Q&A: Turkey and Syria's Kurds - the result of fluid and opportunistic alliances on both sides

  1. 'Assume that all Kurds talk but don't think that they all cooperate'
  2. 'Hardly any issue in Turkish politics manages to rally both Kemalists and Islamists behind one flag like fighting the Kurds'
  3. U.S. fears pushing Turkey further toward Russia

A Turkish ground assault on a Kurdish-held enclave of northern Syria has opened a new front in Syria’s seemingly endless war, and stoked fears that a fiendishly complex and multilayered dispute could raise the risk of confrontation between Ankara and Washington D.C.

On January 14, the U.S. announced plans to unite the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) into a 30,000-strong “border force.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan viewed the announcement, which the U.S. State Department later said was a “misstatement,” as grounds to launch an assault on Syria’s Kurds, and said he would “drown” the force before it could take shape.

While the U.S. has equivocated over its plans for the SDF, Turkish forces, backed by the Free Syrian Army rebels, have engaged with the Kurdish YPG in Afrin. Erdogan has said Turkey is looking beyond just Afrin, raising the prospect that more Kurdish groups, and their allies, could get involved.

Verena Gruber, a PhD student at King’s College London, has conducted fieldwork in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2014 and was in Erbil, the region’s capital, when Islamic State (IS) took over Mosul. She focuses on the effect of political tensions between Kurdish groups on the wider region and told WikiTribune that while this conflict is not unexpected, it is almost impossible to guess how it will evolve.

(Read and contribute to WikiTribune‘s explainer of the situation in northern Syria, and the groups involved.)

WikiTribune: Can you talk about the links between the Kurdish groups in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey – how much do they communicate and coordinate?

Gruber: If I had to boil it down to the most simplistic basis, I would say the following: assume that all Kurds talk but don’t think that they all cooperate.

The links between different Kurdish groups are fluid; in my experience they are based a lot on opportunism and partially on ideology, history, and tribal lineages. To answer your question, the first thing that needs to be understood is that within the three countries you mention, there are more than three actors.

WikiTribune: How has the fight against IS affected the composition and abilities of Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq?

Gruber: I specialize on the Kurdish peshmerga in the north of Iraq, so I can only speculate on how other Kurdish groups were affected by the fight against IS. From what I observed in the Kurdish region of Iraq, IS provided a reason for increased military action and training, as well as additional coordination and common efforts. The groups remained largely the same.

What I also observed is that more local forces sprang up in addition to the traditional military forces in the area: for example, the Yazidi force. These local forces are based on the idea of a certain community defending themselves. They again cooperate on larger issues with the relevant authorities and forces of the area (the KDP in the north and the PUK in the south) but the fact that they insist on their own, closed-to-members-only type of force also shows a certain mistrust towards the Kurdish “guardians.”

I am speculating that similar tendencies are true for the Syrian Kurdish groups. There, of course, the major change, which was triggered by IS, is that they established a bigger force. The YPG was created on the necessity (and/or opportunity – depending on how you want to see it) of IS.

But as in every Kurdish region, the population is not simply homogeneous. The ideological, political, and at times tribal cleavages in society are strong, and the different groups are very pragmatic and opportunistic in their alliances. When it suits them, they align, when it does not, they change. As a result, it is very difficult to foresee how the current composition of Kurdish groups will develop.

WikiTribune: Are Erdogan’s concerns over the strength of Syria’s Kurds legitimate, or is he taking advantage of regional instability and a power vacuum to deal a blow to Turkish Kurds?

Gruber: The simple answer is both. Turkey is most worried about a continuous Kurdish zone in the north of Syria, reaching from the Iraqi/Turkish/Syrian border in the east, all the way to the most western Kurdish enclave of Afrin.

Why is that? Let me illustrate this: we are talking about a distance of approximately 600 kilometers [373 miles], almost the entire northern border between Syria and Turkey. Not only is this distance impossible to keep in check in terms of Kurdish cross-border activities (the PKK “threat”), it also puts a tangible distance between Turkey and the non-Kurdish parts of Syria. [The PKK is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey proscribes as a terrorist group.]

If the Kurds of Syria were to negotiate even remotely as good a deal as the Kurds in Iraq did for their territories (assuming that they will be part of the negotiation table on the future of Syria), the chances for Kurdish forces (even if they are nominally under a Syrian state) controlling the Turkish border is a definite threat to Turkey both in terms of PKK activities and Turkish influence in their immediate neighborhood.

Some voices even say that the U.S. announcement of wanting to train 30,000 Kurdish border guards was the actual trigger for the Turkish attack. Personally, I don’t believe in single causes but it certainly makes sense that the allocation of “border guards” to Kurdish forces provides an additional incentive for a Turkish act of prevention.

In addition, I believe that Turkey opportunistically used a moment of an unstable situation and a regional leadership vacuum as well as a relatively favorable international environment (there are simply bigger fish to fry on the table of the international community, the Russians, and the Americans). Plus, as a cherry on top, there is hardly any issue in Turkish politics that manages to rally both Kemalists and Islamists behind one flag as fighting the Kurds. So, in a way Erdogan also uses the moment well to get the military busy and the government aligned after a rather long period of division.

It is very important to remind readers that Turkey is currently attacking the Kurdish district of Afrin only. The reason why the other parts, Kobane and Qamishli, are not currently under attack is because Turkey already created a military zone at the border region several months back (also back then, the international community gave a very limited reaction to the Turkish military action.)

WikiTribune: There have been reports that Iraqi peshmerga might be heading to assist their allies in Syria, fighting against Turkey – does this seem likely to you and will it escalate the situation?

Gruber: As far as I am aware, it is primarily the PUK pushing for sending Iraqi peshmerga to Syria. As far as I can hear from the region, Syrian Kurds in Iraq are protesting in front of the UN building and PYD representatives are lobbying for support.

Even if the PUK were to send their peshmerga to support Afrin, the reallocation of forces would be difficult, the impact would be symbolic but minimal, and the larger regional consequences should remain limited as well. The KDP is the stronger power in Kurdish Iraq and they are the ones who cooperate with Ankara while the PUK is more leaning towards Tehran.

WikiTribune: The U.S.-led coalition allied with the Kurds and relied on them in the fight against IS – does this mean anything now?

Gruber: I have found politics to be very opportunistic and fluid in the Middle East. This is true for local actors as much as for international ones.

Turkey never supported the Kurdish efforts; they joined the U.S.-led coalition due to their membership of NATO and due to the increasing international pressure after rumors arose that Turkey was actually supporting IS. The US is keeping in the background now because at the moment it is more risky for them to push Turkey even further towards Russia than to anger the Kurdish “allies.”

Personally, I found the UN Security Council meeting on the Afrin issue very revealing: the U.S. abstained – that way they neither have to support nor veto the Turkish actions and still remain with the communication channels to the PYD open (should it ever become necessary to have them again).

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

For more on this topic, read our explainer on the groups involved.

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