In recent weeks, military action in northern Syria has escalated dramatically. Russian air strikes intensified pushing back opposition forces to the benefit of both the Syrian army and Kurdish militias. As usual, civilians have paid the heaviest price with a high number of casualties and tens of thousands of displaced people along the Turkish border.
Kurdish forces have been advancing in northern Syria under the cover of Russia air strikes and at the expense of the Syrian opposition. Turkey has been shelling Kurdish positions in Syria demanding their withdrawal from the newly captured territories.
The tumultuous relationship between Turkey and the Kurds, both of whom are key US partners, illustrates the complexity of the Syrian war where all parties including allies pursue completely different, sometimes contradicting, political goals. The two main US allies in Syria are thus actively fighting each other on the ground, and the question is, why?
The Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East. They have played key roles in different political events in the region but have never had an independent nation state. The Kurdish population is estimated to be numbered between 25 and 35 million and is for the most part located in the mountainous region straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire following WWI, the Sèvres Treaty was imposed by the allied forces. The treaty entailed the internationalizing of Istanbul and the devolution of part of the Anatolian territory to various groups, including the Kurds. The Ottomans managed however to reorganise their army driving out the foreign occupiers that sought to enforce the treaty’s terms. Another treaty was reached that drew up the current borders of Turkey with no provisions for the Kurds.
Since then the Kurdish question has been a toxic issue in Turkish politics. The idea of Kurdish autonomy is viewed by Turkey as a foreign attempt to divide the country. Since 1920s many Kurdish rebellions have taken place and all have been suppressed by the central government. In the 1980s, a popular Kurdish separatist group the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) launched an armed struggle against the Turkish state in defence of Kurdish cultural and political rights, and in pursuit of the right to self-determination. The PKK has been listed as a terrorist organisation by several states including the US as it was involved in indiscriminate attacks against civilians.
This historically hostile relationship has made the Kurdish question very sensitive. This issue is a corner stone of Turkish foreign policy and it has dominated the state’s relationship with Syria for a long time.
TURKEY AND KURDS IN SYRIA
Kurds constitute the biggest ethnic minority in Syria, comprising roughly 10% of the population. They inhabit regions of northern and north-eastern Syria, close to the Kurdish areas in Turkey. Before the war in Syria, Kurds already had a number of issues with the central government in Damascus. These issues included restricting cultural rights and even, for some, the right to Syrian citizenship.
This is not the first time that the Kurdish issue in Syria has become a source of tension with Turkey. Indeed, the status of Syrian Kurds has long been a determining factor in regulating the relationship between Syria and Turkey.
Before 1998, the Syrian government, led by President Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, used the issue of Kurdish political claims as leverage against Turkey in bilateral disputes. It provided the PKK with training and arms and the PKK used the Syrian north as a launching pad for attacks against Turkey.
Initially Turkey used diplomacy to convince the Syrian government to stop supporting the PKK. This approach did not work. So, in 1998, Turkey threatened Syria with military action if it did not end the activities of the PKK. This tension ended when Damascus complied and expelled the PKK leader from Syria. This opened the door for a close relationship between Damascus and Ankara until the eruption of the Syrian crisis in March 2011.
KURDS AND THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR
The political vacuum created by the Syrian civil war has given Syrian Kurds the opportunity to take control of three main Kurdish cantons in north and north eastern Syria — Jazira, Afrin, and Kobane — known collectively as Rojava.
One of the most influential Kurdish parties in Syria is The Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm People Protection Units (YPG). The PYD has strong ideological and political links with the PKK. These links have become clearer since the start of the Syrian civil war.
Kurds in Syria have proven to be resilient defenders of their territory against the expansion of the so-called Islamic State (IS). The US has found in them one of the best chances of victory in the battle against the terror group in Syria. Hence, coordinating with the Kurdish militia has become an important requirement of the American strategy against IS. One of the most notable examples of a successful outcome of this cooperation was the recapturing of the city of Kobane from IS.
The expansion of the PYD has become alarming for Turkey, especially after it captured the city of Tell Abyad in mid-2015 with the help of US-led coalition airstrikes. The fall of the city means that the PYD has control over large swathes of land along the northern Syrian-Turkish border, a move that that Turkey believes will fuel Kurdish separatist feelings in Turkey; especially since many of the PYD leaders are also veterans of the PKK.
A few months after capturing Tel Abyad, the ceasefire with the PKK in Turkey collapsed following an IS attack in Suruc that killed 32 left-wing Kurdish activists on July 20th, 2015. Turkey was accused by Kurdish activists of colluding with IS, opening the doors for retaliation attacks.
Following these developments, Turkey started bombing PKK sites in Syria.
RUSSIA ENTERS THE FRAY
Russian involvement has significantly increased the military tension in Syria. Turkey condemned Russia’s attacks on what is viewed as the moderate opposition, which includes Turkmen who share ethnic and familial ties with Turkey. Tension between the two reached unprecedented levels when Turkey downed a Russian jet fighter in November 2015.
The Russian intervention has also further emboldened the Syrian Kurds. Kurdish militias, including the YPG, are gaining new ground at the expense of the opposition forces who are fighting both IS and the Syrian army, expanding their control over areas along the northern border with Turkey. Fearing the consolidation of a Kurdish zone overlapping Turkey and Syria and the formation of a de facto Kurdish state led Turkey to shell YPG targets in the north demanding that the Kurdish forces withdraw.
Turkey is concerned that Kurdish militias might gain control of the northern part of the Aleppo region, in which one of the few remaining opposition strongholds in the north, Azaz, is under threat. Capturing the city of Azaz means that the YPG and PKK can effectively join their enclaves along the Syrian northern borders with Turkey, which is seen as a serious threat to Turkey’s national security. Therefore, the fall of Azaz will symbolize the failure of Turkish foreign policy in managing the conflict in Syria. Turkey has threatened Kurdish forces with a“harsh reaction” if they approach the town.
The Kurdish militias have managed to navigate through extremely complex alliances in the Syrian war. They are an important ally in the US-led war against IS. Yet the last expansion of Kurds was only possible thanks to the direct support of Russian air strikes. Their success is therefore the product of both the US and Russian involvement despite completely divergent agendas in Syria. However, the recent developments in Aleppo and in the North of Syria are threatening another key ally to the US — Turkey.
It is therefore not a surprise that the Turkish President, Erdogan, recently declared that Washington should choose between Turkey and PYD as its partner.