How the Kurdish bloc became a security hotspot for Erdogan and the West

Kurdish-led forces have long been the backbone of the West driving Islamic State militants from Syria. But Turkey’s antipathy towards these groups jeopardizes not only the calm in Syria but also NATO’s expansion plans.

president Recep Tayyip Erdogan Has threatened to block Finland and Sweden from joining a Western military alliance because of their links to Kurdish militants that Ankara considers a domestic security risk.

Ethnic Kurds live in turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, but lack their own country. Erdogan has threatened to invade Syria again to deal with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it sees as synonymous with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which took weapons against Ankara in 1984.

But the YPG’s key role in the fight against Isis in northeastern Syria has largely ceased fire since 2019, meaning Western allies such as the United States, and even — some analysts say — Erdogan himself Willing to completely curb their operations in Syria.

Abandoning Kurdish forces in Syria “could trigger a collapse and chaos of violence, like we saw in Afghanistan last year. I don’t think it’s entirely credible that the U.S. would make that choice at this time,” the Century Foundation said. said researcher Sam Heller.

Ankara has long opposed Western support for the YPG given its close ties to the PKK. The alliance has plagued relations between Turkey and its NATO partners since its inception in 2014.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ©Turkish Presidency/AP

The U.S. is trying to make Turkey more receptive to the YPG by creating a Kurdish-led umbrella organization, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Western countries, including Sweden and the United States, support the group. It helped defeat Isis in 2019, backed by US-led coalition airstrikes.

Heller said the United States continues to rely heavily on the Self-Defense Forces to conduct anti-ISIS operations to stabilize post-ISIS areas and prevent its resurgence.

On Tuesday, the United States warned Erdogan against launching any operations in Syria, while the Self-Defense Forces said Turkey had “showed force”. . . is an attempt to destabilize the region and resurrect the remnants of Isis”.

Experts generally agree that the Islamic State is not strong enough to rebuild its former “caliphate”. But the fiery atmosphere and complex geography of northern Syria mean that there are still occasional insurgent attacks on the dormant cells.

The US-led coalition estimates that between 8,000 and 16,000 militants remain active in Syria and Iraq. Some 10,000 accused Isis members and thousands of family members are being held in SDF-run prisons and camps. Senior Kurdish officials have warned for years that these detention facilities are inadequate and vulnerable to attack. But despite calls from the SDF to do so, their government has been largely reluctant to send its citizens back for trial or rehabilitation. In January, Isis escaped from a prison in Hasakah, the group’s worst attack in Syria in years, sparking a 10-day battle with coalition forces.

To boost economic activity, Washington last month approved some foreign investment in SDF-controlled areas. U.S. officials said they had consulted with Ankara about the move. But while it’s unclear how much this has affected tensions, “I know the Turks are not happy about it. They’ve expressed that to the Americans and others,” Heller said.

Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) fighters leave the Turkish city of Akcakale for the Syrian border city of Tal Abyad on October 13, 2019
Turkish-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 repeatedly invaded northern Syria since 2016, targeting the Self-Defense Forces, and despite a ceasefire, both sides have been killed in tit-for-tat attacks. The threat of a new invasion “could be Erdogan’s bravado, or he might be stepping up his negotiating efforts on other issues. But you can’t rule out an invasion,” said Dareen Khalifa, senior analyst for Syria at the International Crisis Group. She said such an attack would lead to chaos.

Analysts say Erdogan is unlikely to bring his military into direct conflict with the U.S., but will seek to harm the SDF and weaken the U.S.-SDF partnership. The U.S. military is “unlikely to interfere with their treaty allies,” Heller said. Khalifa added that it was also highly unlikely that the United States would approve such an attack in exchange for Turkey’s acquiescence in NATO bids from Sweden and Finland.

The question remains what Erdogan wants.

Some analysts believe Erdogan may want to pressure the United States to approve the purchase of new F-16 fighter jets. Others see boosting nationalist support ahead of next year’s elections as a domestic political strategy.

For Erdogan, “Foreign policy is always about his domestic calculations
Consolidate power,” said Gunnur Tol, director of the Turkey Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington. By pushing the SDF away from the Turkish border, he may create enough space for the so-called “safe zone” where he can repatriate Syrian refugees .

Turkey said on Wednesday will not be in a hurry to give up the veto, after Turkish, Swedish and Finnish negotiators met in Ankara. Turkey first expects the two Nordic countries to take “concrete steps” over its demands, including the recognition of the YPG as a “terrorist”.

Regardless of how this issue is resolved, the issue of Western support for the YPG will continue to plague NATO partner relations. “This is an ongoing loophole that needs to be addressed,” Khalifa said, which Erdogan could continue to exploit.

Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul

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