Turkey’s Kurdish Red Line in Syria and the Fight Against ISIL


Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria (Operation Euphrates Shield) has raised both hopes and concerns about defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  While some regard it as a positive turning point in the anti-ISIL fight, particularly after Turkish and Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces quickly expelled ISIL from the strategically important border town of Jarablus, others see the incursion as a further setback. Turkish attacks on the U.S.-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Forces (YPG) — the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the most effective anti-ISIL force in Syria — may leave Washington trapped between allies fighting each other in Syria. Underlying these scenarios are assumptions that Ankara has fundamentally changed its strategy, that Syrian Kurds are vital to defeating ISIL, and that a portending U.S. “betrayal of the Kurds” will undermine their will to fight and the effectiveness of the campaign.

Neither of these predictions is fully accurate. Turkey’s incursion in Syria represents continuity of policy rather than dramatic change.  While becoming more engaged against ISIL over the past year, Turkey still prioritizes the PKK and its affiliates as a strategic threat — just like it did at the war’s outset.  Nor does Turkey-YPG fighting create a new dilemma for the United States.  The U.S. strategy of defeating ISIL “by, with, and through” local partners has meant balancing competing interests and differentiating between tactical and strategic allies. CENTCOM commander Gen. Votel made this distinction clear by affirming continued U.S. backing for the YPG while requesting its forces depart the territories west of the Euphrates. This upholds Ankara’s redline and keeps the Kurdish communities of northern Syria from linking up a geographically contiguous zone of territory along Turkey’s border. Vice President Biden did the same by warning Kurds that they “cannot, will not, and under no circumstances will get American support” if they do not keep their commitment to withdrawing to the other side of the Euphrates.  These dynamics are unlikely to undermine the YPG’s will to fight — they benefit greatly from U.S. support — but they could forge regional alliances committed to keeping Syria’s borders intact while further embroiling Turkey in Syria’s cross-border quagmires.

Turning Point or More of the Same?

Ankara’s intervention in Syria is neither surprising nor game-changing.  Operates Euphrates Shield is not the first time Turkey has entered neighboring states to pursue terrorist threats — particularly the PKK kind — and it is unlikely to be the last.  The incursion not only reveals Turkey’s increasing vulnerability and willingness to engage against ISIL, but a deeply rooted threat perception of Kurdish separatism that dates to the early state period.  This perception has been reinforced by the breakdown of the Iraqi and Syrian states, renewed PKK insurgency in Turkey, growing PKK influence in northern Iraq, 186 percent increase in Kurdish-controlled territories in Syria since the anti-ISIL campaign commenced, and the failed Turkish coup.  Any attempt to effectively counter ISIL with Turkey cannot be separated from its strategic priority of countering PKK threats, even if the United States insists otherwise.

The difference now is that Turkey no longer has allies in strong states to help control the PKK, and has to rely on sub-state actors to do so. During the Iran-Iraq War, for instance, Ankara negotiated an agreement with Baghdad that allowed it to search and seize PKK terrorists across Iraqi borders. When Ankara and Damascus were on the verge of war in 1998, they negotiated the Adana Agreement, which led to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan’s ouster from Syria after years of refuge, as well as other anti-terrorism measures.  Turkey’s efforts to check the PKK continued after the post-Gulf War breakdown of the Iraqi state.  Instead of Baghdad, however, Ankara turned to Iraqi Kurds, and particularly Mas’ud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which assumed de-facto control of northern Iraq. This alliance helped create a Kurdish buffer zone that has permitted intelligence-sharing and border security, airstrikes against PKK bases in the Qandil Mountains, military incursions, and the creation of Turkish military bases in Iraqi Kurdish territories.  Yet, it has not uprooted the PKK from northern Iraq.  Barzani and other Kurdish officials may oppose the PKK presence, but after nearly 20 years, they have been unable and perhaps unwilling to militarily expel PKK forces. Turkish penetration in the Kurdistan Region has also instigated and embroiled Ankara  in Kurdish power struggles between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the latter of which gained support from Iran, and the PKK.

Similar dynamics are unfolding in the hyper-fragmented Syria state.  The zone of influence that Ankara seeks to create near Jarablus is similar to earlier plans for a buffer zone that overlap with territories that PYD Kurds  had claimed.  This zone would not be controlled by the Syrian government, which has residual forces in some parts of Hasaskah, but by a patchwork of local militias and non-state actors such as the FSA and Sultan Murad forces — mainly Sunni Arab and Turcoman groups.  Under Turkish influence, this zone could establish a space for the Syrian opposition to check PYD expansionism as well as to secure the Aleppo corridor, clear ISIL from its borders, and control refugees.

Indeed, Turkey is likely to revive regional strategic alliances to further secure its borders and check PKK and ISIL terrorism. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has indicated the need for stability in Syria and Iraq for successful counter-terrorism efforts, to include normalizing relations with Syria. In his visits to Moscow and Tehran after the failed Turkish coup, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated his readiness to enhance cooperation and desire to restore regional peace.  In fact, Turkey’s engagement against ISIL has involved greater regional cooperation, to include support for the recent but tenuous ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia which would permit the United Nations to establish aid corridors into Aleppo via the Turkish border.

