Skip to main content

Kurdish Advance in Syria Reveals U.S.-Turkey Divide

The United States and Turkey, sworn allies in public, reveal undercurrents of friction when it comes to the Kurds in Syria.

The United States has turned to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) as reliable partners on the ground in Syria in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), but Turkey has long been uncomfortable with the advances of Syrian Kurds on its border.

Turkey, engaged in a lagging peace process after decades of civil conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered closely related to the PYD, fears that the emergence of an independent Kurdish entity on its border may inflame separatist tensions within Turkey. There had been hope, however, that the strong showing of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and the weak performance of the ruling AKP, in Turkey’s June 2015 parliamentary election, would provide impetus to Ankara to reinvigorate the domestic peace process and reconsider its Syria policy.

Those hopes appear to have been dashed in a new round of fighting between the YPG and ISIS. As Syrian Kurds continue to advance into ISIS-controlled territory, Turkey has accused Kurdish groups of carrying out “ethnic cleansing” in Northern Syria in an attempt to redraw Middle Eastern borders and create a Kurdish state. After renewed attacks on the symbolic Syrian town of Kobani—which Turkey was accused of facilitating—there are reports that Turkey is considering unilateral military action in Syria that would undermine the Kurds.

Seizure of Tel Abyad

In mid-June, Syrian Kurds advanced on the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad, seizing it on June 15. Tel Abyad is the nearest border town to ISIS’s de facto capital of Raqqa, and has provided ISIS with a key route for smuggling supplies and foreign fighters through the Turkish border and selling black market oil. With the seizure of Tel Abyad, Kurds now control approximately 250 miles of the 560-mile long Turkish-Syrian border, cutting ISIS militants off from critical supply and recruitment lines that run through Turkey.

Throughout the conflict, Turkish authorities have been accused of providing material support to extremist groups operating in Syria, including unfettered access to the Turkish-Syrian border, providing electricity to ISIS, and allowing ISIS to send its militants for treatment in Turkish hospitals.

While Western analysts celebrated the Kurdish advance on Tel Abyad, declaring that it “shows that the Islamic State group is weaker than it seems despite their earlier victories,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fulminated against it, accusing the West of supporting Kurdish “terrorist” groups. “On our border, in Tel Abyad, the West, which is conducting aerial bombings against Arabs and Turkmens, is unfortunately putting terrorist members of the PYD and PKK in their place,” Erdoğan said, accusing Kurdish groups in Syria of ethnic cleansing, claims that have been echoed by other government officials. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said that Tel Abyad residents fleeing to Turkey were escaping fighting, and that there was no systematic campaign to force people out.

Renewed Fighting in Kobani

After losing Tel Abyad, ISIS militants launched a two-pronged offensive in Kobani and the Assad regime-controlled northeastern city of Hassakeh. Kobani was the site of a prolonged siege in late 2014, with ISIS forced out of the Syrian Kurdish border town in January 2015 in a triumphant victory for the Kurds that elevated their global image.

During the assault on Kobani, Turkey initially refused to allow Kurdish fighters to travel through its territory to provide reinforcements and closed the border to Turkish Kurds who wished to join the fighting. Turkey’s perceived apathy towards Kobani and refusal to aid Syrian Kurds also sparked domestic unrest in 2014, with nationwide protests resulting in dozens of casualties. After a U.S. airdrop of supplies to the Syrian Kurdish defenders and massive public disapproval of its policies in Syria, Turkey eventually allowed members of the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga to travel to Kobani through Turkey.

Five months after being forced out, ISIS reentered Kobani with a car bomb attack and ground offensive, in which ISIS militants were reportedly wearing Kurdish and Free Syrian Army (FSA) uniforms.

Syrian state television claimed that the militants traveled through Turkish territory to mount the attack, suggesting Turkey’s complicity. The Turkish government, however, denied these accusations, insisting that ISIS militants attacked Kobani from the Syrian town of Jarablus. “By using the latest attack in Kobani as a pretext, some dirty circles are attempting to put Turkey on the target board. As they have long been doing, they are trying to make Turkey the subject of a smear campaign,” said Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş.

Kurds in Turkey, however, did not accept the government’s denials. “The whole world knows the Turkish government has supported ISIS for years. Today’s massacre is a part of this support,” said Figen Yüksekdağ, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP in Turkey. “Why have ISIS militants, on many occasions, easily slipped through the Turkish border, but not on this one when they attacked Kobani? It is unfathomable,” she added.

On June 27, Kurdish forces announced that they had successfully repelled ISIS militants, though clashes continued in areas surrounding the town. Now, the Turkish government is reportedly considering unilateral action in Syria to combat ISIS that would also serve to undermine the Kurds: providing increased support to the FSA to counter U.S. support for the Kurds, and creating a “safe zone” within Syria that would divide its Kurdish-controlled cantons, preventing the PYD from consolidating its territory on Turkey’s border.

Turkey, the Kurds and the United States

While the United States and Turkey have appeared, on the surface, to cooperate in the fight against ISIS—namely by agreeing to host a train-and-equip program for Syrian rebels—major divisions, including the role of the Kurds and whether efforts in Syria should be focused on ISIS or the Assad regime, preclude further cooperation. When it comes to the Kurds, disagreements cause Turkey and the United States to work at cross purposes, with the United States providing support to Kurdish fighters and Turkey seeking to limit the Kurds’ power and influence.

Nothing makes this divide more clear than Turkey’s continued refusal to allow U.S. and coalition forces to use its İncirlik air base, located only 62 miles from the Syrian border and less than 300 miles from ISIS’ stronghold in Raqqa, for combat missions against ISIS or even military search-and-rescue operations. Instead, U.S. missions have to be flown from the Gulf or aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, limiting the number of operations and increasing their cost.

The Turkish government’s reaction to Kurdish victories in Syria and continuing allegations of support for ISIS show that—despite the outcome of Turkey’s recent elections—the gulf between U.S. and Turkish priorities in Syria remains as wide as ever.

Read Next