Turkish Policies towards the (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat) PYD in Syria Complicate U.S. Efforts to ‘Degrade and Destroy’ ISIS
Contradicting regional agendas of the U.S. and its NATO ally Turkey towards Kurdish forces in Syria have stagnated efforts to fight Islamic State (ISIS). In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have become a successful rival against ISIS widely viewed as highly affective ground force. The organization took control of segmented northern Syrian regions in July 2012 and by January of 2013 declared autonomy. By 2015 the PYD successfully united two Kurdish controlled regions of northern Syria, Kobane and Jazeera. This effectively created Kurdish control along the majority of the Syrian-Turkish border, an area referred to in Kurdish as “Rojava”.
Meanwhile, the PYD is considered by Turkey to be a hostile organization particularly due to its historical connection with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which originated in Turkey. The U.S. State Department placed the PKK on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list in 1997, a policy that remains steadfast. The PYD has not joined the Syrian opposition committed to the fall of the Assad regime, another factor that has created tensions with Turkey. Despite the connection to the PKK and the policy towards the Assad regime, U.S. and coalition partners began providing air support to PYD positions in Syria September of 2014 and continue to coordinate albeit on a limited scale. The aforementioned factors contribute to a delicate and convoluted relationship between the PYD, Turkey, U.S. and coalition partners, and other regional actors.
The following report will review the complex relationship between the U.S., Turkey, the PYD, and other regional actors amidst ongoing efforts to combat ISIS.
Separate U.S. Policies towards Kurdish Organizations Fighting ISIS
U.S. foreign policy dictates separate approaches towards the Kurdish factions in the region including the PYD, PKK, and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. First, the U.S. State Department maintains that the PKK is a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). U.S. policy was publically reiterated during an August 11, 2015 State Department press conference where spokesman Mark Toner stated “We support Turkey’s right to self-defense against them” (PKK). The persistent U.S. policy labeling the PKK as an FTO is widely viewed as a diplomatic gesture to Turkey as a NATO ally. Meanwhile, the PKK has fought ISIS in Syria and Iraq and benefited from U.S. airstrikes supporting other Kurdish forces.
Second, unlike Turkey, the United States does not identify the PYD as a threat or brand it as a branch of the PKK. Deputy Spokesman of the U.S. State Department Marie Harf clarified U.S. policy on October 20, 2014 stating that “The PYD is a different group than the PKK legally, under United States law“ and that “PYD is not a designated terrorist organization”. During the same briefing the PYD’s historical ties to the PKK were acknowledged. The United States has supported the PYD since September of 2014, the beginning of the U.S. bombardment campaign of ISIS in Syria. Despite U.S. air support and some level of aerial resupply, the PYD has not been included in the U.S. train and equip program of Syrian rebels.
Deputy Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Twitter comment.
In the meantime, to Turkey’s dismay diplomatic relations between the U.S. and PYD have improved. In October of 2014 Secretary of State John Kerry made headlines stating that “It would be irresponsible of us, as well as morally very difficult, to turn your back on a community fighting ISIL” in reference to a U.S. weapons drop to the PYD and other groups fighting ISIS in Kobane. When the PYD received airdropped supplies by the U.S., Turkey’s Erdogan described the move as “wrong”. Furthermore, the highest level of PYD-U.S. interaction occurred in October of 2014, when Salih Muslim met with U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken. More recently, Salih Muslim offered PYD controlled territory to U.S. and coalition Partners to operate from against ISIS in August of 2015.
YPG post describing a U.S. airdrop of supplies.
Third, the United States has supported the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga in Iraq. Peshmerga units received and continue to receive a considerable amount of weapons, training, and intelligence from the United States. Additionally, the KRG is the only Kurdish governing organization to maintain an active diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C. Of the three major Kurdish organizations, the KRG is the more legitimate and supported by the U.S. While Turkey is the PYD’s primary state rival in the region, the KRG at times is a significant non-state rival. This is highlighted by 2014 reports that KRG built a trench to separate the KRG from Syrian Kurdish regions causing outcry from the PKK and the PYD.
Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve highlights airstrikes in support of Peshmerga units.
