Syria’s Civil War has raged for six years, causing a vastly different regional political, ethnic, and security landscape to emerge. In recent years, as a result of the intense war against the Islamic State, the United States has become increasingly dependent on the cooperation and troop presence of the Kurdish militia and political groups. The turmoil in Syria has made it possible for the political affiliates of the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey – the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Democratic Union Party (PYD) – to control major portions of the Turkish-Syrian border regions, which in turn have made it possible for these factions to reestablish their local rule and renewed claims to a federal, Kurdish, region.
US support for the multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance which makes up the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in its battle against the Islamic State has put the US on a direct collision course with its fellow NATO ally, Turkey. The bulk of the SDF consists of manpower from the primarily Kurdish YPG militia, a group that the Turks view as a terrorist organization and part of the nearly four-decade-long Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. A minority of the alliance forces originate from Arab, and other, tribes and ethnicities.
In recent weeks, the US-affiliation with the YPG and the SDF has strained relations between Ankara and Washington to its lowest point in history. This strain was exacerbated by a significant increase in Turkish troop presence on the border, and an attack on April 18th during which Turkish Air Force fighter jets struck the strongholds of US-affiliated militia groups in Syria and Iraq. The attacks saw the death of scores of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga fighters and YPG militia fighters. The attacks on the Mount Sinjar KRG base in Iraq and the YPG base in Mount Qarachok, near the town of al Malikiyah, both had American Special Operators present when they took place. At Mount Qarachok, US Army Special Forces operators were reportedly “uncomfortably close” to the air strike, according to al-Monitor. The Qatar-based Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), which controls and coordinates the use of military air assets within the US-led coalition, had denied a request by Turkey to strike the Kurdish positions. The Turks ignored the denied request and attacked an hour later.
The Pentagon has publicly decried the attack, as has the CAOC, referring to it as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“We are fighting against [IS] with the United States and Turkey is hitting us from behind, giving [IS] more oxygen, […] We demand that the United States establish a no-fly zone to protect us against further aggression” said Ilham Ahmed, the co-chair of the Democratic Syrian Council (SDC, or MSD) – the political wing of the SDF, in the aftermath of the attacks. Sources inside the US Defense Department close to Lima Charlie News have expressed doubt that a no-fly zone could be established due to the political dynamics at play in the region. However, the matter will be discussed with the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during his visit to the White House in Washington on May 16th.
Mere days before the attack on Kurdish positions, reports emerged that Turkey had increased its border presence further, featuring additional armored vehicles. This increase was a response to US military reconnaissance units operating in the area. The US units were reportedly patrolling the area looking for enemy fighters crossing the border on their way to the frontline. According to the Washington Post, YPG leadership in Syria has referred to the presence of American troops in their supporting roles as a “buffer“, shielding the YPG and SDF fighters from potential Turkish attacks. Arguably this makes US Special Operations troops traveling and operating alongside Kurdish militia forces de facto human shields. President Erdoğan has stated that in order to prevent the areas from becoming Kurdish strongholds, his country is prepared to carry out attacks on Sinjar, Iraq, as well as in Syria.
On May 1st, additional US armored vehicles arrived in the YPG/SDF controlled border areas. On its way to the border the US convoy passed through the town of Qamishli, which is partly held by Syrian government troops. On May 4th, the US deployed a further 250 troops, and 48 armored vehicles, into Syria to reinforce its positions. The Pentagon has stated that the troops are intended to reinforce Kurdish forces’ operational capabilities throughout Syria. Some of these troops and vehicles will go towards the border region.
Arguably this makes US Special Operations troops traveling and operating alongside Kurdish militia forces de facto human shields.
Western powers have made tremendous investments into the Kurdish YPG-led SDF coalition and its offensive on the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate territory, with the crown jewel being its capital, al Raqqa. While these investments may not result in an actual self-governing state for the Kurds, it is undeniable that Western interests are pragmatically aligned with whomever is best positioned to decimate the Islamic State in its present form.
