The Syrian Kurds: Whose Ally?
The United States should encourage rapprochement between Turkey and the PYD.
- Current U.S.-Turkish relations regarding the PYD can be defined as a working detente.
- Russia hopes Syrian Kurdish autonomy will provide it longterm leverage on Turkey and Erdogan.
- If the US can patch up Turkey's relations with Syrian Kurds, it will improve security for both.
- Syrian Kurds have an autonomous future with US support or Russian support, two different trajectories.
The Kurdish political landscape is divided across countries and political lines. On the one hand, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) fall under the same Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), an umbrella organization established by the PKK.
On the other hand, things are looking good for Ankara in Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), where Turkey has built close ties through economic, military and security cooperation.
Even there, however, power is contested between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which favors Turkey and stands against the PKK/PYD, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which favors Iran and shares its sympathies for the PKK/PYD.
Current U.S.-Turkish relations regarding the PYD can be defined as a working detente. Ankara is fine with Washington helping the group in operations east of the Euphrates River, but not west of it.
And Washington is fine with Turkey hitting the PYD from areas near the border, even as the United States works with the group near Raqqa, deeper inside Syria. This compartmentalization has worked so far.
However, it could run into pitfalls if the weapons Washington is giving the PYD end up in the PKK’s hands, or if Turkey accidentally hits embedded U.S. personnel while targeting PYD positions near the border.
The biggest threat to this working detente, though, is Russia’s entry into the conflict. The PYD’s self-declared autonomous region along portions of Syria’s border with Turkey (called “Rojava”) gives Moscow three tools in one fell swoop — a permanent lever in Syrian domestic politics, another potential foothold in the Middle East, and a lever against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Russia’s desire to undermine Erdogan after Turkey shot down a Russian military jet in November is well known, so the United States should work with Ankara to prevent Rojava from becoming the Kremlin’s security client.
Moreover, the PYD has yet to show that it can coexist with Arabs, Turkmens and other ethnic groups when it takes over territory.
Until it passes this litmus test, its appeal will remain largely limited to Kurds and its forces will risk being seen as occupiers in Arab lands when they score victories against IS.
For its part, the PKK has been unrealistic in its goals, attempting to take over cities in Turkey and declare autonomy as the PYD did in Kobane, Syria.
Not only has this strategy failed, it has also decimated the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a major pro-Kurdish political faction in Turkey.
The party’s popularity has imploded since the PKK resumed violent operations, diminishing hopes that Turks might soon embrace Kurdish demands for political and cultural rights.
The PKK may also have inadvertently rewarded Erdogan — the Turkish president is hoping to boost his image as a right-wing strongman, and renewed war with the PKK is helping him do exactly that.
Erdogan might even be able to peel off enough votes from the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) to build a popular majority. That would allow him to amend the constitution via referendum and transform Turkey into an executive-style democracy with him at the top.
What Washington needs to do
Accordingly, the United States should encourage rapprochement between Turkey and the PYD. This would give Ankara a cordon sanitaire against the Syrian war, bolster the PYD as a U.S. ally against IS and prevent Russia from establishing a deep security relationship with the Syrian Kurds.
Such a goal would be more realistic if Turkey and the PKK reached a ceasefire. Washington could also use its leverage with the KDP to encourage the PYD to break off from the PKK, especially since the Iraqi Kurds control the only access route to Rojava other than Turkey.
In sum, there are two trajectories for the PYD going forward: establishing a contiguous Russian-backed Kurdish zone in northern Syria, or working with the United States while breaking away from the PKK.
To facilitate the latter scenario, Washington should point out that if Ankara does not take the PYD’s hand, the Syrian Kurds and even the PKK could become Moscow’s security clients, with grave security ramifications for Turkey.