The Incirlik Factor
Turkey granted the U.S. and coalition forces permission to make use of the Incirilik air base on July 23, 2015. The first manned sorties targeting ISIS originating from Incirilik began August 12 with UAV missions having already begun.
While U.S. was granted rights to fly in an out of Incirlik and other Turkish bases, Turkey gained a partnership for the ISIS-Free Zone it has advocated for amidst the Syrian Civil War. This ISIS-Free Zone is planned to encompass the territory between the two Kurdish controlled regions Afrin and Kobane-Jazeera. The arrangement envisioned includes U.S. air support of various rebel factions and the Turkish military clearing ISIS out of a stretch of territory in northern Syria. The goal is to allow Syrian refugees a safe haven while building a safe training ground for rebel forces, from the Assad regime and ISIS. The 100-km long, 50-km deep zone is planned to run between Azaz, located north of Aleppo and Jarablus, West of the PYD canton Kobane. Meanwhile, this agreement will have profound implications for the PYD. Although the ISIS-Free Zone has the intention of fighting the extremist groups, it is feared that it may lead to an area where ISIS is exchanged for other extremist groups such as Jabat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham with little control by Turkey.
Deputy Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Twitter comment at Incirlik Airbase in Turkey.
One day after the U.S. was granted use of the Incirlik airbase, on July 23, 2015 the PYD claimed that Turkish military units targeted YPG positions on the Syrian side of the border. In a July 30 statement the PYD claimed that on July 24, 2015 “at 4:30 in the morning, Turkish tanks bombarded a position for the fighters of the People’s Defense Units (YPG) and the Burkan al-Firat (Euphrates Volcano Joint Ops. Room) in Zor Maghar village to the west of Kobani city”. And that On July 26, 2015 the “Turkish tanks bombarded our positions in the same village (Zor Maghar) with seven tank rounds; on the same day at 11:00 pm the Turkish army fired on one of our vehicles in Tel Fender village in west of Tal Abyad (Gire Spi)”.
YPG Statement referring to alleged July 24 and 26 attacks on YPG positons on behalf of the Turkish Military.
Reports of YPG being attacked by Turkey have diminished since July, while PKK-Turkey tensions have transitioned into warfare. Following the 2015 Suruç bombing and subsequent Kurdish retaliations, the PKK has been attacked heavily. Given that the events followed the opening of Incrilik, accusations have been leveled that Turkey has made concessions to the U.S. and coalition partners in order to carry out its agenda towards regional Kurdish actors. Turkey has reportedly killed hundreds of PKK members in Syria, Turkey, and northern Iraq since the beginning of the operation while PKK militants have attacked Turkish police, military, and infrastructure. The Turkish land and air campaign against the PKK will likely divert the logistical support the PKK lends the PYD away to the ongoing battles with Turkey. Turkish attacks on the PKK have potential to increase the political and logistical gap between the PYD and PKK. Despite this, Deputy Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, Brett Mcgurk, has stated that airstrikes against the PKK and U.S.-Turkey cooperation against ISIS are not related.
Ankara’s Concern with the PYD
The basis of Ankara’s concern regarding the PYD is the organization’s historical connection to the PKK. Turkish officials have equated the PYD to a terrorist organization and even “more dangerous than ISIS”. On July 25, 2012 Erdogan went as far as threatening to take military action in Northern Syria against the PYD. Later, in October of 2014 Erdogan was quoted stating that western air support for Kurdish forces was displacing Arabs and Turkmen while “putting terrorist members of the PYD and PKK in their place “. Furthermore, while Turkey has actively protected and promoted Islamist causes in Syria and around the region, the PYD is a secular leftist organization with a similar ideological background to the PKK, hardly compatible with Islamist governance.
Another contentious issue includes a disagreement over relations with the Syrian Bashir al-Assad regime. The PYD has been reluctant to directly oppose Assad, while Turkish foreign policy seeks the removal of the Assad regime from power. Reports of coordination between the PYD and the Assad regime came about in July of 2012 when the regime withdrew its forces from the majority of northern Iraq to focus on Aleppo. Additionally, the regime and YPG appeared to be fighting ISIS side by side in al-Hasakah in July of 2015, without fighting each other. Adding to this is the fear that a future Syrian government with an autonomous Kurdish region may host the PKK as it did in the 1980s and 1990s.
