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.

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