After the Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish positions, Nesrin Abdullah, spokeswoman for the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), stated in a press conference that if another more efficient ground force with a higher likelihood of success could be configured and deployed, the YPG and the YPJ would withdraw from the Raqqa operation. “We are not anyone’s stick to beat their enemies with,” Abdullah said.
Turkey considers the YPG to be a mere extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This is an opinion the US does not share. The US considers them separate entities with which Turkey has been fighting a bloody and costly war since 1978. As a result, the Turkish military is chiefly configured towards fighting insurgencies, primarily Kurdish, within its own borders. The conflict has so far cost the economy of Turkey an estimated 300 to 450 billion US dollars, and has had an immensely negative impact on tourism. The stated intent behind the Kurdish insurgency and its political purpose, has historically been to create a socialist and, supposedly, secular Kurdish state using parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
The ethnic Kurdish group’s struggle to create a Kurdish nation in the contested Kurdish areas has been ongoing since the days of the Shia Safavid dynasty (1501-1736) in Persia. It was under the leadership of Ismail I (1501-1524) that the Kurds were displaced from what was then considered the Kurdistan region. At the time, the region was bordering and encroaching into the aggressive Sunni Ottoman Empire (1299-1922), which was threatening the Safavid Persian empire. By the time the Ottoman Empire conquered the contested Kurdistan region, the Persians had already begun to forcefully change the ethnic landscape of the area – a practice that the Ottoman Turks continued, albeit to a lesser extent.
Under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, the Kurds rose up on a number of occasions – going to war against the Ottoman Empire’s might almost on bi-decade cycle. The Ottoman Empire’s forces repeatedly succeeded in squashing Kurdish attempts, but at greater costs each time. Battling the Kurds quickly became a draining affair, expediting the death of the Empire. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I led to the birth of the modern Turkish state. The Kurdish question survived the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and Kurdish resolve continues to plague the Turks.
In the early 1900s, nationalistic tendencies and movements swept through the world. The Kurdish and the Turkish nationalist movements emerged as the Ottoman Empire quickly crumbled around them. Part of the strength and longevity of the Ottoman Empire was due to the Ottoman acknowledgment of the natural ethnic and cultural differences of the inhabitants of the empire. They then created administrative geographic blocks based on these cultural and ethnic lines. This policy was also employed during the Roman Empire in the height of its dominance. This policy ensured that, historically, the Kurds had been, somewhat, successfully integrated (but not assimilated) into the empire. They also saw a certain degree of appeasing and suitable freedom. As the Ottoman Empire began its rapid descent, this strategy worked against the empire because it caused a stronger nationalistic identity to emerge. This nationalism was also spurred on by the fear that this relative freedom and stability would be taken away by other emerging, ethnic, nationalistic groups.
By 1918 the Ottoman empire was crumbling to a point where a civil war was nearly inescapable. By 1919 civil war was a reality, tearing apart what remained of the torn and ragged post-World War I empire. The Turkish War of Independence had begun. The Turkish nationalist movement, intent on creating a new nation, rejected the World War I Treaty of Sèvres created by the Western powers. The treaty specified how the Ottoman Empire was to be divided. The US, France, Italy, and the UK, sought to conserve and preserve what was a familiar giant with a long history of creating a degree of regional stability, and thus sided with the fading Ottoman rule. The Kurds joined the Western powers for the promise of autonomy (under the Treaty of Sèvres). For over 4 years the war of independence raged, only ending after an armistice was reached between the Turkish nationalist movement, and the Western powers. It was at this point, with this armistice, and resulting treaties, that the modern Turkish nation was born.
With the Western backed treaty of Sèvres behind them, some Kurdish groups advocated autonomy from the newly created Turkish nation. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, considered the father of modern Turkey, rejected the idea of Kurdish independence. During the interwar years, large scale Kurdish revolts were attempted on a handful of occasions. Several attempts to create an autonomous Kurdish state were made, often with the backing of the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent, the US.
