The Syrian Kurds and Turkey

Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


The Turkish military and their Syrian rebel allies (Free Syrian Army) on 20 January launched “Operation Olive Branch” against the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin, located near the Turkish border.

The area is under the control of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its affiliated fighting force, the People's Protection Units (YPG). Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist organization linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey and is recognized as a terrorist organization by Europe and the US.

The YPG is the main component of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance that controls around 25% of the Syrian territory and has been at the forefront of the fight against the “Islamic State” (IS).

The Kurds have proven to be the best fighters in the region. Without Kurdish boots on the ground, there would not have been the decisive progress achieved against IS.

Now, with IS crushed, but still alive, the US and the European Union should not turn their backs on the Kurds in Syria as they are attacked by Turkey, a NATO ally gone rogue.

The Turkish campaign has largely been condemned as a humanitarian disaster and the international community has blamed Turkey for the collapse of any peace progress, pointing to its refusal to recognize a distinct national status for the Kurds.

Historical background

The Turkish government has always refused to recognize the right for Kurdish people to create an independent state. That of the Kurds is a story of persecution and broken promises.

On 10 August 1920, the defeated Ottoman Empire and the Allied Powers signed the Treaty of Sèvres, partitioning Turkey and the Middle East between European nations. Palestine and Iraq went to the British, the French were granted Lebanon and Syria. According to President Woodrow Wilson's principle of self-determination, the Kurds – largely Sunni Muslims but an ethnically distinct minority – expected to receive their long dreamed-of homeland, an independent Kurdistan.

But Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk) launched a war of independence and built the modern state of Turkey on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, getting hold of the Kurds' promised land. The subsequent agreement, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, ignored any idea of an independent state of Kurdistan.

Known as the largest ethnic group without a state, some 25 to 35 millions Kurds are spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia. While sharing a broader sense of “Kurdishness”, the Kurds have traditionally been divided ideologically, politically and socially both within their respective states and across greater Kurdistan.

As a result, while many Kurdish nationalists may dream of a greater independent Kurdistan, Kurdish political parties demands for greater rights and autonomy have traditionally been directed towards the state within which they live.

Current situation

Turkish forces have still not succeeded in taking the city of Afrin, even after heavy aerial bombardments. While Turks may believe the intervention in Afrin will be swift, the fighting there will likely continue and even if Turkey takes control there, keeping these areas won't be easy. It is worth mentioning the recent attack in Turkey representing the deadliest day of the Turkish campaign so far with troops killed and mortar firing into Turkey from Syria.

The Kurds still hope that the US are committed to protect them by not abandoning their allies and not allowing Erdogan to cross the red line.

The Kurds cannot forget Kobani when in 2014 the Turks were waiting for IS to defeat the Kurds and conquer the city. When IS launched a massive assault on Kobani, just across the Turkish border, Turkish tanks massed on the border, yet did nothing. When the US finally intervened, the implications of the Kurdish victory at Kobani were perceived as threatening by Turkey. As the YPG defeated IS with American help, it controlled more and more territory along the Syrian-Turkish border. Of course, Turkish reluctance to fight IS drove the US to work with YPG, while the Turkish leadership was watching with growing alarm the developing relationship between its alleged strategic partner and its bitterest enemy.

As a matter of fact, over the course of the conflict in Syria, the Turkish government turned a blind eye to jihadists, enabled al-Qaida affiliates, and was at least ambivalent about fighting IS. Turkey prioritized overthrow of Assad (until 2016 at least) over that of fighting other groups (from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar) while the CIA itself was sending arms and assistance to the rebels in Syria.

Erdogan even questioned the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne when, in October 2016, Turkey was facing the possibility that Iraq's Kurds would declare their independence while at the same time their Syrian cousins were successful.

Turkey and US

The US has seen the Kurds as a precious resource, keen to fight, and effective in their battle against IS. Ankara,on the other hand, has been discontent at that arrangement, viewing YPG as dangerous as IS.

It is for this reason that Erdogan agreed several weeks ago to let the US launch air-strikes from the Turkish bases of Incirlik and Diyarbakir. In exchange for the use of the two Turkish bases, he received a tacit consent for a no-fly zone in northern Syria to keep the Kurds as well as IS away from the Turkey's border.

The agreement with Turkey may thus allow a closer US targeting of IS but it hinders the Kurdish dream of independence.

The question is: how American interests in Turkey fit with Washington's highly successful three-year battlefield partnership with YPG against IS? US will surely have to balance its NATO ally with YPG partnership. But is there a way forward to reconcile American interests with both their Turkish and Syrian Kurdish allies?

A set of options could be taken into account: from encouraging the YPG to distance itself from the PKK, to setting up direct channels for resumed discussions between the YPG and Turkey, to finally promising Turkey that the US will oppose any Kurdish secessionism in Syria while reassuring the Syrian Kurds that Washington will prevent Turkey from conducting military operations into the existing YPG-controlled enclaves in eastern Syria. A further option would be for the US to push for more differentiated leadership within PYD/SDF to dispel Turkish concern that the SDF is essentially another name for the PYD/PKK.

Turkey and Russia

As for Russia, it is widely assumed that the Turkish government received a green light from Russia to launch the attack: Turkey's senior security officials visited Moscow the day before the attack began.

