Balancing Act: How the Kurdish-Turkish Conflict Imperils Progress in Syria

In a significant escalation of the Syrian Civil War, Turkish forces crossed into Syria on Tuesday in order to take the city of Jarabulus from ISIS. With the help of US air power, the Turkish offensive allowed the city to be taken by the Free Syrian Army, one of the largest groups in opposition to Assad’s regime. The Turkish offensive, however, was not simply an attempt to combat ISIS. It was also intended to send a message to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish group.

An alliance of militias in northern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces are responsible for protecting a newly founded federation called Rojava. In the chaos of the Syrian Civil War, the people of Rojava have gained significant autonomy and have begun forging a society based on the principles of direct democracy, multi-ethnic confederalism, sustainability, and gender equality. While the implementation of these ideals sounds like a positive development in Syria’s Civil War, the Turkish government is strongly against the increasing power of Rojava. The reason for this is because it is dominated by an ethnic group called the Kurds.

The area inhabited by the Kurds
The area inhabited by the Kurds

The Kurds are an ethnic group of around 30 million people divided mostly between Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, the middle east was divided into independent states and European-controlled mandates. The way the land was divided, however, failed to provide a state for the Kurds, which is why they are now a large minority in many countries. For some Kurds, this has created a nationalist identity that has been fueled by a lack of representation.

This nationalist identity has caused significant conflict between the Kurds and the Turkish government. As the largest minority group in Turkey, the Kurdish population has long had a tense relationship with Ankara. The Kurdish population in Southeastern Turkey has long advocated for greater autonomy, with some agitating for secession. Despite recent progress in achieving peace between the Kurds and the Turkish government, conflict was renewed in 2015 with the disintegration of peace negotiations.

This conflict explains why Turkey fears the rising influence of the Syrian Kurds in Rojava. The Turkish government fears that the Syrian Kurds are supporting the Turkish Kurds, meaning that an increase in the power and autonomy of Rojava will increase the power of the Kurds in Turkey. This is a direct threat to the national integrity of Turkey.

Thus the offensive against ISIS was also a message to the Kurds. As a show of Turkish military strength, the offensive can be viewed as a veiled warning to the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish military also helped the Free Syrian Army secure the area, depriving Syrian Democratic Forces from occupying it.

So far, the United States has been supportive of the Turkish government. Vice President Biden, who is currently visiting Turkey, has warned the Kurds that, if they wish to continue receiving American support, they must withdraw to the east of the Euphrates river. The United States also showed its support of Turkey by providing air power to assist yesterday’s operation. At this time, the United States government believes that it is imperative that it shows support to Turkey.

Hold on, though. Isn’t Rojava attempting to forge a society based on democracy, ethnic inclusion, and gender equality? Aren’t those values that the United States considers important? Yes, they are. Furthermore, the Kurdish forces in both Syria  and Iraq have proven to be the most capable and reliable American allies in the fight against ISIS. Because the United States is so reluctant to put boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq, it is the Kurds who are acting as the foot soldiers against ISIS. Why, then, is the United States alienating its crucial ally by supporting military action against it?

To understand why the United States is so unconditionally supporting Turkey, some background is needed. First, Turkey is a member of NATO, so the United States feels a certain obligation to support its ally. More significantly, Turkey was recently rocked by an attempted coup d’état. The coup attempt was meant to depose the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has slowly been attacking Turkey’s democratic institutions in order to cement his control. Erdogan blamed the coup attempt on Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric who is living in exile in the United States. Because Gülen is in the United States, the American government feels that it must show Erdogan that it is supportive of his government. It has done this by supporting the Turkish cause over the Kurdish cause.

The conflict between the Kurds and Turks has put the United States in an awkward place. How could it possibly choose which one to support? Turkey under Erdogan is slowly sliding away from the democratic values that the American State Department claims to promote. Rojava, on the other hand, is attempting to develop these values in a place where they are in short supply. Turkey, however, is a NATO member and a significant power in the region. But Rojava provides many of the most crucial logistical elements in the fight against ISIS. Each one is crucial to ending the conflict in Syria. It is in the interests of the United States to support both, but supporting one alienates the other.

By continuing to stoke the flames of conflict with the Kurds, Turkey is compromising the fight against ISIS. The United States should not allow this. It must use its considerable influence in the region to encourage reconciliation between these two groups. While reducing the tension between Turkey and the Kurds will be difficult, it is crucial that the United States pressures both sides to do so. If it takes a side–as it has over the past few days–it will risk upsetting an important ally.

Why a Peace Deal Won’t Solve Yemen’s Problems

The peace process between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels appears to be on the verge of breaking down after the government’s delegation walked out of negotiations. The two parties have been negotiating for months in Kuwait, but they have been unable to reach an agreement. The government delegation left Kuwait after accepting a proposed UN peace deal. The deal, however, will not be finalized unless the Houthis accept it by the August 7 deadline. Thanks to Yemen’s complex history and the geopolitics of the region, however, its conflict will be far from solved even if the Houthis do accept the deal. To understand why Yemen’s problems are likely to persist, it is important to understand how the country got to where it is now–17 months into a violent civil war.

