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Syrian Kurds: the Other Woman in America’s Relationship with Turkey

Ted Galen Carpenter

Tensions have existed for years between Washington and Ankara
over the Kurdish population in both Iraq and Syria. U.S. officials
regard the Kurds as able fighters and democratic secular allies in
the struggle against Islamic extremism. Turkish leaders view them
and their agenda for an independent Kurdish homeland as a menace to
Turkey’s sovereignty and territorial
integrity—especially since a majority of Kurds reside in
southeastern Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s
government deems the highly autonomous Kurdish entities across the
border in Iraq and Syria as dangerous models and a magnet for their
secessionist-minded ethnic brethren inside Turkey. U.S.-Turkish
policy disagreements regarding the Kurds have gained new intensity
in recent months and could become a catalyst for an irreparable
breach in ties between the two NATO members.

Ankara has long fumed that fighters from Turkey’s
secessionist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have used Iraq’s
self-governed Kurdish region as a safe haven for raids into Turkey.
On several occasions, Turkish military units have retaliated with
airstrikes and even ground force incursions into Iraq to neutralize the PKK
threat. Turkey also reacted with extreme hostility earlier this
year when the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq held a referendum
to declare that region’s independence.

Erdogan and other officials repeatedly emphasize that Turkey
will never permit Syrian Kurds to achieve the type of autonomous
status that Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed since the overthrow of Saddam
Hussein. Continued Syrian Kurdish movements toward such a goal
would defy the reddest of red lines that Ankara has drawn.

Even if the current
crisis recedes, the long-term prognosis for the relationship
between Washington and Ankara is not good.

Syrian Kurdish leaders clearly have not been intimidated by
Ankara’s warnings. Two Kurdish factions operate in Syria. One
is the rather radical-left Democratic Union Party (PYD), which
controls most of the Kurdish militia fighters, the Popular
Protection Units (YPG). The PYD competes for influence with the
somewhat more moderate Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), a group that
has ties to a similar party in Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite some
ideological differences, Kurdish fighters in Syria have displayed
an impressive record of success. Already by the summer of 2013, YPG
forces had scored decisive victories over both the Nusra Front,
al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, and the then-embryonic ISIS,
proceeding to liberate most majority-Kurdish cities in the north.

By mid-2017, the accumulating victories by YPG militias and
other forces had expanded the amount of land under Kurdish control.
Today, their holdings constitute a nearly continuous swath of
territory along the Syrian-Turkish border. That
“enclave” amounts to nearly 25 percent of Syria. The
Kurds have become more politically aggressive as well. In March
2016, they organized a conference in the city of Rmelan, along with
officials from Christian and other minority communities, to declare
the establishment of the Democratic Federation of Rojava, an
ostentatiously self-governing region. In September 2017, the
authorities conducted local elections, the first stage in a
three-part process to establish an official, autonomous, regional government.

Ankara is increasingly angry at Washington’s cozy military
and political ties to the Syrian Kurds. There are understandable
reasons for Ankara’s discontent. The United States has sent
extensive arms to Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State, and
there have been few indications that the flow will cease even
though ISIS was on the verge of collapse by late 2017. The Erdogan
government finally extracted a promise from President Trump in
November to terminate weapons shipments, but Washington
subsequently sent decidedly inconsistent signals. Despite
Trump’s promise regarding arms transfers, the administration
essentially deputized the Syrian Kurds to suppress
remaining pockets of Islamic extremism in northern Syria and to
guard the border with Turkey, infuriating Ankara.

Turkey’s anger has now exploded into airstrikes and
massive artillery barrages on two Kurdish-controlled districts in
northern Syria. In contrast to previous incidents, the scale of
these strikes is much larger. Moreover, a ground invasionfollowed on this occasion.
Ankara’s explicit objective is to oust all Kurdish forces
from areas along the border. The operation was indicative of
Erdogan’s determination to pursue this course; in doing so,
he sought consent for his military actions from
both Russia and Iran, but apparently not from Washington.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis has stated that the United
States is “very alert” to the escalating tensions
between Turkey and the Kurds and is quite concerned about those
developments. But it isn’t clear what the Trump
administration would—or could—do to restore calm.
Ankara shows no sign of backing down now that Turkish leaders have
embarked on a full-scale military offensive.

The situation would be bad enough if the overall relationship
between the United States and Turkey was on a sound footing. But
that is not the case. Even before the attempt to crush the Kurds,
there was growing unease and anger among American policymakers over the
Turkish government’s behavior. Erdogan used the July 2016
abortive military coup in his country as a pretext to impose a
crackdown that amounts to a systematic dismantling of his
country’s democratic institutions. He has jailed thousands of real or imagined political
opponents, including journalists, teachers, and judges. Turkey now
has more journalists behind bars than any other country.

There is also growing concern about Ankara’s external
behavior. The Erdogan regime’s policy regarding ISIS over the
years has been ambivalent at best. A noticeable rapprochement
between Turkey and Russia is also evident. Ankara has concluded
several major energy deals with Moscow—a move that runs
directly counter to the U.S.-led policy of tightening economic
sanctions on Russia for the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea
and continued support for secessionist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
In an even more provocative move, Erdogan signed a $2.5 billion
deal in late December 2017 to purchase Russian S-400 air defense
missiles.

The Syrian Kurds are now playing a role akin to the “other
woman” in an already troubled, if not entirely dysfunctional,
marriage. Given the affection for Kurdish allies in both Iraq and Syria among
influential Americans—especially conservatives and neoconservatives—Turkey’s military
offensive in northern Syria will undoubtedly put even more pressure
on Washington to reassess its ties with Ankara. For its part, the
Erdogan government seems determined to crush the Kurds and to chart
an independent course both domestically and internationally,
regardless of U.S. wishes. Even if the current crisis recedes, the
long-term prognosis for the relationship between Washington and
Ankara is not good.

Ted Galen
Carpenter
, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy
studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 10 books, the
contributing editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 700
articles on international affairs.