Conflict Between Turkey and Armed Kurdish Groups

Turkish forces and the US backed Kurdish forces have been in a state of war for a long time and despite peace talks and Turkey concerting its efforts to create a safe zone, the future still looks gloomy.

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Turkey has long wanted to create a 32 km (20-mile) deep “safe zone” running for 480 km (300 miles) along its border with Syria to accommodate the refugees it is hosting since the ISIS occupation of Syria. The biggest hurdle in implementing this plan has been the ongoing clashes between Turkish and Kurdish forces.

The border conflict between Turkey and its Kurdish population has been going on for more than a decade now. There are multiple reasons as to why this conflict has been so intractable. The foremost being the approach of ignoring the true nature of the issue and keeping it buried for so long.

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton indicated that the United States would continue to seek reassurances from Erdogan that the Syrian Kurds would not be attacked

The Kurdish conflict remained suppressed for many years. It then presented a serious challenge to Turkey’s sovereignty when a nation-state project was initiated by PKK (Kurdish: Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎, Kurdish workers party) in 1984. The violent struggle between Ankara and PKK resulted in huge economic and human losses.

Peace talks were initiated in 2013 with the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, they were expected to be the best chance to end this conflict but they collapsed in 2015 with no viable outcome. This led to an increase in violent activities in southern Turkey and a wave of bombings, including in Ankara and Istanbul.

Read more: Erdogan seeks to sway Turkey voters in the Kurdish heartland

Escalation in the Conflict

The ramification of President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the Turkish-Syrian border continues to have a seismic effect on the situation in northern Syria. The ongoing tussle between the Turkish government and the Kurdish groups escalated after the announcement.

Many claimed SDF (Syrian Democratic Force) to be the most effective force in fighting against ISIS forces. Whereas, Turkey considers SDF to be an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the US and EU have labeled as a terrorist organization back in 1997.

The border conflict between turkey and its Kurdish population has been going on for more than a decade now. There are multiple reasons as of why this conflict has been so intractable

As they have helped the U.S. in winning its war, now US is partially supporting the Kurdish forces in this matter with Turkey. As the announcement of withdrawal came, the SDF showed concern regarding the escalation of the conflict between them and the Turkish military. Donald Trump threatened Turkey with sanctions if it were to attack U.S. backed Kurdish forces in Syria.

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton indicated that the United States would continue to seek reassurances from Erdogan that the Syrian Kurds would not be attacked.

Read more: Turkey suspends offensive to force Kurdish fighters’ withdrawal

However, in January 2019, there was an attack by separatist Kurdish militants tied to the PKK on a Turkish army base in northern Iraq that resulted in damage to military equipment but no casualties. After the attack, The Turkish Armed Forces carried out regular air raids near the border against the PKK.

Operation Peace Spring

On 9th October, Turkish armed forces launched an operation named, ‘Operation Peace Spring’. It is a full-fledged military offensive, consisting of air and land forces with the goal of creating a safe zone in northeastern Syria. This would also crush the Kurdish rebels creating chaos in the area.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said they aimed “to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area”. There has been a great media frenzy surrounding the operation by Turkey against the rebels. the European Union and other western powers condemned the attack and halted their supply of weapons to Turkey.

Ankara responded to which by threatening to open the borders with Europe and release a flood of over 3 million refugees. Turkey has been hosting these refugees since the Syrian Conflict. This has kept control over the flow of these refugees towards Europe. The inflow of such a large number of people into Europe will further escalate the migrant problems in the region.

However, in January 2019, there was an attack by separatist Kurdish militants tied to the PKK on a Turkish army base in northern Iraq that resulted in damage to military equipment but no casualties

The increase in the conflict and the war of words between U.S. President and Turkish President resulted in the various other states coming forward and mediating a peace agreement between the concerned parties. After much speculation, the Turkish president met with Mike Pence on 17th October, in Ankara, to discuss the possibility of a cease-fire.

President Erdogan agreed to suspend Ankara’s operation on Kurdish-led forces in north-east Syria for the coming five days. This was also an opportunity for the Kurdish troops to withdraw, potentially halting the ongoing bloodshed in the long Syrian war. The Turkish operation halted for a period of 120 hours (five days) on Tuesday 17th October.

This ceasefire was welcomed by all and it also appears to be a significant U.S. approval of Turkey’s position in this conflict. Initially not accepting the cease-fire agreement, General Mazloum Kobane of the SDF confirmed the ceasefire deal in comments to local television on Thursday night but said it only applied to the area between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, both of which have seen heavy fighting.

Read more: Ceasefire holds as Kurdish fighters withdraw from Northern Syria town

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told the AFP news agency that they would redeploy to positions about 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) away from the frontier. Russia also came into the process of creating a safe zone by agreeing on 22nd October that Syrian border guards and Russian military police would clear the border area. Moscow and Ankara struck a deal splitting control of northeast Syria.

Under the agreement, Turkey is to keep sole control of a large section in the center of the border area. The deal between Russia and Turkey was reached by long talks between the two presidents in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The cease fire was also welcomed by the Syrian government. Which called it as an opportunity for the people to reintegrate.

As the cease-fire agreement was put in action, the situation between the U.S. and Turkey also de-escalated. Mike Pence announced that Washington will not impose any further sanctions on Turkey. Trump will also withdraw existing economic sanctions when Kurdish fighters evacuate the border area and Ankara brings an end to military hostilities. The United States also accepted the need of a safe zone in the region for better rehabilitation of the refugees and IDP’s.


Despite supporting the Kurdish rebels, as they played a vital role in the war against ISIS, U.S and other western powers are also concerned by the heightened terrorist activity by Kurdish separatists. If the Kurds do succeed in establishing an independent state in Syria amid the chaos in the region, it would accelerate other secessionist movements in other Kurdish populated areas of the Middle East.

The region is already going through a period of turmoil and civil walls. The rise of another conflict will only bring more destruction to the region. In the latest updates, the Kurdish forces have not fully withdrawn from the areas as agreed to upon in the Russian-brokered accord after the ceasefire announced on 17th October.

Turkey says it is ready to discuss the next step with Russia regarding this matter. After much speculation, the withdrawal operation is back on track for now. Sergey Romanenko, the head of Russia’s Reconciliation Centre, said: “We believe that this withdrawal will contribute to the stabilization of the situation at the Turkish-Syrian border”.

Harmony on these border areas is imperative for not only Turkey but Syria and other involved states as well. People in these areas have suffered for years now, a peaceful environment will bring prospects of a better life for them as well.

Labbaba Jahangir has a Masters in International Relations from National Defense University, Islamabad. Currently, she is working as a Research Assistant in Center for Global and Strategic Studies, Islamabad. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 


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