How the Kurds Became Syria’s New Power Brokers

Tal Rifaat, Menagh air base, Kefir Naya, Kefir Neris — town after town, village after village is falling to Kurdish-led forces as they blaze their way across northern Syria. The latest push by the U.S.-backed group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) marks an explosive new phase in Syria’s five-year war. Turkey, a key, and increasingly unpredictable, NATO ally, is now on the verge of being sucked into the battle, against the group the U.S. favors.

Turkey has long insisted that Syria’s Kurds pose a greater threat to its security than the Islamic State jihadis do, and is furious that the United States is helping them. On Feb. 18, the Turkish government identified a Syrian Kurd, Salih Necar, as the perpetrator of a car bomb attack in the heart of Ankara.

Nacar allegedly drove a car laden with explosives into the midst of shuttle buses carrying military personnel and civilians outside the air force headquarters in the Turkish capital, killing himself and at least 27 other people.

Less than a day later, at least six Turkish soldiers died in the country’s mainly Kurdish province of Diyarbakir following a bomb attack also thought to have been carried out by Kurdish insurgents.

The main Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), was set up as a franchise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish state on and off since 1984, first for independence and now for Kurdish self-rule inside Turkey. Salih Muslim, the co-chair of the Democratic Union Party, which serves as the political wing of the YPG, swiftly denied any connection to the Ankara blast. The YPG has never attacked Turkey before and would surely desist from any actions that put its alliance with the United States at risk.

However, the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, an Islamist, insisted that the bomber was “definitely” a member of the YPG who had “infiltrated” Turkey.

Turkey is adamant that the PKK and the YPG are “terrorists.” Washington half agrees. The PKK is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. But the YPG is not, a fact that has paved the way for its deepening partnership in Syria, as Washington has provided the group with air support and weapons.

It remains unclear what sort of retaliatory action Turkey will take. What is certain is that Washington’s delicate balancing act between its Turkish and Kurdish allies is looking more precarious than ever.

Since Feb. 13, Turkish tanks have been shelling SDF positions near the Syrian town of Azaz, which is a vital resupply line for rebel forces in Aleppo who are allied with Ankara and doubles as a rear base against the Kurds. Turkey has vowed to prevent it from falling into their hands. Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan made Turkey’s intentions clear, saying that it wants to create a “secure” strip of territory roughly 6 miles deep on the Syrian side of the border, including Azaz. Thousands of Turkish troops have been massing in the area for weeks, prompting Russia to warn that Turkey was planning an invasion of Syria.

These steps have placed Turkey on the brink of a conflict with its regional antagonists. The Kurds say they will fight back against any Turkish aggression. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose own forces are inching their way toward Turkey’s border, says he will do the same. And few doubt that Russia, which is itching to avenge last year’s downing by Turkish pilots of its Sukhoi SU-24 jet, would deliver the biggest whacking of all.

Meanwhile, the SDF is skirting Azaz, punching a corridor further south — well out of Turkey’s range — and recruiting rebel groups along the way. Turkey’s demands that Washington stop aiding Kurdish “terrorists” has so far fallen on deaf ears. Rather, Washington has been calling on Turkey to stop attacking the Syrian Kurds.

Ankara may seem powerless in Syria, but it still has cards to play. It can, and already has begun to, reinforce its rebel proxies against the Kurds. More ominously, it could yet again ease restrictions on the flow of foreign jihadis into Syria.

Turkey’s troubles with its own Kurds explain why it is prepared to go to such extremes. The latest and most promising round of peace talks between the Turkish government and the PKK collapsed last summer when Turkey resumed its battle against the insurgents and began pummeling their strongholds in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. The PKK responded by shifting its fight to urban centers in the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey, where its youth wing is mired in a bloody standoff with Turkish security forces. PKK fighters frequently target army convoys, which is why they cannot be ruled out as a suspect in the Ankara bombing.

The Turkish government claims its fight against the PKK at home is directly connected to the war in Syria. It says it has discovered secret tunnels dug from the Syrian side of the border to the besieged Turkish town of Cizre, scene of some of the grossest rights abuses by the Turkish authorities in recent years. The tunnels are allegedly being used to funnel arms between the Syrian Kurdish insurgents and the PKK. A young Kurdish fighter quoted by Germany’s Der Spiegel confirmed that such tunnels exist.

It didn’t have to be this way — the Kurdish issue didn’t have to threaten to undermine both Turkey’s policy in Syria, and its alliance with the United States. In early 2013, the mood in Ankara was dramatically different: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the then prime minister who was planning to campaign to become Turkey’s first popularly elected president the following year, was keen to strike a deal with the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan. If the PKK disarmed and withdrew from Turkey, the Kurds would get something substantial — it remains unclear exactly what, but likely greater local autonomy, and some sort of amnesty for those not involved in violence — in return.

That wasn’t all. A deal could have helped Erdogan achieve two of his most cherished goals: The YPG would have had to join the rebel campaign to unseat Assad and refrain from any moves towards self-rule; and Turkey’s largest pro-Kurdish party, the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), would have needed to support Erdogan’s plans not only to become the president but also to expand his powers once in office.

