BEIRUT – Turkey urged U.S. President Donald Trump to reverse his decision to arm Kurdish forces fighting the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, accusing the U.S. of partnering with “terrorists.” However, the relationships between Kurdish factions and foreign powers are far more complicated than they seem on the surface, experts told Syria Deeply.
Ankara, a NATO ally, has long been opposed to any Kurdish presence on its border and has recently targeted Syrian Kurdish positions in northern Syria. However, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have played an essential role in the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fight against ISIS. Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group in Turkey and the U.S.
Ahead of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s meeting with Trump in Washington next week, Syria Deeply asked four experts about the implications of this decision for U.S.-Turkey relations. In the second installment of this series, Nicholas A. Heras (Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security), Robert Lowe (deputy director of the LSE Middle East Centre), Gokhan Bacik (associate professor of International Relations at Ipek University) and Eva Savelsberg (president of the European Center for Kurdish Studies) share their viewpoints on the YPG’s relationship with the PKK and Turkey’s options for retaliation.
Syria Deeply: Turkey’s main point of disagreement is their claim that the Syrian Kurdish forces are aligned with the Turkish PKK, designated a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the U.S. What is the military relationship between the two groups in Syria?
Nicholas A. Heras: It depends on the constituent YPG militia within the SDF. YPG militias are generally mobilized at the local level, and then brought into the wider YPG organization. Many of the YPG militias are not affiliated with the PKK. However, it is fair to say that, at the strategic level, and within the command structure of the YPG, there are PKK members. [PKK founder Abdullah] Ocalan’s ideology is also taught and promoted to different cadres of YPG, including to non-Kurdish fighters within it. There is a tension between militant Kurdish nationalism, and inclusive social utopianism, in the PKK ideology. This tension will continue to shape dynamics within the broader YPG organization, and therefore the SDF as a whole.
Robert Lowe: The [political Syrian Kurdish wing] PYD and YPG claim they have no formal relationship with the PKK, but they openly acknowledge the ideological ties and support given by PKK fighters. The boundaries between the two groups are very loose and vague. The presence of PKK commanders among the YPG is well attested, and there is a credible argument that the PKK military command is the senior authority in Rojava.
Gokhan Bacik: At the beginning of the YPG, the PKK sent almost 1,000 fighters to northern Syria. Technically, YPG and PKK are separate bodies, but there is the [Kurdistan Communities Union} KCK, the transnational supra-body that governs all of them, including PKK and PYD. The Kurdish networks are now transnational. In case of need, the PKK and the YPG will certainly help each other.
Eva Savelsberg: At the end of the day, there is no difference between the PKK and the YPG. Those holding high-level positions within the YPG or the PYD all allegedly have a long history as PKK cadres and fighters.
Moreover, statistics published by the YPG itself indicate that more than 50 percent of the Kurds fighting in the ranks of the YPG against ISIS are Kurds from Turkey.
Syria Deeply: A likely option for Turkish retaliation is increased targeting of Kurdish positions in northern Syria (like we saw last month). What are Turkey’s other options, especially in light of Russia’s plan for “de-escalation zones” in Syria?
Heras: Short of an outright military campaign against the SDF, Turkey’s other options would include denying the U.S. military the right to use Incirlik airbase for counter-ISIS operations or sponsoring local militias to destabilize SDF-controlled areas. Shutting down U.S. military’s use of Incirlik would be a nuclear option, and would significantly degrade U.S.-Turkish relations. Sponsoring an insurgency against the SDF is less risky, but probably also futile unless Turkey is willing to embed its intelligence and military operatives to nurture anti-SDF, armed opposition groups into SDF-controlled areas.
Lowe: Beyond increased military action, Turkey’s only real option is diplomatic pressure on the U.S. and its allies, and on Russia. It could also work with the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq] which also dislikes PYD control in Rojava, although not to the same extent as Turkey.
Bacık: Targeting the Kurds is quite risky, given their role on the ground and also their increasing recognition by the West. The Kurds monopolized the fight against ISIS. I’m skeptical about the “de-escalation zones.” Turkey is a country of endless updates in foreign policy, particularly on Syria. However, it’s very difficult to harmonize Russian and Turkish priorities on the ground. Turkey should realize that Ankara’s priorities are becoming less attractive for the Russian camp as well as for the Western camp.
Savelsberg: As far as I see, there are no “de-escalation zones” planned in areas where the YPG is fighting. It is, rather, that the U.S., being present in northern Syria is trying to prevent fights between Turkey and the YPG.
Turkey could try to intensify its relationship with the non-PKK Syrian Kurdish opposition, particularly the Kurdish National Council in Syria. They could particularly support the KNC’s claim to allow the Roj-Peshmerga – Syrian Kurds that were trained by the KDP-Iraq in Iraqi Kurdistan and are currently fighting against ISIS in Iraq – to return to Syria. One possibility to reduce the YPG/PYD’s power in the Kurdish parts of Syria would be the presence of another effective, armed group, like the KNC-linked Roj-Peshmerga.
This is, of course, not in the interest of the YPG or the PKK. It’s probably not by chance that clashes between the PKK and the Roj-Peshmerga in Sinjar (Iraqi-Kurdistan) arose in March 2017, just as the Kurdish National Council was lobbying in the U.S. and Geneva for the Roj-Peshmerga to enter Syria.
For the U.S. administration, and probably all other Western governments, an agreement between the PKK and the Roj-Peshmerga, indicating that they will cooperate with each other, is the precondition for supporting the entry of the latter one. The latest clashes between Peshmerga and PKK show the world that such an agreement is far away – and are thus in the interest of the PKK, who is not interested in any power-sharing arrangement. In any case, if Turkey is interested in reducing the YPG/PKK/PYDs power in Syria, a closer cooperation with the KNC and the Roj-Peshmaerga in this regard would be an option.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.