The Afrin campaign was dependent on Russia's agreement to open up the airspace to Turkish jets. As a matter of fact, Russia controls Syria airspace in the region west of Euphrates River, which includes Afrin, while the US controls the sky east of the Euphrates.

In return Russia has an important bargain with Turkey: the Turkish Stream gas pipeline. Moscow consent to the Turkish operation in Afrin will allow the Russian Gazprom to construct a second gas pipeline passing through the territorial waters of Turkey.

Throughout history, Moscow has used the “Kurdish card” only when it needed to reach a compromise with the countries in the Middle East, especially with Turkey.

YPG allied itself with the US rejecting Russia's offer to transfer the territory under their control in Afrin to the Syrian regime, in exchange for security guarantees. Washington was unable to help its YPG allies, and this gave Moscow an additional opportunity to once again demonstrate the illusory nature of US security guarantees.


While protests worldwide say: “Hands off Kurds”, Erdogan is maintaining he will “exterminate” YPG in Afrin. Then, he says, he will also drive the Kurds out of Manbjj (60 miles east of Afrin), near the Euphrates River, and push them away from the Turkish border up to the Iraqi border. But the Turks, while detaining hundreds of people questioning the invasion, have so far made limited gains with the YPG resisting their attacks.

In the last few days Syrian pro-government fighters have been sent to Afrin to confront Turkish troops and Syrian rebels. Turkey fired shells near the advancing columns thus stopping, for the time being, their advance. Syria is now opposing a Turkish presence inside its territory and has denounced the Turkish offensive as a “blatant attack” on its sovereignty, while Turkey has insisted it will not back down. Syria is also trying to involve Russia in intimidating Erdogan.

In fighting in Syria and supporting Assad with its Hezbollah and other Shiite militia forces, Iran has made the greatest gains in Syria and Israel feels itself threatened. The US are determined to maintain a presence in Syria to block further gains by Tehran, thus supporting Saudi Arabia, the biggest foe of Iran in the area.

No Kurds were invited to the “Peace Conference” organized in Sochi on 29 January by Russia, Iran and Turkey: the conference was thus a failure.

As for the “Syrian Democratic Forces”, having played the role of US foot soldiers, they are now titled “Border Security Forces” and are still totally reliant on US weapons, arms supplies, hardware, air cover and air-strikes. But this new force will likely exist just as long as US think it necessary, after which it could be left to the mercy of Syria and Turkey both regarding it as a threat to their hegemony. Syria cannot countenance a Kurdish mini-state on its territory and Turkey cannot tolerate a Kurdish mini-state along its southern border.


The regional powers do not want a Kurdistan front that has any claim to international legitimacy. They prefer a neutralized and weakened front so that Moscow will be assured that future conflict can be averted and Ankara will not need to worry any more. Once a main rebel backer to overthrow the Assad regime, Turkey has eventually focused on working with Russia and Iran – the two main powers active in Syria - to end the conflict and thwart Syrian Kurdish gains. Turkey's only genuine enemy in Syria is the Kurds: Turkey supports anything that harms the Kurds. Over a year ago, as Ankara began to realign its Syria policy with that of Moscow and Tehran, Turkey withdrew its advisors and special forces from eastern Aleppo which was then surrounded by Assad troops thus preventing the Kurdish-controlled Afrin from linking up with other Kurdish areas.

As for the western world, Washington will be left somewhere in the middle, left behind in another play it misread, while the European Union is urging Turkey to restart the peace process with the Kurds. According to the European Union, until Erdogan and the ruling AKP government decides to put Kurdish rights at the forefront of their political agenda, the Kurdish problem will inevitably persist and worsen.

The western world has to realize that on one side there is a megalomaniac leader who routinely imprisons more journalists than any country in the world and whose government has let IS roam freely in Turkey for years. On the other side there is a Kurdish minority able to establish a significant presence in the middle of war-torn Syria by sacrificing their lives, defeating the brutal IS and defending the interests of the civilized world.

The western world should not forget that Kurds have been butchered, denied fundamental rights, imprisoned, tortured, raped, cheated and scapegoated.

The western world, after letting the Kurds down at Lausanne a century ago and acquiescing to deny them a state, is now, to please Turkey, on the verge of permitting another slaughter of Kurds as a US intervention in Syria against Turkey-Russia-Iran-Syria is to be ruled out.

If that happens, the Kurds will be the big losers because they have failed to draw lessons from their own past when imperialist forces have used them as proxies and then abandoned them. The Kurds are being punished today for putting their faith in the wrong people all these years.

Washington has signalled it plans to keep its forces in some SDF areas for the foreseeable future but Turkey believes that the Syrian Kurds may try to use US cover to maintain autonomy in the north of the country. Meanwhile Russia, Iran and Syria also oppose a long-term US presence in Syria.

If the international community does not act in Afrin, IS will be granted an unexpected opportunity to regroup and prepare to fight another day, and perhaps expand their territorial reach in Syria and Iraq once again, gaining the space to plan additional attacks on European countries and elsewhere.

In waging war against IS, the men and women of the Syrian Kurds are fighting to protect their homes and are acting as the last line of defence against terrorist attacks abroad which would be directed by IS from Syria if the terrorist organization is allowed to maintain a presence.