The location of Yemen

Yemen is a very old place. Located in the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula, it has a temperate climate and has long been at the center of prosperous trade routes. As a result, its capital Sana’a is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Yemen’s recent history, however, has not been as bright. While the Arabian peninsula is often associated with obscene oil riches, Yemen could not be further from that reality. With rugged mountains and very little oil, Yemen is the poorest country in the Arabian peninsula. Most of its roughly 24 million people are employed in the agricultural sector.

During the Ottoman Empire’s long decline, Yemen–located at the empire’s southern fringes–began to slip out of its control. The northern portion of Yemen came under the control of imams of the Zaidi sect. The Zaidis, a Shiite group, established an independent kingdom. At the same time, the southern portion of Yemen became a British protectorate.

North and South Yemen
North and South Yemen

In the 1960s, great change came to Yemen. The Zaidi imams who had for years dominated the the north were overthrown by Arab nationalists. A civil war ensued, and the nationalists, with the help of an Egyptian military intervention, succeeded in establishing a secular republic. At the same time, an insurgency in the south prompted the United Kingdom to grant independence to its protectorate. Thus South Yemen was formed as a communist state. Despite the Cold War-era tensions that generally existed between democratic and communist states, North and South Yemen agreed to to merge in 1972.

North and South Yemen finally merged to become the Republic of Yemen in 1990. It was not, however, the smoothest of transitions. With a larger population, the institutions of North Yemen came to dominate the new nation. Sana’a, the capital of North Yemen, became its capital, and Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of North Yemen, became its president. In 1994, officials from the south attempted to secede and a civil war ensued. The war resulted in a northern victory, which further marginalized those in the south south.

From 1994 to 2012, Yemen was ruled by Saleh. During that period, various insurgencies plagued the country. The Houthis, a group that claims to represent the Zaidis–whose imams had once ruled the North–began an insurgency near the northwest border with Saudi Arabia in 2004.  In 2007, a new group emerged in the south–the Southern Movement–that once again called for independence from the north. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emerged as one of the most dangerous branches of Al-Qaeda in 2009. While Saleh successfully consolidated his own leadership, his government struggled to consolidate its control over the country.

In 2011, the Arab Spring came to Yemen. In 2012, Saleh, who had ruled North Yemen since 1978 and unified Yemen since its creation in 1990, was overthrown. He was replaced by Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. Hadi led Yemen through what was once lauded by US President Obama as a model transition. Since then, however, the model transition has fallen apart.

The evolution of Houthi control in Yemen
The evolution of Houthi control in Yemen

In July of 2014, Yemen’s government announced that fuel subsidies would be reduced, provoking mass protests. Recognizing the opportunity to take advantage of popular discontent with the government, Houthi militants left their northern stronghold and entered Sana’a in 2014. In January of 2015, they took over the presidential palace and forced Hadi to flee. The country was paralyzed. Supporters of former president Saleh joined forces with the Houthis and continued their sweep across the country. They were opposed by forces loyal to Hadi and southern separatists, who control parts of the south. The Houthis–a Shiite group–were also opposed by AQAP–a Sunni group. AQAP took advantage of the chaos to expand its own influence. ISIS, too, has now entered the fray.

The conflict escalated in March of 2015 when Saudi Arabia began an airstrike campaign in support of Hadi’s deposed government. The primary reason it intervened was because it feared that a Houthi government would expand Iranian influence to their southwest border. This is partially because Iran, which funds the Houthis, is Shiite while Saudi Arabia, like much of Yemen’s former government, is Sunni. Thus Yemen’s civil war has expanded into a religious conflict, an Islamist conflict, a separatist conflict, and a regional proxy war.

The situation in Yemen as of May 22, 2016. Control by the Houthis and Saleh supporters is shown in green, control by Hadi's forces red, by AQAP white, ISIS in gray, and other groups in blue.
The situation in Yemen as of May 22, 2016. Control by the Houthis and Saleh supporters is shown in green, control by Hadi’s forces red, by AQAP white, ISIS in gray, and other groups in blue.

This complexity is why previous peace deals have failed and why the proposed peace deal will do the same. Even if it is signed–which seems unlikely at this point–it is only Hadi’s government, the Houthis, and suppporters of Saleh that are at the negotiating table. Other groups that have taken advantage of the conflict, like AQAP, ISIS, the Southern Movement, and even Iran, will have no reason to support peace.

This war is the confluence of multiple historical forces that have resulted in the disenfranchisement of millions. The war began when the country’s widespread poverty resulted in frustration with the reduction of fuel subsidies. The violence of the Houthis is partially due to the fact that the Zaidis lost their place of power decades ago and became a Shiite minority in a Sunni majority country. The violence in the south is due to its loss of influence in 1990 and 1994. The violence of Saleh supporters is due to his loss of power in 2012. The violence of AQAP and ISIS is part of the global rise in Wahhabi terrorism that has taken advantage of society’s most disadvantaged individuals. These forces will remain even after a peace deal is signed. For this reason, peace in Yemen will not arise from a negotiating table. Instead, the underlying disenfranchisement that motivates those fighting must be addressed.