In 1922 the Kingdom of Kurdistan was created, in Sulaymaniyah, in the eastern Mosul region of the British Mandate of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), with Mahmud Barzanji as King, and his brother Qadir as Prime Minister. Mahmud had been exiled to India by the British, for attempting to create a Kurdish sovereign state. Sir Percy Cox, the British administrator to the Middle East, realized that he needed a Kurdish strongman of merit to combat the emerging destabilizing Turkish nationalistic interests spilling over into Iraq. The two brothers were brought back from India under the authorization of Sir Percy Cox and Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War. They promised the brothers that the British intended to honor the treaty of Sèvres. Once the Kingdom had been created, the brothers mostly resisted British influence and moved to make the Kingdom a traditional Sheikhdom with Kurdish ethnic interests. While the Barzanji brothers were potentially excellent choices in combating Turkish nationalistic interests in the area they quickly proved poor administrators. The British found Sheikh Qadir to be incapable of dealing with the stress of the office, and Sheikh Mahmud to be dangerously power hungry.
The British had intended to use the newly created Kingdom as a pawn to counter Turkish interests in the region of Mesopotamia. They found that the Barzanji brothers were quick to dismiss British advice. Instead, they made strategic alliances with the new Turkish nationalistic leadership in Ankara. In light of this, the British struggled to defend the loss of land to King Faisel I of Iraq. The Kurdish Kingdom did not serve its intended purpose, it promoted Turkish strategic interests in the region instead. This led the British interest in allowing the newly created Kingdom to vanish into thin air.
By 1924, while acting on behalf of the British aligned Iraqi Royal family in Baghdad, the British Royal Air Force attacked the Kurdish royal palace of the Barzanji brothers. The air attacks were followed by British-trained Iraqi soldiers entering the sheikhdom. The brothers asked for clemency from King Faisel I, promising that they would advocate for peace with the Iraqi government amongst their Kurdish brethren. King Faisel I granted their request for clemency. Qadir became a farmer, but Mahmud quickly created another Kurdish militia group with the intent of fighting the British. He carried out an effective insurgency campaign against the British until he was apprehended yet again in 1932. At this point he was exiled and put under guard in southern Iraq, but was allowed to return to his village in 1941, where he lived out the remainder of his life until 1956. Today, he is considered a Kurdish hero.
The great powers throughout the world continued to use the Kurds for their own regional interests throughout the early 1900s. In 1927, the United Kingdom backed the creation of the Republic of Ararat (1927-1930), with its capital in a small Kurdish village in the Mount Ararat area. The Turkish government responded to the Kurdish state’s creation by sending artillery units, bombarding the hillside, and the village to oblivion. By late 1930 the Republic of Ararat was no more, and its leadership was forced to flee across the mountainous border region into the relative safety of the Shah’s Iran.
When the Soviet Union emerged on the international political field after World War 2, it sponsored and supported the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in Iran. This created an ethnic Kurdish satellite state of the Russian socialist union, in the Middle East with Qazi Muhammad as President. But the Soviet Union’s will for nation building in the Middle East quickly dwindled as the financial and political investments quickly outweighed the immediate gains. As matters closer to Moscow became dire and far more pressing, it abandoned the newly created republic. In 1946 Iran militarily reclaimed the land masses of the republic, and in 1947 Iran executed Qazi. Following the fall of Mahabad, the Soviet consulate in Tehran facilitated safe passage of the republic’s military leader, Mustafa Barzani, and his followers into Soviet Azerbaijan.
In 1958, Mustafa returned to northern Iraq, and laid the foundation for the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDP/KDPI), represented using the same flag as the one that had flown over Mahabad. Massoud Barzani, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government since 2005, is the son of Mustafa.
As a result of these rebellions and continued international involvement during the formative years of the new Turkish nation, weariness of and struggle against the Kurds became part of the Turkish national identity. Following the many Kurdish rebellions and attempts at creating a self-ruling state, the Kurdish region of Turkey was put under nearly permanent martial law. During the coming years, the Turkish government would displace tens of thousands of Kurds, destroying villages, and historical accounts, causing immense discontent among the defeated, but not beaten, Kurdish tribes.
