Kurdish militias have proven to be a key ally to U.S. efforts in the fight against the Islamic terror group known as ISIS. However, while Kurdish militias have been an effective deterrent to Islamic radical groups seeking control over Syria and Iraq, it has also come with grave repercussions. The continued alliance and support of these militias has worked to strain U.S. relations with some of their long-standing Middle-Eastern allies and in many ways set the U.S. up as a perceived sponsor of terrorism in its own right.
In an effort to combat ISIS with an effective ground force, the United States has developed a policy of arming established Kurdish rebel groups in the region. Most notably the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and its affiliates, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to act as foot soldiers even though they have a history of terrorism. A policy was developed by the Obama administration and has been continued by the Trump administration. The policy has largely created grave contention with existing allies who regard this action as an alliance with terrorists (foreignpolicy.com).
The YPG is the driving force behind a coalition of north Syrian forces allied with the U.S. to battle ISIS. With U.S. support, including around 2,000 embedded forces, the coalition now controls close to a quarter of Syrian territory, concentrated mostly to the north and east of the Euphrates river (theguardian.com).
Turkish leaders were infuriated by an announcement by the U.S. military that it was going to create a 30,000-strong border force with the Kurdish fighters to secure northern Syria. Then secretary of state Rex Tillerson announced that the U.S. would maintain a military presence with the Kurds for the foreseeable future (theguardian.com).
Turkey has long been concerned about the presence of Syrian Kurdish forces in its northern border region, especially the United States-backed Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara deems an offshoot of the outlawed PKK and an imminent threat to its territorial integrity (hurriyetdailynews.com).
Turkey has argued the YPG, a group it considers a terrorist organization, is but an extension of another outlawed Kurdish rebel group that it is fighting inside its own borders. Using that rationale, it has found common cause with Syrian opposition groups who view the YPG as a counter-revolutionary force in Syria’s multi-sided civil war (theguardian.com).
The Turkish government has responded with what it has deemed Operation Olive Branch.
Recently Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Ankara is determined to pursue its cross-border military operations from its southern border to northern Iraq, stating that the operation in the Kandil region is ongoing. These comments came after the Turkish military announced on June 15 that 26 outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants were killed or surrendered in operations since June 12. Another operation against the PKK has begun in Kandil on the Iraq-Iran border as well as the Iraqi-controlled Sinjar region, which is a Yezidi Kurdish region (hurriyetdailynews.com).
Turkish jets have bombed the Kurdish-controlled city of Afrin in northern Syria. Independent sources have reported jets bombing positions in the direction of Afrin. At the same time a convoy of armed pick-up trucks and buses believed to be carrying Syrian opposition fighters traveled along the border. Recent video footage from Turkey showed the military moving tanks to the frontier.
Beginning in 2016, Turkey trained and equipped opposition forces to drive Kurdish fighters out of parts of northern Syria, driving a wedge between two enclaves along the Turkish frontier. Turkish ground forces, including tanks and artillery, crossed into Syria with the fighters to establish a zone flanked by Afrin and Manbij that now serves as a hub for Turkish operations inside the war-torn country (theguardian.com).
Turkey, with the support of some Syrian rebels, has waged the campaign against Kurdish militants, whom Ankara regards as terrorists. Turkey’s military incursion into neighboring Syria has been met with positive response from the locals. Journalists embedded along the border of Turkey and Syria have reported witnessing Bunting made up of Turkish and Syrian rebel flags draped across the area, and dozens of pictures of the Turkish leader hung around buildings.
"Afrin is free, free!" the crowd chanted. "PKK is out! Allah greets the free army." This was in reference to the Syrian opposition fighters who have joined the Turkish-inspired Operation Olive Branch across the border.
The campaign has drawn protests from the U.S., which considers the Kurds an ally in the war on the Islamic State group. The YPG formed the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Force which the U.S. backed, supported and armed during the action to oust ISIS from Syria. Turkey views the YPG as akin to the Daesh terrorists, and President Erdogan has made it a pinnacle of his administration policy to push on until he has cleared his country's entire Syrian border of them. (news.sky.com).
Nor is Turkey alone in its concern of Kurdish extremists threatening their security. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said last week Baghdad was ready to cooperate with Ankara to prevent attacks from Iraq into Turkey (hurriyetdailynews.com).
