Just yesterday the Chicago Tribune published an editorial titled “The Pentagon’s Smart Plan For Preventing an Islamic State Comeback.” That plan turns on the use of People’s Protection Forces (YPG) to secure regions captured from the Islamic State (ISIS). These forces are predominantly made up of Syrian Kurds, but not exclusively so: “it also includes Arabs, foreign volunteers, and is closely allied to the Syriac Military Council, a militia of Assyrians.”
Today, after consultation with the Russians, our NATO ally Turkey began shelling them with heavy artillery. This was in spite of outreach by both the US military and the American State Department, whose overtures Turkey rejected. A ground invasion is likely to follow.
What is going on? What should the United States do about this?
The Turkish Perspective
Turkish sources tell the Security Studies Group that there are two indispensable strategic interests from the Turkish perspective. Neither of these is the officially stated reason, which is that the Turks consider the YPG to be affiliated with a separatist group (the Kurdish Worker’s Party, or PKK) whom they consider terrorists. That is not to say that their insistence that the PKK are terrorists is feigned; SSG’s sources say they expect terror attacks on public spaces in Turkey in retribution for this campaign. Rather, the issue is that the real reasons for Turkey’s move here are not, as they claim, fear of being ‘surrounded on three sides by a terrorist army.’ The Turkish military vastly outclasses the YPG or any other irregulars that might enter the conflict against the Turkish side.
Two strategic interests dominate Turkish decision making: first, they wish to prevent the rise of an effective partner for the United States who might replace Turkey as our invaluable ally in the region. Second, they fear that a Kurdish-defended state in Syria would create the conditions for a viable Kurdish free state. Such a state might pull away some territory currently controlled by Turkey (as well as Iraq and Iran), and also cut Turkey off from the rest of the Islamic world.
Fearing A New American Partner
The rise of an effective and reliable military partner for the United States would weaken Turkey’s influence on the United States. They would still be dangerous to the survival of NATO, as SSG has reported. As a NATO member, the Turks wield an effective veto on any major decision by the alliance. In spite of this substantial leverage, however, the Turks fear that the United States will be less pliable if the YPG becomes an established and effective partner.
Currently no other partners in the region are both effective and reliable. The Iraqi military performed reasonably well against ISIS, but it depends to an uncomfortable degree on Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, and is commanded ultimately by a Baghdad government that is too close to Iran. Sunni tribal forces, both existing and potential, were largely disrupted by ISIS’s assassination campaign against tribal leaders. Those tribal structures are organic and will thus heal over time, but it may take years for a new generation of leaders to grow into the leadership and prove themselves worthy of loyalty. Syrian factions of all kinds have been shattered by a particularly vicious war involving chemical weapons and other war crimes. Their recruiting base has been depleted by the vast refugee crisis caused jointly by ISIS and the Assad government (though mostly by Assad, who in coordination with Russia weaponized the refugee crisis to force Europe to allow Assad to remain in power).
The Turkish Armed Forces are thus in the enviable position of being able to present itself to America as the only game in town. Even the YPG is currently a light infantry force for the most part. Turkey has a fully integrated combined arms program, including a modestly effective air force and special operations forces. The Turks are head and shoulders more effective than any other potential partner in the area.
Their reliability, however, is increasingly in question. The Turkish government stabbed the United States in the back at the beginning of the Iraq War, forcing the redeployment of a whole division of American forces by flip-flopping their permission to deploy from Turkish territory. This caused a months’ long delay in the arrival of those forces in Baghdad, a period that allowed survivors of the Saddam Hussein regime to establish their insurgency. The Turkish government has grown increasingly theocratic since then. The abortive coup attempt against Erdogan in 2016 convinced many Turks that the Obama administration had backed the coup, further dividing them from us. The purge of officers not personally loyal to Erdogan, which followed that coup, likely eliminated much of the officer corps that had friendly feelings towards the United States. Turkish government fears that the United States might prefer another partner are not groundless.
