior to their initiation, Obama reportedly told President Erdogan that the airdrops would not be necessary if Turkey helped facilitate the deployment of Peshmerga forces from Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to Kobane. Erdogan nevertheless called the airdrops “wrong”.

Since then, the U.S. has done a better job at deepening and expanding its relationship with the YPG than it has at improving its relationship with Turkey. Cooperation between the U.S. and the YPG has provided the latter with an air force and the former with a ground force. This however drew the ire of Erdogan, who blamed the West for the destabilization of Syria, not Assad or I.S., due to its support for the YPG. Furthermore, almost immediately after the capture of Tel Abyad, Turkey held two high-level security meetings and issued a document outlining Turkey’s stance and apparently also aimed at maintaining some sort of understanding with the U.S. The document at once leveled criticism at the international community’s support for the YPG, while also expressing pleasure at I.S.’s loss and stating that the U.S. is giving sincere consideration to Turkey’s concerns. The document also affirmed that Turkey will continue to fight I.S., but on its own terms without consideration for the PYD (YPG’s political affiliate), or “other terrorist groups”, whom they accused of cooperating with Assad and I.S. While condemning the PYD’s threat to Syria’s territorial integrity, the document also made sure to state that the political organization can not be left out of Syria’s future.

The aggressive comments tied in with balancing statements seem to show that Turkey has begrudgingly accepted that U.S. and other western allies will continue working with the YPG and that for Turkey to remain relevant in the international community’s shaping of Syria, it will have to open some space for its Kurdish rival, while demonstrating unequivocal opposition to I.S. That said, given the significance of the U.S.-Turkey alliance and Turkey’s regional role, the White House should make efforts to allay Turkey’s fears to the best of their abilities. Afterall, it is Turkey’s backyard that we are trying to landscape; while the U.S. can eventually leave the region in any state with little repercussion, Turkey will forever have to deal with the outcome, if there ever is one, of the Syrian conflict.

About the Author
Lev Yuriditsky is a senior analyst and manager in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) division of MAX Security Solutions, where he specializes in the Eastern Mediterranean sub-region as well as on global Islamist militancy. Prior to joining the MENA team at MAX, Lev studied for and completed his masters in Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University, where he also held numerous research positions dealing with a broad range of geopolitical and security topics particularly in the Middle East.
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