Despite, a strong opposition to the PYD and its relationship with the U.S., Turkey and the U.S. have maintained a cooperative strategic relationship. As recently as August 16, 2015 the Turkish Foreign Ministry released a statement that the “The U.S. and NATO commitments to the defense of Allies – including Turkey – are steadfast.” Such comments were made amidst the Turkish campaign against the PKK.
The PYD’s Position
The PYD continues to balance delicate relationships with Turkey, the U.S. and coalition Partners, the PKK, the KRG, and the Assad Regime. The constant variable in the relationship between the PYD and the various state and nonstate actors are opposed to ISIS.
U.S. support for the PYD in the fight against ISIS is welcomed and encouraged by PYD leadership. The first direct discussions between the PYD and the United States were reported in October of 2014. Highlighting military cooperation, the PYD co-chairwoman Asya Abdullah claimed that the PYD has prepared for coalition forces coordinates of ISIS locations for targeting.
YPG spokesman Redur Xelil appreciative of U.S. and Coalition support against ISIS.
The PYD is critical and skeptical of Turkish policies and intentions Syria frequently accusing the Turkish government of working in coordination with ISIS. A November 29, 2014 tweet from the PYD English twitter account read: “We urge the turkish government to refrain from its support and facilitation of #IS activity from within its own borders! #TwitterKurds“. More recently, the PYD has accused Turkey of giving wounded YPG seeking treatment in Turkey fighters to the Syrian Al-Qaeda linked organization Jabhat al-Nusra.
YPG Claims comment suggesting potential Turkish-ISIS cooperation in Kobane claiming that Turkish aircraft and flew over Sarrin Town and Kobane city while ISIS attacked YPG forces. The statement also requests that Turkey clarify the issue.
On September 16, 2015 Bashar al-Assad suggested that at current, the Kurds of Syria are not allies, however the Kurds are part of the Syrian “fabric”. While Turkey has advocated for the removal of the Assad regime, the PYD has stated that a negotiated end of the Syrian Civil War should include Bashar al-Assad. Such a policy is underscored by the PYD allowing for transport of supplies to isolated regime locations within PYD territory. Despite this, the Syrian Arab Army and the YPG have sporadically fought since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.
Official statements made by the PYD distancing itself from the PKK are believed to be an effort reaching out to the West as a strategic partner in the Syrian Civil War. This is highlighted from statements from the PYD co-chairman Salih Muslim that the PYD did not intend to transfer arms to the PKK. Additionally, distancing the PYD from the PKK is aimed at easing Turkish concern of an autonomous PKK region on its southern border. The increasing separation of the PYD from the PKK has enabled for the establishment of more independent diplomatic channels, underscored by a February 2015 meeting between French President Francois Hollande and PYD co-Chairwoman Asya Abdullah.
While the PYD strives to separate itself publicly from the PKK, ideological and structural influence of the PKK remains. The PYD operates schools for new recruits similar to those of the PKK that including subjects of politics, philosophy, and history. Academies of the YPG are similar to those of the PKK in the teaching of leftist revolutionary ideology. Furthermore, large photos of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan can be seen at YPG military academies. The mirror organizational structure is perhaps the most evident in the role of women in the PYD and PKK.
PYD Twitter feed reaffirming belief for gender equality.
Both the PKK and PYD have female leadership and fighters. Approximately 40% of PKK fighters are female. Meanwhile, about 30-40% of the PYD’s fighters are reported to be female. Additionally, one of the co-founders of the PKK was a woman, Sakine Cansiz. Similarly, both organizations have all women military units, in the PYD it is the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), and in the PKK it is the Free Women’s Units (YJA Star).
YPJ training camp graduation with photo of Abdullah Öcalan leaning against the table.
YPJ conference titled the Kobani Resistance Conference focusing on Women’s Resistance.
PKK Support for the PYD
In an August 15, 2015 interview with the BBC, a leading PKK figure Cemil Bayik stated that “the entire world knows that if Kurds in Syria, the YPG and the YPJ are advancing against IS they are organized because of the support of the PKK.” Bayik also expressed that the PKK views the U.S. support for the PYD as a “good thing”. The PKK remains supportive of the PYD’s “Rojava Revolution”, repeatedly calling for continued armed support of Kurdish forces in Syria. Additionally, in March of 2013 spokesperson Hacî Ehmedî PJAK, another affiliate with the PKK based in Iran called on Kurds from all regions to support Rojava.
