What’s Next in the Turkey-Kurd-U.S. Imbroglio?

by Robert Olson

This is a question asked by Metin Gurcan in Al-Monitor on August 31. Gurcan proffers several possible scenarios as to what Turkey’s policies toward the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), will be over the next several months.

He thinks that Turkey will pursue policies on several levels. Militarily, Ankara wants to create a unified Sunni opposition that will include elements both of the Free Syria Army (FSA) and multiple jihadist groups. The latter would undoubtedly include groups from Ahrar al-Sham (Movement of Free People of Syria) and even Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (the Front for the Conquest of the Levant), the new name for the Jabhat Al-Nusra, which has nominally disassociated itself from Al Qaeda.

Gurcan stresses that Turkey would like to see this force consolidate its sway over all of Syria, but especially over northern Syria, where Turkey exercises strong military, political, and economic leverage. If the latter aim were achieved, Ankara would at the least strengthen its position in future negotiations over Syria’s fate.

According to Gurcan, Turkey has three strategic goals. The first is to establish a permanent base in the Jarablus area (apparently underway) where it can train and equip its Syrian clients with direct access to Turkish bases and reinforcements.

The model would be much like Turkey’s base in Bashiqa in the Kurdish Regional Government (KDG) in Iraq. The difference, however, is that Bashiqa was established with the approval and encouragement of Massud Barzani, the KRG’s president, and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which dominates the Bashiqa region. If Ankara cannot persuade the U.S. to accept such a base, Turkey has the option to move it to the Cobanbey (al-Rai) area. Regardless of whether it labels this area an “Islamic State-free” zone, Turkey wants it to be a Kurdish-free zone. Given U.S. support for Turkey’s action so far, it is probable that Washington will acquiesce.

A key element in Ankara’s strategy hinges on whether the forces that it now supports will be able to capture Manbij, which PYD-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took from IS last month. On August 31, Salih Muslim, the co-leader of the PYD, said that all YPG forces had withdrawn to the eastern side of the Euphrates River as demanded by the U.S. and Turkey, leaving only Arab and Turkomen SDF forces in charge in Manbij. But this seems doubtful. If Turkey’s proxies manage to capture Manbij, it is highly unlikely that the PYD – regarded by the U.S. Special Forces that have been working with it for months as the most effective force against IS — will be eager to join a Turkish-backed attack on Raqqa, the capital of IS’s self-declared “caliphate.”

Ankara’s second goal, per Gurcan, is to occupy the 55-mile-long border between Jarablus and Cobanbey. This would put Turkey’s Syrian clients in a position to threaten the PYD-controlled canton of Afrin.

A final goal is for Turkish forces “to advance southwest and capture al-Bab” in an operation that “will terminate the PYD’s dream of linking up with Afrin via al-Bab and dominating the area of northwest Aleppo.” Such a move would also “totally eradicate IS connections to Turkey.”

Gurcan does not mention what would happen to the 250-mile, YPG-controlled stretch of border from Jazira to Kobane. The establishment of a base in the Jarablus region could mean that Turkish-controlled forces intend to attack this area by first attacking its weakest points and then towns, such as Kobane, along the border. Such an operation could be done incrementally over the course of the next several months, but any weakening of U.S. influence over both the Kurds and the Turks would probably accelerate the timing. Of course, if the Turks implement such a plan, they risk retaliation by the PKK inside Turkey. Indeed, the ties between the PYD/YPG and the PKK/Kurdistan Union of Cities (KCK) – already very close — would probably strengthen further.

Nonetheless, if such an operation is indeed put into effect, it would result in a severe weakening – perhaps even the death – of Kurdish efforts to achieve a degree of autonomy in the region since Syrian troops withdrew from the area more than four years ago.

In his August 26 press conference in Ankara, visiting Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. wanted a “a united Syria. We do not support an independent Kurdistan.” While Syrian Kurds have made it clear they seek only political autonomy and continuity among the three cantons they control, Kerry’s remarks suggested strongly that Washington opposes such an outcome. It’s clear that, faced with the difficult choice of maintaining strong relations with the Turkish state and military on the one hand, and backing its Syrian Kurdish allies in their bid for autonomy, the U.S. is giving priority to the former. Of course, the risk, as noted above, is that the PYD/YPG will lose any interest in participating in any offensive against IS in Raqqa. In that respect, any effort by Turkish-backed forces to conquer Manbij could prove decisive. In its hopes of defeating IS in Syria, Washington is walking a very narrow tightrope.

More ominous challenges await the Kurds of Syria. Recent reports in the Turkish-language Kurdish press allege that Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) is paying Syrian refugees living in camps in Turkey controlled by Turkey’s National Disaster Response Plan (AFAD) to join Ankara-backed militias in the Jarablus region to fight against both IS and the YPG. So far, the numbers seem relatively small. AFAD controls camps in Hatay, Gaziantep, Urfa, and Suruch. The Suruch camp holds 30,000 refugees. There are an estimated 2.7 million Syrian refugees scattered across with another million subsisting precariously along the border with Syria and Iraq.

For Turkey’s military, northern Syria can be an important source of manpower to fight Kurds in both Turkey and Syria.

Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.


One Comment

  1. This is the first time I’ve read of anyone giving consideration to the fate of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, even though it should be obvious that it is ripe fruit for the picking now that Kurdish forces have been ordered back east of the Euphrates.

    Next humanitarian crisis, anyone?

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