How Kurdish group became security flashpoint for Erdoğan and the west

Kurdish-led forces have long been a pillar of western efforts to rout Isis militants from Syria. But Turkey’s antipathy to these groups endangers not only calm in Syria but also plans for Nato expansion.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to block Finland’s and Sweden’s accession to the western military alliance over their links to Kurdish militants whom Ankara sees as a domestic security risk.

Ethnic Kurds live across Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, but lack their own state. Erdoğan has threatened a fresh incursion into Syria to tackle the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it sees as synonymous with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) that took up arms against Ankara in 1984.

But the crucial role played by the YPG in combating Isis in north-east Syria, where a ceasefire has largely held since 2019, means western allies such as the US and even — some analysts say — Erdoğan himself would be loath to fully curb their operations in Syria.

Abandoning Kurdish forces in Syria “would likely precipitate a collapse, and chaotic violence on par with what we saw in Afghanistan last year. I think it’s entirely implausible that the US would undertake that type of choice at this point,” said Sam Heller, a fellow at the Century Foundation.

Ankara has long objected to western support for the YPG, given its close ties to the PKK. The alliance has embittered relations between Turkey and its Nato partners since its inception in 2014.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan © Turkish Presidency/AP

The US tried to make the YPG more acceptable to Turkey by creating the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led umbrella organisation. Western nations, including Sweden and the US, supported the group. Backed by US-led coalition air strikes, it helped defeat Isis in 2019.

The US continues to heavily rely on the SDF to carry out counter-Isis operations, to stabilise post-Isis areas and to prevent its resurgence, said Heller.

On Tuesday, the US warned Erdoğan against launching any operations in Syria, while the SDF said Turkey’s “show of force . . . is an attempt to destabilise the region and to resurge remnants of Isis”.

Experts largely agree that Isis is not strong enough to re-establish its erstwhile “caliphate”. But northern Syria’s febrile atmosphere and complex geography mean sleeper cells still wage occasional insurgent attacks.

The US-led coalition estimates between 8,000 and 16,000 militants still operate in Syria and Iraq. Around 10,000 alleged Isis members and thousands more members of their families are in prisons and camps run by the SDF. Senior Kurdish officials have been warning for years that these detention facilities are inadequate and vulnerable to attack. But home governments have been largely reluctant to repatriate their citizens for trial or rehabilitation, despite the SDF’s calls for them to do so. In January, Isis waged a prison break in Hasakeh, the group’s most serious attack in Syria in years, triggering a 10-day battle with coalition forces.

In an effort to boost economic activity, Washington last month authorised some foreign investment in SDF-controlled areas. US officials said they had consulted with Ankara about the move. But while it is not clear how much this contributed to tensions, “I know the Turks have been unhappy about it. They have expressed that to Americans and others,” said Heller.

Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) fighters leave on October 13 2019 the Turkish city of Akcakale for the Syrian border city of Tal Abyad
Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) fighters leave the Turkish city of Akcakale for the Syrian border city of Tal Abyad © AFP/Getty Images

Turkish forces have launched several incursions into northern Syria since 2016, targeting the SDF, and both sides suffer casualties in tit-for-tat attacks that continue despite the ceasefire. The threat of a fresh incursion “might be a bluff by Erdoğan, or he might be strengthening his hand to negotiate on other issues. But you can’t rule out an incursion,” said Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group. She said such an attack would lead to chaos.

It is unlikely Erdoğan would bring his troops into direct conflict with the US, analysts say, but would instead seek to injure the SDF and make the US-SDF partnership less tenable. US forces are “unlikely to intervene against their treaty ally”, Heller said. The US is also highly unlikely to greenlight such an attack in exchange for Turkey acquiescing to Sweden’s and Finland’s Nato bids, Khalifa added.

The question remains about what Erdoğan hopes to gain.

Some analysts suggest Erdoğan might want to pressure the US into granting approval for its request to buy new F-16 fighter jets. Others suggest it is a domestic political ploy to boost nationalist support ahead of elections next year.

For Erdoğan, “foreign policy is always about his domestic calculations
to consolidate power”, said Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey programme in Washington. By pushing the SDF away from the Turkish border, he may create enough space for a so-called “safe zone” to which he could return Syrian refugees.

On Wednesday, Turkey said it would not be rushed to drop its veto, following a meeting between Turkish, Swedish and Finnish negotiators in Ankara. Turkey first expects “concrete steps” from the two Nordic states on its demands that include recognising the YPG as “terrorists”.

However this is resolved, the question of the western support for the YPG will continue to plague the NATO partners’ relationships. “It’s an ongoing vulnerability that’s going to need to be addressed,” Khalifa said, one that Erdoğan can keep exploiting.

Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul

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