Before the civil war, few outside the Middle East had ever heard of Syria’s Kurds. Syria has by far the smallest Kurdish population of the four countries with Kurdish minorities.
However, the Syrian Kurds have risen to international prominence as their most powerful political group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has built its People’s Protection Units (YPG) into one of the most formidable fighting forces in the Syrian civil war. This force has gradually become the backbone of U.S.-led anti-ISIS operations in the country, and the PYD has become the largest landowner in Syria, next to the regime of President Bashar al Assad.
Buoyed by these successes, Syria’s Kurds are now on the verge of achieving their dream of establishing a permanent and stable autonomous state in Syria. However, they face a serious obstacle in the form of the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which views the PYD as an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the Kurdish insurgency responsible for a series of bombings and attacks on Turkish security forces.
Now, as President Donald Trump decides whether to double down on U.S. support for the Kurds and as Turkey promises to scale back its military intervention in Syria, who are the Syrian Kurds and what comes next for this new power player?
In the early years of Syria’s civil war, the Kurds played a relatively limited, cautious role. Historically, the Syrian government has not shied away from cracking down hard on the country’s Kurdish minority. In the 1960s, the Syrian regime stripped almost 20 percent of the country’s Kurdish population of citizenship. Its security forces have regularly responded to dissent or efforts to promote Kurdish autonomy with violent repression. Thus, says Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at CSIS, the Kurds largely “kept out of the conflict in the beginning as much as they could.”
However, as the war intensified in 2012, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) merged with the Kurdish National Council (KNC) – funded by Massoud Barzani, leader of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region – to form a Kurdish Supreme Committee (KSC), which created the People’s Protection Units (YPG). This new Kurdish militia quickly swept through northern Syria, capturing key cities like Kobani in the northeast and Afrin in the northwest. At the same time, the PYD quickly rose to political prominence in Syrian Kurdistan, sidelining the KNC and abandoning the KSC in 2013. By 2014, the PYD had consolidated control over much of the three cantons of Kurdish Syria – Kobani, Jazira, and Afrin – and declared the creation of an autonomous “Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria.”
U.S. support for the PYD and YPG began in earnest after this semi-autonomous region, commonly known by its Kurdish name “Rojava,” came under ISIS attack in 2014. In particular, the siege of Kobani, which the YPG won decisively in early 2015, cemented this relationship by drawing more concrete American military support and by demonstrating the skill and tenacity of YPG fighters in the face of a grueling ISIS assault. Following this battle, the Kurds gradually became America’s go-to allies on the ground in Syria. And, says Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation, when a key component of the U.S. “train-and-equip program [in Syria] collapsed in October 2015, Washington asked the PYD and its military arm, the YPG to assemble an Arab coalition to continue the initiative under its aegis.”
This coalition, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has cobbled together an ethnically diverse group of militias, including Arab, Armenian, Circassian, and Chechen fighters. However, the Kurdish YPG provides the definitive backbone of SDF military capabilities. Today, as the Trump Administration accelerates the U.S.-led military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Washington is pouring new resources into the SDF in preparation for the siege of Raqqa, ISIS’ capital. “This month,” says Barfi, the U.S. “dispatched 400 troops from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit” to bolster the SDF – in effect, the YPG.
This swift rise of the Syrian Kurds, and especially the outpouring of U.S. military support for the SDF, has not gone down well in Turkey. Before 2014, Ankara’s stance toward the Syrian PYD was somewhat ambivalent. According to Bulent Aliriza, “the PYD maintained contact with Ankara… [and] PYD leaders even made a number of visits to Turkey.” But that tenuous relationship began to break down once the PYD began fighting ISIS in earnest; it eventually collapsed into open hostility, especially after Turkish peace talks with the PKK ended in 2015.
The Erdogan government distrusts the PYD, considering it closely linked to the PKK and is also wary of the inspirational effect an autonomous Rojava would exert on the large Kurdish minority in Turkey. Erdogan now defines the PYD, particularly its presence along Turkey’s southern border, as an existential national security threat to Ankara. According to Barfi, “though the Turks ostensibly entered Syria in August 2016 [in Operation Euphrates Shield] to fight ISIS, their real target was the PYD.” This intervention has driven Free Syrian Army (FSA) Arab rebels, under the Euphrates Shield coalition, and Turkish troops deep into Syria, capturing a thin column of ISIS-held territory from the Turkish border down to the strategically-located city of Al Bab.
Once Euphrates Shield captured Al Bab, Erdogan quickly turned his forces east earlier this month to advance on the SDF-held town of Manbij in an effort push the SDF and Kurds away from the western bank of the Euphrates. However, this attack quickly stalled. SDF forces withdrew from a line of towns on the border, allowing Russian and Syrian government forces to enter and create a buffer zone against Turkish-backed forces.
At the same time, Washington dispatched U.S. troops to Manbij and the surrounding area in order to deter skirmishes, while Russia agreed to place a military training base in the isolated Kurdish canton of Afrin in northwestern Syria. During U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Ankara yesterday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced that “Operation Euphrates Shield has been successful and is finished,” possibly ruling out further Turkish advances against the SDF in Manbij.
The autonomous Kurdish quasi-state in Syria is by no means secure. Afrin is surrounded by Turkey, Euphrates Shield-linked rebels, jihadist groups, and Syrian government troops. Even if Turkey cancels the Euphrates Shield operation, it still has wide scope to assault Kurdish-held territory along its southern border. And Turkey continues to request that the U.S. cut off support to the PYD, a sentiment reiterated during Tillerson’s visit. However, for the moment, the Kurds are the largest landowner in Syria beside the Assad regime, and Kurdish troops comprise the core fighting component of the only force realistically capable of taking Raqqa from ISIS. In effect, Syria’s tiny Kurdish region has risen to become the key U.S. ally in the war-torn landscape and one of its most influential power brokers.
Fritz Lodge is an international producer at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @FritzLodge.