But the PKK refused to play ball, claiming that Turkey’s latter-day “sultan” was stringing them along. Why else had the government not passed a single piece of pro-Kurdish legislation?

And why was it arming jihadis in Syria against the YPG? The government replied that it had provided hundreds of wounded YPG fighters with free medical care and opened its doors to more than a quarter of a million Syrian Kurdish refugees, but the PKK was not swayed.

Hopes of an agreement were rekindled a year ago when the PKK unveiled a 10-point roadmap for peace. But Erdogan swiftly disowned the document, and all communication between Ocalan and the HDP has since ceased.

Yet, Syria’s Kurds have continued to thrive. Today they enjoy the rare distinction of being the sole group that simultaneously enjoys U.S. and Russian support. The YPG’s links with Washington were initially forged when U.S. planes intervened to rescue the Kurdish town of Kobani from the Islamic State in 2014. Since last year, the Kurds have teamed up with a gaggle of opposition Arab, Turkmen, and non-Muslim brigades to form the SDF, mostly as a kind of fig leaf that allows Washington to justify its support for them.

The payoff for both sides has been huge. The SDF has driven the Islamic State out of a broad stretch of territory along the Turkish border, while helping to pressure the jihadis in their self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. The Kurds boast they now control an area “three times the size of Lebanon.”

The Kurds are now looking to link their two self-administered “cantons” that lie to the east of the Euphrates, named Jazeera and Kobani, with the canton of Afrin, which lies to the west.

This means dislodging the Islamic State from the 60-mile area wedged between them, and also going through an area that rebel groups friendly to Ankara, including more moderate brigades that have received weapons from the CIA, dominate.

Until recently they had to hold back at Washington’s behest. Turkey, which opened the Incirlik air base to anti-Islamic State combat missions in July, claimed it had done so on the condition that the United States would not help the Kurds move west of the Euphrates.

Turkey wanted to organize a non-Kurdish rebel force to uproot the Islamic State from that area west of the Euphrates. But the force never materialized — and Russia’s intervention on behalf of Assad’s crumbling army has also bolstered the Kurds. Helping the SDF boot out anti-Assad rebels from the areas they covet has the added benefit, for Moscow, of poking Turkey in the eye.

But Syria’s Kurds want more. They are angling for diplomatic recognition. Russia has stepped up to the plate, hinting that it will back the Kurds’ plans for autonomy. It also insists that the Kurds must take part in the now-stalled Geneva talks. The United States also backed the Kurds’ participation in peace talks, but backed off when Ankara threatened to stay away from the talks if the Kurds were allowed to join.

The Kurds are skillfully playing the Russians and Americans off of each other to extract as much influence as possible. Kurdish threats to defect squarely to the Russian camp propelled Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition, to speed up a long-mulled visit to Kobani. On Feb. 1, a beaming McGurk was photographed receiving a plaque from a YPG commander who used to be, as Turkey shrieked, a member of the PKK. Washington appears to be quietly encouraging the Kurds to grab more territory, even at the expense of moderate rebels it has aided and trained, to ensure that Assad’s Russian-backed forces don’t get there first.

All of this is adding to Turkish fury, and Turkey’s Kurds say they are paying the price. The pain that Turkey would like to inflict on their Syrian brethren, their argument runs, is being meted out on them instead.

Washington’s insistence on maintaining the fiction that the PKK and the YPG are completely separate organizations is only making things worse. Indeed, it would not be surprising if the United States were to step up its military and intelligence cooperation with Turkey against the PKK to tamp down anger over its relations with the YPG.

The longer the conflict continues, the more alienated — and radicalized — Turkey’s Kurds will become. For many, the borders separating them from their Syrian cousins have ceased to exist.

Kurdish youths who honed their urban warfare skills against the Islamic State in Syria are now using them against security forces in Turkey. Others continue to take up arms with the YPG in Kobani.

Meanwhile, Turkish nationalist sentiment has been further inflamed by the Ankara bombing.

Erdogan’s polarizing politics have already divided the country. The specter of intercommunal violence looms.

Achieving some rapprochement between Turkey and the Kurds would be a sure step toward defeating the Islamic State. More critically, it’s the only way to ensure that Turkey does not descend into civil war — or go to war in Syria.

Some suggest the United States should use its leverage over the YPG to get the PKK back to the negotiating table. But it is the YPG that takes its cues from the PKK — not the other way around.

Either way, the idea that the Syrian Kurds would ditch their ties with the PKK to preserve their alliance with Washington is outright naive. There will always be others — the Russians or the region’s perennial mischief-maker, Iran — to step into the breach.

The only true way forward is for the United States to lean on both Turkey and the PKK to come to their senses. But the reality is that there is only so much prodding Washington and Turkey’s other Western friends can do. It ultimately falls on Turkey’s elected leaders to extricate themselves from this mess. Unfortunately, past experience suggests that Erdogan is more likely to dig his country into an even deeper hole.