Is the YPG really a threat to Turkey?
The Turkish military is set to embark on another campaign in Syria but what is the actual threat posed to Turkey by the apparent target, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)?
The YPG’s stated aims include developing a 100,000-strong military force in Rojava, a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria. That’s something any government, whether in Ankara, Damascus or Baghdad, should rightly be concerned about. No entity other than the Syrian regime controls as much territory in Syria. YPG forces have been accused by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of forcefully displacing civilians from northern Syria.
The Kurdish threat to Turkey, however, largely evaporated after the 2016 terrorist attacks by separatists in Ankara and Istanbul. Neither attack was linked to Kurdish movements in Syria. Homegrown Kurdish resistance was crushed by military operations in south-eastern Turkey in 2015 and 2016 and, since then, it’s been largely dormant.
In Syria, the YPG and its political collaborators brought an unprecedented level of stability and security to the regions they control. The YPG survives and prospers because it has the broad support of the civilians under its rule. Often that support includes influential Arab tribes in the Jazeera region of Rojava.
The Islamic State (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra, the pro-regime National Defence Forces and other groups have all fallen by the wayside because of their brutality. That’s a path the Kurdish militias have not pursued.
Kurdish forces in northern Syria have proven an important bulwark against the chaos created by ISIS and with the governments in Baghdad and Damascus failing to provide public services and stability. Unquestionably, Syria, Turkey, Europe and the wider world are safer from jihadist attacks thanks to the Kurdish militias that brought about the territorial defeat of ISIS in Raqqa in 2017.
However, maintaining Syria’s borders is one of the few topics that unite the Syrian regime, its opposition and Ankara. This is why Kurdish aspirations for autonomy have little support. Even fellow Kurds in neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan broadly oppose the efforts.
Anyone who has spent time in Turkey recently knows that Kurdish nationalism in general and the YPG in particular are regarded with deep distrust, even scorn. The Turkish government has linked the YPG to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, despite the obvious ideological mismatch between the two.
Turkey blames Gulen for a failed coup attempt in July 2016 and it claims the YPG serves as the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is classified as a terrorist organisation by the United States and European Union but denies any such activity.
Regardless, what unites most Turks is their fierce opposition to Kurdish autonomy. This sentiment transcends the political divide — ardent liberals, religious conservatives and almost everyone in between.
That’s exactly what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attempted to exploit with military incursions into Kurdish-ruled Syria. By warring with the Kurds Erdogan seeks to appease and secure the political support of Turkey’s powerful ultranationalist politicians and their followers. The soon-to-be-announced operation east of the Euphrates River becomes particularly timely, even strategic, with Turks set to vote in local elections in March.
The expected operation would probably see Kurdish civilians in northern Syria flee or rebel, potentially causing a bloodbath in eastern Rojava, which is the most stable (if contested) region in Syria. The cost in lives to Kurdish fighters and civilians, as well as Turkish soldiers, far outweighs any meaningful strategic advantage the operation would bring. The destruction of the YPG and Kurdish governance structures would greatly damage progressive forces in the region. It is these forces that Europe and the United States can count on for support.
Despite the central role played by the Kurds in defeating ISIS and the trust that the YPG has built with US military leaders during the war against the extremist group, international powers are once again conspicuous by their absence. It’s obvious that Washington will choose Turkey over independent, progressive forces in Syria, even when doing so works against the beginnings of a democratic transformation in Syria.
The consequences of this probably won’t be significant in the short term but neglecting a movement that’s helped civic development and security in a region where such features are in short supply are likely to be far-reaching. Despite the important efforts they’ve aided in recent years, Syria’s Kurds may yet again be abandoned.