In the meantime, the PKK has accused Turkey of attacking the PKK in an effort to stop the Kurdish fight against ISIS, therefore aiding ISIS. The PKK figure Cemil Bayik also stated that Erdogan’s aim was to “stop the Kurdish advance against them (ISIS)“.
Impact of Turkish Policy on U.S. and Coalition Efforts
To an extent, Turkey’s hostile policies towards the PYD have limited the U.S.’s ability to strengthen Syrian Kurdish forces fighting against ISIS. Turkey’s regional agenda impacts U.S. opportunities to aid the PYD logistically, politically, and militarily. Ankara’s status as a NATO country, and the opening of that Incirlik and other airfields decreases U.S. political leverage against Turkey regarding the PYD.
Turkey has sporadically closed border crossings with Syria creating a more complex environment for logistical coordination between the United States, coalition partners, and the PYD. Closed border crossings include, Maydan Akbis, Ayn al-Arab/Kobane, Tel Abyad, Ras al-Ayn, Al-Darbasiya, Qamishli, and Ayn Diwa. All of these crossings are currently between PYD controlled territory and Turkey. Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s refusal to allow U.S. resupply of Kurdish forces in Kobane through Turkey in August of 2014 highlights the uncooperative policy of Turkey regarding the PYD. Following the refusal the United States resorted to airdropping aid packages in October of 2014.
Turkish friendliness towards the KRG and hostility to the PYD, while engaging in battle with the PKK has stagnated transnational Kurdish cooperation and slowed the fight against ISIS. The PKK, KRG Peshmerga, and PYD forces effectively fought alongside one another against ISIS in 2014 in the Mount Sinjar Region (Iraq), Kobane (Syria), and Makhmour (Iraq). Present political conditions are not conducive to such cooperation. Instead of coordination with other Kurdish forces the PYD in Syria are more concentrated on consolidation of territorial gains, the fight against ISIS, and the evolving Turkish policies. Meanwhile, the PKK is battling Turkey which is conducting a large scale aerial bombardment and limited land campaign. Ankara’s policies are viewed by the PYD and PKK as an attempt to discourage a unified Kurdish front against regional actors. Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman recently claimed in a New York Times op-ed that Turkey’s policy of “disrupting logistics and communications links between the P.K.K. in Iraq and the P.Y.D. in Syria, Turkey is weakening the most effective ground force fighting the Islamic State in Syria: the Kurds.”
Meanwhile, the United States has provided arms and training to various Syrian rebel groups while the PYD has yet to receive such support. The PYD’s position on the Assad regime, its affiliation with the PKK, and the Turkish preference for a weak PYD has likely contributed to its lack of inclusion to the U.S. train and equip program of Syrian rebels. Given the negative reaction of Turkey to previous cooperation between the PYD and U.S. support for the PYD will likely continue to shy away from the public arena. Cooperation will become more a complicated issue as the Incirlik airbase opens and the ISIS-Free Zone in northern Syria becomes a reality. However, the opening of the Incilik airbase has positive and negative ramifications for the PYD. The group will benefit from closer and faster U.S. and coalition air support while its territorial gains across northern Syria will be come to a halt due to the ISIS-Free Zone.
That being said, on August 31st 2015, PYD co-chairman Salih Muslim invited U.S. and Coalition forces operate within its territory. Muslim additionally suggested that Free Syrian Army could operate and train from within Kurdish territory of Syria. The PYD has mimicked Ankara with its offer to host coalition and rebel forces. The public response of the U.S. and Coalition forces is yet to be seen, however, on September 16, 2015 U.S. General Lloyd Austin admitted that US Special Operations Forces were had some form of a working relationship with the PYD’s YPG forces. The welcoming PYD policy is likely in effort to strengthen U.S.-PYD ties given the unclear intentions of potential Turkish administered ISIS-Free Zone in northern Syria, neighboring PYD territory.
- Guido Weiss