Still, Turkey’s effort to re-establish regional alliances, although important, will not necessarily stabilize Syria, control the PKK or YPG, or help defeat ISIL and other jihadists anytime soon.  Ankara ultimately depends on fractious local proxies to hold territories and ward off ISIL, radical jihadists, and PKK groups.  Syrian Kurds worried about losing territories and influence, in turn, have reacted by creating another militia to resist Turkish forces. Numerous battles in Syria are also playing out on different fronts that have distinct problem sets. Alongside the PKK/YPG issue and ISIL, the general threat is Jabhat al-Nusrah, renamed Jabhat l-Sham (JFS), as well as separating moderates from extremists and the mixing of different extremist groups. The hyper-localized nature of the Syrian war also means that tactical gains or losses in Jarablus do not diminish the ISIL threat in other localities or for neighboring states. If the political order after the fall of key towns and cities such as Raqqah and Aleppo is unacceptable to Turkey, Gulf States, Iran, and Russia, then ISIL, radical jihadism, and PKK operations will continue.

These complex dynamics challenge the notion that Turkish-YPG conflicts place the United States on a “treacherous fault line” that will undermine the anti-ISIL campaign. From the outset, U.S. support to Syrian Kurds has remained tactical and situated around the parameters of its strategic partnership with Turkey and Syrian state sovereignty.  Instead of directly or solely backing the PYD, the United States has channeled support to Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), comprised largely but not exclusively of PYD Kurds.  After complaints from Turkey that U.S. special operations troops were wearing uniform patches bearing the YPG insignia, U.S. military commanders ordered the patches to be immediately removed.  Further, at no point has the United States officially recognized the Syrian Kurdish cantons or self-declared Kurdish federal autonomous zone, or permitted the PYD to attend the Geneva negotiations apart from the Syrian National Council (SNC), backed by Turkey and Arab Gulf states.

While Kurds and some western pundits can turn to history and charge the United States with betrayal, the current circumstances in Syria are nothing of the sort.  On the contrary, PYD/YPG forces have been the biggest beneficiaries of the anti-ISIL campaign and have much to gain from an ongoing U.S. alliance. Some YPG fighters may continue to over-reach territorially, however, other Syrian Kurds, including some PYD members (I have spoken to) know full well of the transactional nature of their partnership with the U.S. and the limitations of their role in the anti-ISIL campaign.  Many Syrian Kurds recognize that they cannot realistically connect all of their cantons given Turkish opposition and Sunni Arab populations in the area, and realize the need to reconcile with Ankara to keep borders open. This is why, instead of snubbing U.S. support or pushing West of the Euphrates en masse, YPG forces vacated areas around Jarablus, even if they insisted that they have the right to remain “as Syrians.”

Implications for U.S. Policy

Turkey’s intervention in Syria has reinforced Ankara’s red lines, clarified the conditions of U.S. support to Turkey and Syrian Kurds, and revealed opportunities and challenges to regional cooperation in Syria.  It underlines a shared commitment to Syrian territorial integrity by all groups, including Kurds, even if internal boundaries and the status of the Assad regime remain disputed.  As the United States moves forward with its anti-ISIL campaign in Syria, it should more carefully calibrate the following issues:

Dont Mirror Image.  Washington should more carefully consider Turkey’s threats perceptions and those of local Sunni Arab groups. Insisting that the PKK and PYD are distinct — even though everyone knows they are not — and telling Turkey to prioritize ISIL will not change Turkey’s strategic calculus or red lines in Syria.  It is also a mistake to think that Turkey and the PYD will “put away their differences” to focus on ISIL — particularly as the PKK insurgency continues, the Kurdish problem in Turkey remains unresolved, and opportunities to assert influence exist in the weak Iraqi and Syrian states.

Clarify Conditions of Support. Encourage Local and Regional Pacts.  Washington should continue to openly clarify the parameters of support to Syrian Kurds and other partners, including Turkey, and avoid sending mixed signals, such as high profile visits to PYD leaders in Syria, which are largely symbolic but can deepen local and regional resentments. While continuing to support Syrian Kurds, the United States should not enable them to the point where they do not think that they have to negotiate with local and regional partners. These measures should focus on lessening fears of Kurdish empowerment and preventing backlash against Kurds by Turkey and Sunni Arab populations who regard the YPG as encroaching on their territories and as the United States as seeking to divide Syria.

Recognize the limitations of Syrian Kurdish influence. While the YPG has been the most effective anti-ISIL force in Syria, its effectiveness is confined to Kurdish territories where ISIL no longer has a presence.  As the campaign seeks to expel ISIL from strategic Sunni Arab strongholds such as Raqqah, the YPG role will be limited.  Given reactions by Arab groups to Kurdish territorial gains, direct engagement by the YPG in such an effort could be counterproductive.

These dynamics have implications for countering ISIL and eventually stabilizing Syria.  As long as Iraq and Syria remain weak and fractured and Turkey’s Kurdish issue remains unresolved, Ankara will continue to prioritize the PKK as a strategic threat, even as it engages against ISIL. Telling Turkey that it should do otherwise or underestimating the effects of Kurdish territorial expansion on local and regional actors will only fuel these threat perceptions. The United States should pay more careful attention to these regional security priorities and how they are impacted by the second and third order consequences of the anti-ISIL campaign.


Denise Natali is a distinguished research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), National Defense University where she specializes on regional energy politics, Middle East politics and the Kurdish issue. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. She can be reached on Twitter at @DnataliDC.

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