A tough choice to make
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News Analysis |

The recent conflict in the Middle East has created a real possibility for the creation of an independent Kurdish state. Kurds are seen favorably by many western nations as an effective fighting force against Islamic State. The US have provided unprecedented military and financial support to Kurds which has made them a force to be reckoned with.

This has resulted in rising tensions between Turkey and the United States. Turkey has been locked in an internal armed conflict with Kurdish PKK and views armed Kurdish militias in northern Syria an extension of this belligerent group. The civil war in Syria has resulted in the creation of a de-facto Kurdish enclave in ITS northern part which indirectly has provided strategic depth to PKK.

The United States is now seeking to balance its relationship with Turkey and the Kurds. This balancing act has deteriorated relations between Ankara and Washington.

Who are the Kurds?

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Between 25 and 35 million Kurds inhabit a mountainous region straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. They make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but they have never obtained a permanent nation-state.

In recent decades, Kurds have increasingly influenced regional developments, fighting for autonomy in Turkey and playing prominent roles in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, where they have resisted the advance of the so-called Islamic State (IS) jihadist group.

In the early 20th Century, many Kurds began to consider the creation of a homeland – generally referred to as “Kurdistan”. After World War One and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the victorious Western allies made provision for a Kurdish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres.

Such hopes were dashed three years later, however, when the Treaty of Lausanne, which set the boundaries of modern Turkey, made no provision for a Kurdish state and left Kurds with minority status in their respective countries. Over the next 80 years, any move by Kurds to set up an independent state was brutally quashed.

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How Islamic State turned Kurds against themselves?

It launched repeated attacks that until mid-2014 were repelled by the Popular Protection Units (YPG) – the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD).

In mid-2013, IS turned its sights on three Kurdish enclaves that bordered its territory in northern Syria. It launched repeated attacks that until mid-2014 were repelled by the Popular Protection Units (YPG) – the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD). The turning point was an offensive in Iraq in June 2014 that saw IS overrun the northern city of Mosul, routing Iraqi army divisions and seizing weaponry and later moving to Syria.

The jihadists’ advance in Iraq also drew that country’s Kurds into the conflict. The government of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region sent its Peshmerga forces to areas abandoned by the army.

For a time there were only minor clashes between IS and the Peshmerga, but in August 2014 the jihadists launched a shock offensive. The Peshmerga withdrew in disarray, allowing several towns inhabited by religious minorities to fall, notably Sinjar, where IS militants killed or captured thousands of Yazidis.

Alarmed by the IS advance and the threat of genocide against the Yazidis fleeing Sinjar, a US-led multinational coalition launched air strikes in northern Iraq and sent military advisers to help the Peshmerga. The YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), previously active in Turkey, also came to their aid.

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In mid-September 2014, IS launched an assault on the enclave around the northern town of Kobane, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee across the nearby Turkish border.

Although the IS advance on Kurdish territory in Iraq was eventually halted by the Peshmerga and their allies, it did not stop trying to capture the Kurdish enclaves in Syria. In mid-September 2014, IS launched an assault on the enclave around the northern town of Kobane, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee across the nearby Turkish border.

Despite the proximity of the fighting and the threat posed by IS, Turkey refused to attack the jihadist group’s positions near the border or allow Turkish Kurds to cross to defend it, triggering Kurdish protests. In October, Ankara partially relented and agreed to allow Peshmerga fighters to join the battle for Kobane, after US-led air strikes helped halt the IS advance.

Turkey or Kurds? A tough choice to make

Besides the geographic distribution across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, the Kurds are hardly a cohesive and consistent group in terms of worldview, political goals, and relationship to the states in which they live. Are the Kurds terrorists, allies in the war against the Islamic State, or a nation in need of a state? The answer is yes to all of these, which makes things extraordinarily difficult for American policymakers.

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The ties between the YPG and the PKK are closer than the commonly used term “affiliated” would suggest. This has made life difficult for the American policymakers who correctly insist that Turkey has a right to defend itself against the PKK, while at the same time insisting on coordinating with the YPG against the Islamic State. This is an affront to the Turks who fear that the PYD, the YPG, and the PKK will carve out an independent entity in northern Syria, leaving what amounts to a terrorist state on its southern border with its eyes on southeastern Turkey.

The US administration has tried hard to maintain the fiction that the YPG and PKK are distinct entities, but this has convinced absolutely no one. Even as American diplomats were claiming that they were making progress bringing the Turks around to the way the United States viewed the YPG, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was declaring that Ankara would never accept what the Kurds call Rojava, meaning Western Kurdistan, which covers northern Syria. So now the Turks are at loggerheads with YPG in Syria while the YPG continues to coordinate with the United States as well as Russia, leading Turkish officials to conclude that both Washington and Moscow are colluding against Turkey. The Turks want the United States to choose between them or the YPG (and by extension the PKK). It is a bind for American officials. They can either sign up with the Turks, thereby undermining what they have going with the YPG against the Islamic State, or ditch Turkey altogether. Neither serves U.S. interests, so the administration has a tough choice to make.

 

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