In early 1970, a group of left-leaning and nationalistic Kurdish students in Ankara created an organization known as PKK. Their intention was to create an independent, Marxist-Leninist governed state to be known as Kurdistan. By 1978 the group had carried out a series of insurgency styled attacks against Turkish authorities. They also attacked opposing Kurdish organizations.
By 1984, the group had transformed from an aggressively violent political organization to a paramilitary organization with covert Soviet-backing. The new paramilitary organization announced a Kurdish uprising, which initiated a full-scale insurgency in the south-eastern area of Turkey. The first chapter of the uprising lasted ostensibly until 1993, when a ceasefire was reached between the PKK and the Turkish Government. The ceasefire was negotiated in the wake of the first Gulf War, during which a Kurdish uprising inside Iraq had been squashed using chemical weapons by the Saddam Hussein government.
This caused a dramatic change in regional dynamics and international awareness of the Kurdish cause. Even most overzealous Kurdish nationalists give credit of the ceasefire to then Turkish President, Turgut Özal. Özal himself was half Kurd, on his mother’s side, something detractors were keen to point out. Özal had a stated objective to create a union of Turkic nations. As such, he considered the Kurdish insurgency an inconvenient distraction that was best resolved through diplomatic means and, if possible, inclusion. Shortly after the ceasefire signing between Özal and the PKK leadership, the Turkish President died of a suspicious heart attack. Many believe this “heart attack” to have been the prelude of a silent coup d’etat by hardliners against the more moderate influences in the Turkish government. An autopsy was not made at the time, but activists were able to gain a court order in 2012 to have the President’s body exhumed. Tissue samples indicated that the now banned insecticide DDT was found in the body at ten times the “normal level” leading to calls for an investigation.
With the President dead, and the future of the ceasefire uncertain, the PKK seemingly resumed its insurgency. A month after the President’s death, on May 24th 1993, there was an ambush on a Turkish military convoy on the Elazığ-Bingöl highway. The ambush resulted in the death of 38 unarmed recruits in civilian clothing. The convoy of marked military buses was stopped by what are described by Turkish authorities as PKK militia fighters. 33 soldiers and 5 civilians (including four teachers) were dragged out of the busses and executed by the roadside. 22 soldiers were captured, and held, before being freed by responding Turkish military rescue operation. The PKK have not officially taken responsibility for the attack. However, according to Turkish authorities, Abdullah Öcalan, a PKK leader apprehended by the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT) in 1999, gave testimony that it was a regional PKK commander named Şemdin Sakık that ordered and carried out the attack.
The Turkish authorities responded to the resumed Kurdish insurgency by introducing a new, significantly more aggressive, counter-insurgency strategy which sought to deprive the PKK of logistics and staging grounds. Part of the strategy involved deforestation and the destruction of farmland in Kurdish areas, causing the displacement of 2 million people and the destruction of over 3,000 Kurdish villages. The international community criticized the strategy as punishing civilians unaffiliated with the insurgency. Turkish authorities have responded to this criticism by stating that some individuals relocated from destroyed villages are offered salaries and positions in the pro-Government militia group “village guards,” a paramilitary organization for Kurds that support the Ankara government.
In 1999, a unilateral ceasefire was declared by the PKK, with the Kurdish forces under PKK control relocating from Turkish territories to the Qandil Mountains in Iraq. Offers were made to the Turkish government to open diplomatic negotiations. The offers were ignored by the Turkish Government, which refused to acknowledge the PKK as a representation of the Kurdish cause at the time.
By 2003, a power struggle began inside the PKK between the core leadership that was advocating diplomacy and the more hardline militant side which advocated the recommencement of the armed insurgency. In turn, this internal power struggle caused several new Kurdish militia groups to either be created, or become more prominent, as the exodus of manpower from the PKK became apparent. By 2004 the militants had gained control over the core PKK organization, and the insurgency began anew. During the 1990s PKK had had multiple state sponsors, including the Soviet Union and Libya. These state sponsors were no longer available as the Kurdish second insurgency (2004-2012) began. This caused a change in tactics. The PKK insurgency was no longer focusing on holding terrain, or direct regular army fashioned confrontations. Instead, they relied on neo-classic insurgency tactics like that seen by the al Sadr militia and others in Iraq against the American military. The violence thereof quickly soared, turning the mass media and world opinion largely against Kurdish interests, in turn causing further exodus and focus on alternative Kurdish movements.
