By: Heyward Manning
On January 20, Turkey, the United States’ NATO ally, launched a series of airstrikes and a ground offensive on the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) operating in Afrin Province, in northwest Syria.
The Kurdish YPG militia has been a reliable and steadfast ally to the U.S. on the ground in the fight against ISIS in Syria. While helpful to U.S. interests, the YPG is a source of major concern for Ankara-Washington relations because the group supported by the U.S. operates on Syria’s border with Turkey. Ankara is also worried that the YPG may formally coalesce with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a rebel group that has long been in conflict with Ankara with the goal of autonomy if not an independent Kurdish state. In short, one NATO member (Turkey) is trying to take down a group trained and armed by another NATO member (the United States).
More broadly, Turkey’s unilateral actions in Afrin threaten to upend the fragile equilibrium the YPG have achieved after years of fighting, directly challenges U.S. interest’ in the Middle East, and threatens to push a region hard hit by ISIS’s atrocities back into chaos.
It is crucial that the United States and Turkey address the situation before it turns into yet another bloody chapter in the protracted Syrian civil war.
Turkey and President Erdogan have ignored the United States calls for restraint against the YPG. Erdogan says their ongoing action in Afrin, officially named Operation Olive Branch, is vital to their internal security interests. However, driving the YPG in Northern Syria to the Iraqi border is an alarming prospect due to the fact that U.S. Special Forces personnel are embedded with the YPG in the city of Manjib. This places NATO allies, the U.S. and Turkey, in a dangerous situation where the prospect of open combat between the two allies is a legitimate concern.
Turkey’s main reservations in Northern Syria revolve around the “influence” that the PKK might have on the YPG. The PKK, a Kurdish insurgent group labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Turkey, has been fighting the Turkish government for decades and according to Turkey has documented ties to the YPG in Syria. It is this prospect of a hostile Kurdish territory on its border that gives Turkey room for concern; however, it’s reaction undermines the strategic goals that both Turkey and the United States initially set out to achieve in Syria—that is, ousting the Assad regime from power and defeating ISIS. Turkey and the United States, otherwise committed NATO allies, are fracturing over the Kurdish issue while the Syrian regime forces, aided and abetted by Iranian advisers and Russian air support, are taking back territory from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its affiliates in Idlib province.
Near-and Long-Term Implications
Depending on how extensive the ongoing Turkish operation becomes, the confrontation between America’s allies could have both short and long-term implications, thus prompting different responses. First, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds are recognized as some of the few remaining pro-U.S. populations in a region marked by heavy anti-Americanism. It behooves the U.S. to maintain its relationship with the YPG and cement its commitment as a point of validation for other prospective allies. In addition to getting continued ground support against ISIS, committing to the YPG-serves to combat perceived stereotypes that the U.S. abandons its allies as many imply it did with the Iraqi Kurds in the post first Gulf War period. American policy makers have an opportunity to change this narrative.
Second, as Turkey bombs Afrin in American made F-16’s, every effort should be taken to stop the fighting between Turkey and the YPG. The White House, State Department and the Pentagon need to act in concert to acknowledge Ankara’s security concerns, yet convince them that the YPG in Northern Syria isn’t one of them. Dialogue between the U.S., Turkey and the YPG is imperative; even a brief pause in the fighting in Afrin would be a show of good faith between the conflicting parties. To this end the UN Security Council passed a resolution on February 24 for a 30-day ceasefire with a unanimous vote. Yet, Turkey has publicly stated it will not affect its offensive in Afrin.
Every moment the fighting continues more Turkish, Kurdish and Arab lives are lost in a pointless battle, as neither Turkey nor YPG will be able to achieve a victory. The reality on the ground is that Turkey is operating in a challenging, hilly terrain, facing a hostile, battle-hardened, ideologically confident and highly efficient YPG that now has the support of pro Assad militias. Conversely, the YPG will likely incur heavy human losses, lose territories and perhaps be so politically weakened to the extent that any dream of a semi-autonomous region within a broader Syria will be extinguished in return for accepting the regime’s aid in their defense of Afrin.
Arguably, the position of the U.S. will also weaken, while Russia, Iran and Assad will be the winners. With how the conflict is progressing, Russia will fortify its presence and influence in Syria. Iran will create a permanent military presence via its proxy militias that will be able to directly support Hezbollah, and the Assad regime will remain in power after years of civil war.
The Way Forward: a U.S.-Brokered Deal
U.S. reputation continues to be damaged daily as it is perceived to be abandoning the YPG to the tanks and bombs of its NATO ally. The U.S. finds itself with two bleak options: support its long-term ally in their fight against the YPG, or stand resolute behind their Kurdish allies and risk the degradation of NATO’s 70-year strong alliance. The importance of Turkey as a strategic partner cannot be understated; neither can the U.S. reputation to do the right thing with its long-term friends the Kurds.
The United States has a third option. As the leader of NATO they could facilitate a deal between the YPG and Turkey. For example, if Turkey can live with the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on its border, with whom they have billions of dollars of annual trade and who adamantly oppose their PKK cousins, then why can’t they come to a similar mutually beneficial arrangement with the YPG, contingent on the latter cutting all ties with the PKK? This situation could offer a chance for Turkey to show restraint towards the Kurds and usher in an opportunity to restart the moribund peace process with their own Kurdish population. Owing to its relationship with both Turkey and YPG, the U.S. is the only actor capable of brokering a deal.
The United States must make facilitating talks between Turkey and the YPG a high priority, so they can re-focus their energy on defeating ISIS and consolidating their allies’ positions for future peace talks with the Assad regime. Turkish, Kurdish and Arab lives can be saved from a futile struggle induced by false paranoia and misperceptions. In a time of growing uncertainty, dialogue and compromise will be vital if the United States and its allies want to refocus on fighting the real enemy.
W. Heyward Manning is an Intern at the EastWest Institute and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies.