Turkey-Kurd feud distracts from Islamic State fight in Syria

Aron Lund

Freelance journalist and analyst specialising on Syria, and regular IRIN contributor

A flare-up of Turkish-Kurdish violence in northern Syria threatens to undercut the US-backed campaign by Kurdish fighters against the so-called Islamic State in Raqqa, the extremist group’s main stronghold in the country.

Since Turkish air strikes and shelling killed dozens of Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq on 25 April, clashes have been ongoing along Syria’s northern border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now says he may order “at any time” and without warning an intervention against Kurdish groups in Syria he considers terrorists.

Referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition and its main constituent, the People’s Defense Units (Kurdish acronym: YPG), a new report from the International Crisis Group warns: “more extensive Turkish military action could seriously hamper a US-backed SDF offensive on Raqqa city by forcing the YPG to divert resources toward its own defence”.

The United States has called the air strikes “unacceptable” and deployed special forces to the border region, but the violence has yet to stop.

The beginnings of intervention?

The 25 April air strikes targeted groups affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria and Iraq, killing a large number of fighters in both countries. The YPG has released details on what it said were the 20 dead in its own ranks, half of whom were female cadres from its women’s branch, the YPJ.

“This was a strategic attack, since Erdogan hopes for us to abort the Raqqa operation,” SDF spokesman Jesper Söder told IRIN. “We have repeatedly tried to explain to the [US-led anti-jihadi] coalition that Turkey must be restrained,” said Söder, a Swedish volunteer with the YPG and SDF who is based in northeast Syria. “We have said that we will abort operation Raqqa if Turkey enters Rojava [the Kurdish name for Syrian Kurdistan] with an invasion force or if they are allowed to keep bombing our cities and headquarters.”

But since last week’s initial attacks, the Syrian border region has seen escalating violence and continued bombardment. The Turkish military announced that it had responded to YPG rocket attacks on 28 April, killing 11 fighters, while the YPG claims to have killed 17 Turkish soldiers the day before in northern Syria’s Afrin. “After this, no attack of the Turkish state will be left unanswered and strong responses will be given against attacks,” the Kurdish group said in a statement released on 28 April.

Turkey trapped

American calls to stop the violence appear to have fallen on deaf ears. At the root of the disconnect lies Washington’s and Ankara’s irreconcilable views of what the YPG is and how it should be treated.

The YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), are Syrian offshoots of the PKK, whose brutal, decades-long insurgency has been fuelled by the harsh anti-Kurdish policies of successive Turkish governments.

Turkey considers the growing influence of YPG and PYD forces within the SDF in northern Syria a major national security threat, but the US refuses to acknowledge ties between the PKK, which it calls a terrorist organisation, and the YPG, its primary ally against the jihadis in Syria. "SDF confirms that it has no affiliation or ties to PKK," US Central Command said on Twitter in January.

In Turkish eyes, the US position adds insult to injury. “The PYD was formed upon the directives of [PKK founder and leader Abdullah] Öcalan,” Bünyamin Keskin, who recently published a report on the group for the SETA Foundation, a think tank close to the Turkish government, told IRIN.

“This is not a secret and can be observed in several writings of Öcalan himself,” he added. “With its PKK nature, the PYD/YPG can neither be a partner for Turkey, nor a neighbour or an actor controlling neighbouring regions at the border.

Last August, Erdogan ordered his troops and Turkish-backed Syrian Arab and Turkmen fighters into northern Syria. While the intervention did secure a foothold for Turkey in northern Syria and prevented the YPG from connecting its territory to the isolated western Kurdish enclave in Afrin, Erdogan soon found that it did not provide him with the leverage he had hoped for.

Russian and US troops embedded with the Syrian government and the SDF/YPG, respectively, blocked any further expansion. On 30 March, Turkey declared that the intervention was over, though troops would remain in the areas it captured.

Since then, two developments seem to have been driving Turkey toward radical action, and they focus on familiar names: Sinjar and Raqqa.

In Iraq, Turkey’s interest is focused on the Sinjar area, which is at the center of an intra-Kurdish struggle for influence between local PKK affiliates and the Ankara-friendly forces of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. Kurdish rivalry in this part of Iraq has its own dynamics, but Turkey is anxious to help the KDP oust its local rivals.

Sinjar is also about to take on added strategic importance, since the Syrian government and the YPG are reportedly using their recent territorial gains to re-open a road connection from Aleppo to YPG-controlled northeastern Syria, for the first time in four years.

If the PKK secures control over Sinjar and the Iraqi government eventually ousts IS from Mosul and nearby Tel Afar, the Kurds with sit astride a land link stretching all the way from the Iranian border through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, bypassing all zones of Turkish influence. The PKK will benefit both by gaining a safe land route for trade and traffic to its Syrian and Iraqi holdings, and by using its position at the center of this network as a source of political leverage.

In Syria, Erdogan's eyes are on Raqqa. Not because he particularly covets that dusty and troubled provincial city, but because it has acquired an outsized symbolic value as the IS “capital”. To tear down the black banners now fluttering over Raqqa is to write oneself into the history books – and Erdogan has no intention of letting his Kurdish enemy become the knight in shining armour who slayed the jihadi dragon and saved the Western princess, especially not since he suspects it might come with a reward of half the Syrian kingdom.

Yet all through spring 2017, the YPG has powered on relentlessly toward Raqqa, backed by US air power. Washington has brushed aside a long line of increasingly unrealistic Turkish proposals for how to muster an alternative, non-YPG force to take the city, and at this point Raqqa looks likely to fall into Kurdish hands almost by default; the only plausible substitute is the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

From Ankara’s vantage point, the US has cornered Turkey in an untenable and deteriorating situation where it is forced to watch in impotent rage as the United States continues to protect, nourish, and expand a pro-PKK enclave on Turkey’s southern border. It is this strategic trap that the Turkish president hopes to break by striking PKK affiliates in Syria and Iraq and threatening another intervention in northern Syria.

What role for the referendum?

Internal politics seem to have played some role in determining the timing of Turkey’s escalatory gambit. Erdogan said already in early April that he was ready to order further action in Syria and Iraq, but he was clearly wary of upsetting voters before the 16 April constitutional referendum on expanding his powers as president. As it turned out, despite reportedly using emergency laws and state resources to secure a victory, Erdogan barely squeaked through with 51.4 percent support.

Michael Sahlin, a former Swedish ambassador in Ankara who is now a fellow with the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies, told IRIN that the slim margin was “a considerable disappointment for Erdogan” and could force the president to call snap elections to shore up his hold on power, even at the cost of scaring off investors and further upsetting Turkey’s ailing economy.

Erdogan’s Kurdish opponents also view the results with concern, albeit for different reasons. “When countries and leaders become more dictatorial, they become more dangerous for everyone,” PYD representative Sheruan Hassan told IRIN in mid-April, adding, “I think the coming period will be increasingly dangerous for us all due to this dictatorial style of gathering power that Erdogan is using.”

“I do not think the referendum [by itself] brought a drastic change in terms of leaving Erdogan's hands free or not,” added the veteran Turkish journalist and Middle East specialist Cengiz Candar, who spoke to IRIN prior to the recent fighting. But he argued that swift Russian and US endorsement of the results, which remain controversial among Erdogan’s opponents, had likely emboldened the president to push forward in Syria. The president’s priority, Candar said, would certainly be to check Kurdish advances.

Breaking stuff and building leverage

Hemmed in on all sides and backsliding strategically, Turkey seems to be lashing out mostly because of the lack of other options, hoping to force a reshuffling of the deck and build leverage, rather than to realise any one, specific end-goal.

Escalation has its own benefits: As Turkish armoured vehicles move to the Turkey-Syria border, all sides have been rudely shaken out of complacency and are recalibrating to account for Erdogan’s threats of full-scale intervention in Syria. “Unless Erdogan is restrained and stops his attacks, we will pause the Raqqa offensive to fortify our borders against Turkey,” the SDF’s Söder told IRIN. But that may be exactly what Erdogan wants to hear. By demonstrating that he could neutralise the SDF as a US partner in Raqqa, he may finally find the leverage over US policy that Turkey has hitherto been denied.

Ultimately, the increasingly aggressive Turkish military posture in Syria and Iraq seems to be less about inflicting material damage on the Kurdish groups than it is a bid to wring political concessions from the United States. Apart from wanting to end or at least reduce US support for the PKK affiliates, Turkey is also seeking to gain Washington’s ear on a number of other issues.

It is perhaps no accident that just as he was ramping up pressure along the border, Erdogan told an audience of US think-tankers that his “number one demand” from the United States is the extradition of the Pennsylvania-based Islamic scholar Fethüllah Gülen, whom he holds responsible for the July 2016 coup attempt.

How far he will push the envelope is anyone’s guess, but Erdogan likely hopes to have improved his bargaining position on a range of bilateral disputes before he heads to his first meeting with US President Donald Trump on May 16.

al/as/ag