As the world was turning away from the PKK, and towards other groups, the newly elected Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, offered the more diplomatically inclined members of the group, what appeared to be, a way out of the spiral of violence. In exchange for the PKK withdrawing from Turkish soil and relocating to northern Iraq, yet again, the Turkish government would hold talks with Kurdish representatives and propagate Kurdish culture and language in the Kurdish region of Turkey.
The two sides agreed in early 2013. Embers of discontent and mistrust remained, with critics accusing the Turkish authorities of not upholding their part of the agreement. As the Syrian Civil War erupted in 2011 Kurdish militia groups, such as the YPG, took up arms to defend Kurdish ethnic areas from the onslaught of militant groups. Their other objective was to, yet again, attempt to create a Kurdish state out of the bedlam of war. Some Kurdish militants expressed concern that Turkey may be aiding and abetting the Salafist group al Qaeda, then later the splinter group that would come to be known as the Islamic State.
During the war, waves upon waves of Kurdish refugees sought the relative safe haven of the Kurdish enclaves within Turkey. This was something that the Turks looked upon with weary eyes; an increasing congregation of Kurdish fugitives amassing within its border, many young enough to be heatedly idealistic, but still old enough to carry arms. To attempt to neutralize, and offer a guided outlet for the Kurdish rage, Turkey dispatched members from its Army Special Forces to northern Iraq to train Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Iraqi National Guard soldiers.
By late 2014 things came to a head when the Islamic State’s siege of the Kurdish enclave of Kobani in Syria led 45,000 refugees to flee across the border into Turkey. Riots broke out and events quickly became uncontrollable when the Turkish police responded harshly. On July 20th 2015, a large explosion in Suruç, targeting the Kurdish Marxist-Leninist youth group known as “Socialist Party of the Oppressed,” killed 33 and injured 104 people during a gathering to discuss the Kobani situation. In retaliation, alleged PKK supporters killed 1 Turkish soldier, and wounded 2 more a day after the attack. The Suruç attack was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which the Kurdish community widely believed to be affiliated with the Turkish government, leading the Turkish military to attack ISIL positions in Syria. At the same time, Turkey used the events to go-ahead with a series of attacks against mostly Kurdish militant positions throughout Syria and northern Iraq. They also arrested hundreds of prominent PKK members throughout the nation. For every ISIL target struck, the Turkish Air Force appeared to strike 3 Kurdish targets.
By 2015, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict had escalated yet again, with the PKK taking control of several towns and areas in eastern Turkey. As part of renewed hostilities, the Turkish authorities labeled the majority of larger Kurdish militia groups as mere factions of the PKK. This is including the Syrian left-wing party PYD and the militia group YPG. The PYD is the originating organization from which the YPG was created, as its military wing. The PYD is currently perceived as the most important Kurdish opposition party in Syria, and is the leading party in the Federation of Northern Syria-Rojava.
Oh, East is East and West is West,
and never the twain shall meet
Turkey has to deal with multiple issues regarding the Kurds. One issue is the increased collaboration between the Kurds and foreign powers, such as the US and France. Another is the ferocity of the ongoing insurgency inside its borders. There is also the possibility of an expanding Kurdish controlled corridor running along the upper Levant region, and across the Turkish-Syrian border. This corridor piggybacks onto the preexisting Shia controlled corridor, a longstanding corridor that facilitates and enables Iranian influence in Lebanon and Syria. At the present, the corridor consists primarily of the de facto autonomous cantons of Afrin, Jazira, and Kobani, in northern Syria, which together make up the so called Federation of Northern Syria-Rojava, also known as Western Kurdistan. The area runs along the Turkish-Syrian border, and creates in practice a Kurdish controlled corridor of influence, with some 5 million people, mostly of Kurdish ethnicity, within it. On 17 March 2016 the federation of cantons declared itself a unified state, with a federal system of governing.