Fearing A Viable Kurdish State
The second reason the Turks are attacking America’s YPG allies is that they fear the rise of a viable Kurdish free state. Such a state has always been a Turkish strategic fear, and many campaigns against the Kurds have been fought in the past to suppress separatist aims. What makes this situation worse is that the YPG could establish a viable Kurdish state, because they could establish a route to the sea. All previous schemes for a Kurdish free state have been landlocked, but the YPG promises a Kurdish corridor to the Levant.
In this the Turkish fear is much like the American concern about Iran’s ‘Shi’a Crescent,’ which looks likely to dominate the northern Middle East. Establishing a secure ground line of communication to Mediterranean ports means establishing a political regime that is economically viable for the long term. For Turkey, either of these crescents is a strategic catastrophe because it cuts them off from the rest of the Islamic world. Turkey sees itself as competing for leadership of that world, especially against Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
A Kurdish free state would likely tear parts of Turkey away, which would also damage Turkish economic interests. This is particularly true with regard to oil, as Kurdish regions in Iraq are oil-rich but rely on Turkish pipelines. An alternative route to the sea would deny Turkey leverage over the Kurds, but also revenue from the pipeline fees.
For these two reasons, the Turks are committed to breaking the YPG.
American and Russian Perspectives
The United States and Russia have offered support to the YPG, though in different degrees. This very fact is partly driving the intensity of Turkish concerns. The Russians have permitted Kurdish representatives at the peace talks they are holding in Sochi, itself a Russian attempt to impose a peace settlement in Syria while bypassing the Geneva talks. Turkey directly opposes the Kurdish involvement in these talks.
The United States has based much of its planning for Syria’s future around the YPG. We have also supported them with airstrikes. However, the United States has so far ‘strongly opposed’ efforts at Kurdish independence. This may be out of fear of destabilizing NATO by alienating the Turks, but it is more likely out of fear of destabilizing Iraq while the fight against ISIS was ongoing.
The Security Studies Group has advocated for a free Kurdish state, but we are cognizant of the problems associated with Turkey’s potential veto in the NATO alliance. Some careful balancing is necessary here.
At a minimum we should take necessary steps to stop the destruction of the YPG, as it is the cornerstone of our military strategy in Syria.
The YPG should be strengthened and turned into the effective partner that Turkey fears. Just as it would weaken Turkish leverage against the United States, it would by the same token increase American leverage against the Erdogan government.
The maximum position is to allow the Kurds to develop a free state, with a route to the Levant, just as Turkey fears. However, it is not clear that the Kurds are ready to do this, or to defend such a state if they establish one. For one thing, in the recent invasion of Kirkuk by Iraqi forces, the division between Kurdish families in the leadership seems to have been driving the success of the Iraqi units in seizing Kurdish positions. Those divisions need to be worked out, and the YPG strengthened, before they could possibly hold their own against a determined Turkish army. As one of the basic requirements of nationhood is the capacity to defend adequate territory for a nation, the Kurds will need to develop that capacity before they will be ready to claim nationhood.
We should immediately step in to stop the destruction of YPG elements and their supporting communities and further their capacities. American diplomats should also engage the Kurdish factions to help them work out their leadership issues with an eye towards a possible future Kurdish state.
In the meantime the Erdogan government should be made aware that our future support for their interests depends on better treatment of the Kurds, and of their own people. Erdogan’s turn towards authoritarianism must be addressed as it is driving much of the tension between the United States and Turkey. Turkey, and especially the Turkish military, once had a proud heritage of defending secularism. The founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk, invested the Turkish military with the duty of protecting that heritage. The departure from Ataturk’s heritage of secularism needs to be reversed, and the United States should encourage the Turks in that direction. We should do so using all appropriate means of national power, given that Turkey remains formally an ally.
The United States should also engage the Russians in trying to restore their support for the Kurds. The Turkish government has a powerful hand to play, and much less to fear than they believe. The Kurds are far weaker and much more in need of international support than is obvious from their bold performance against ISIS. Much depends on them in American strategy. They are longstanding American allies with deep friendships especially with our Special Forces. We should defend their interests, and advance their right to self-determination as a people.