Most Kurdish groups in existence today are offshoots of the long-established Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK). The 1970s saw Kurdish nationalism branching off into a Marxist political ideology which influenced a new generation of Kurdish nationalists. The PKK’s ideology was originally a fusion of revolutionary socialism and Kurdish nationalism which was intended to be used as the foundation of an independent Marxist–Leninist state known as Kurdistan. The PKK fought an armed struggle against the Turkish state for cultural and political rights and self-determination for the Kurds in Turkey (thekurdishproject.org).
Advocating for greater Kurdish autonomy through violent resistance, the Kurdistan Workers Party remains a vibrant militant presence on the border of northern Iraq and southern Turkey.
Nearly a decade after its founding, the group turned to terrorist tactics in the mid-1980s, relying on guerrilla warfare that included kidnappings of foreign tourists in Turkey, suicide bombings, and attacks on Turkish diplomatic offices in Europe. The PKK has also repeatedly attacked civilians who refuse to assist it. As fighting reached a peak in the mid-1990s, thousands of villages were destroyed in the southeast and eastern Turkey. The PKK launched most of its attacks on Turkish security forces, but also attacked other Turkish sites at home and abroad, as well as Kurdish civilians who would not cooperate with the group. An estimated thirty-seven thousand people have been killed in the fighting (cfr.org).
Another primary group that has been mentioned has been the Kurdish Democratic Union Party. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) is a Syrian affiliate of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PYD calls for the constitutional recognition of Kurdish rights and “democratic autonomy,” rejecting classical models such as federalism and self-administration. Condemning authoritarian rule in Damascus, the PYD is responsible for disrupting Kurdish efforts to form a united opposition front.
While critical of the regime, the PYD has adopted an ambiguous stance toward the revolution. It stands alienated and hostile to the large majority of the organized opposition. It accuses the Syrian National Council of acting as Turkey’s henchman, at the same time disapproving of the Kurdish National Council due to long-standing tensions between Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq and an eminent supporter of the Kurdish National Council, and Abdullah Ocalan.
Furthermore, following its violent attacks against Kurdish demonstrators in Erbil and Aleppo and its alleged role in the assassination of Mashaal Tammo (leader of the Kurdish Future Movement), the PYD has been accused of tacitly cooperating with the Syrian regime and acting as its shabiha (thugs) against Kurdish protesters. In addition, the Kurdish National Council has accused the PYD of attacking Kurdish demonstrators, kidnapping members of other Kurdish opposition parties, and setting up armed checkpoints along the border with Turkey (carnegie-mec.org).
The United States is caught in a dilemma. The Kurdish forces comprise the greatest and most useful ground force in the region that has the ability to effectively stave off ISIS and the al Qaeda franchise or other extremist militias that might arise in the area. However, many of the Kurdish organizations that have been backed by the U.S. have a questionable history with their own practice of using terrorism. These organizations offer a sizeable ground military force that Turkey and regional neighbors will have to contend with. Flush with considerable backing from the U.S., these vast militias gain even more power.
The conflict in Syria and Iraq have left the Kurds in a good position having been able to carve out autonomous zones as some semblance of a country for themselves. U.S. support they are receiving will make them an even more significant power in the region.
While the U.S. is assuming that the Kurds will be a stabilizing presence that will alleviate the U.S. from a military ground commitment and deter other countries such as Russia from filling the void. The results are likely to prove different. In the next few months, hostilities between the Kurds and the regional governments are likely to increase. The larger Kurdish groups will likely press their position to expand their control and engage with longtime adversaries such as Turkey, Iran, and Syria.
The empowering of the Kurds has already led to a serious shifting of a geopolitical sphere with longtime rivals Turkey and Iran now pursuing mutual security pacts in preparation for the Kurdish threat they anticipate will create a new institution for destabilization. This will also be damaging to the U.S. image in the world, especially the Middle-East where support of certain Kurdish groups is now being seen by many essential allies as sponsorship of terrorism.
Inevitably the U.S. will be placed in a complicated situation where support of one ally will place it at sharp odds with another. If the U.S. continues its support of the Kurds amidst the growing tensions in the region, it will be seen as a supporter of terrorism, losing much-needed allies such as Turkey, Iraq and whatever government eventually arises in Syria, who will decide that the regions’ security will lie with formation of alliances between neighboring states with mutual security concerns. In other words, likely allying themselves with Iran, and strengthening the Iranian position in the region.