Inside the federation an assembly has been created with representatives from the political groups, cantons, and interest groups. The assembly is presently working towards creating a pro-democratic movement. On December 29th 2016, the “The Constituent Assembly of the Democratic Federalism of Northern Syria” created a document outlining the “The Political Document for the Future of Syria,” which seeks to create a constitution with democratic values, and to create a regional council that would govern without the influence from Ankara, Baghdad, or Damascus.
This Kurdish controlled corridor does not just threaten to erode Turkish abilities to move ground forces in and out of Syria, it threatens Turkish influence in the border region. It also creates a Kurdish buffer state that the Kurdish movements could use to expand and establish themselves as a viable self-governing state. Recent reports from pro-Government Turkish news outlets indicate that Ankara intends to take an aggressive stand against this possibility, and is preparing to launch a new military operation which will target the Kurds, in the form of PYD/YPG, controlled areas by the end of the month. Ankara is presently attempting to anchor the operation with Russia, the US, and its NATO allies overall. This might however prove difficult because both the US and Russia have made significant investments in the YPG and the YPG-led SDF.
The Magnificent Bluff?
The public condemnation by the Pentagon of the Turkish air strikes carried out on April 18th against Kurdish positions reveals, yet again, that the coalition is in a compromised position. It shows that coalition members only adhere to central command when they see it as beneficial. If American lives are lost due to Turkish military actions, it is difficult to predict how culminating events could spiral out of control for Ankara, and possibly Washington. Despite the rising tension between the two power blocks, which have complicated the US-SDF/YPG collaboration in their fight against the Islamic State, SDF forces have continued to make considerable progress towards al Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State. On May 4th, the SDF cleared the last remaining pockets of Islamic State resistance in the town of Tabqa. Islamic State forces are retreating from holdout positions around the Tabqa Dam. During the retreat, coalition warplanes destroyed 40 barges on the Euphrates River, while the barges were being used to haul troops and equipment back to Islamic State held territory.
In the meantime, Turkey has continued to carry out airstrikes on YPG positions in the northwestern Afrin region, one of the cantons of the Federation of Northern Syria-Rojava, while building a wall along the border. The US President is reportedly intent on bringing up the topic of a no-fly zone, preventing non coalition authorized military flights from operating over Syria. This would primarily impact Turkish air-to-ground attacks on Kurdish positions. The Turkish President seems equally intent on presenting a Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) operational option to take the city of al Raqqa.
The fact remains, however, that while both parties are playing a dangerous game of chicken – with the Kurds being caught in the middle – neither one is willing or truly able to withstand the punishment of the fight, in any real sense. The US remains dependent on Turkey as its gateway into the Middle East, and as a regional power block. Turkey, on the other hand, remains dependent on the US as part of its NATO alliance, and as part of its Western backed financial support. In order to retain his political hold, Erdoğan remains dependent on the financial benefits that western investments and influences bring to the country. Dynamics could change, but it is unlikely that things can change in time to make a difference in the coming offensive on al Raqqa.
John Sjoholm, Middle East Bureau Chief, Lima Charlie News
[Edited by May Hamza][article submitted May 5, 2017]
[Main Image: Mourners gathered around the coffins of 16 people killed during a nine-day Turkish army curfew in the mainly-Kurdish city of Cizre (AFP Photo/Ilyas Akengin)]
John Sjoholm is Lima Charlie’s Middle East Bureau Chief, and founder of the consulting organization Erudite Group. He is a seasoned Middle East connoisseur, with a past in the Swedish Army’s Special Forces branch and the Security Contracting industry. He studied religion and languages in Sana’a, Yemen, and Cairo, Egypt. He lived and operated extensively in the Middle East between 2005-2012 as part of regional stabilizing projects, and currently resides in Jordan. Follow John on Twitter @JohnSjoholmLC
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