Understanding the Conflict in Northern Syria

Understanding the Conflict in Northern Syria



David Hutchins – Communications and Editorial Assistant, THO

Brief Contextual Overview

On January 20, 2018, Turkish forces supported by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) launched Operation Olive Branch, a military campaign against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria’s Afrin region.[1] This conflict has set up a potential collision course between two NATO allies, the U.S. and Turkey. With the fall of Afrin, Turkey threatens to continue this operation eastward to Manbij, where the YPG are directly supported by U.S. troops.[2] Since October of 2015, the U.S. has allied itself in Syria with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), believing this YGP-led force to be the best chance of removing ISIS from Syria.[3] The decision by the U.S. to train and equip the SDF has seriously strained relations with Turkey, a critical ally in the region, given that the YPG forces within the SDF have strong links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).[4] The PKK is identified as a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and Turkey.[5] As such, the U.S. is working directly with what Turkey views as a terrorist group, a viewpoint that the U.S. does not share. Turkey wishes to prevent the creation of an autonomous Kurdish statelet on its border that could serve as a training ground for YPG/PKK fighters planning to carry out attacks in Turkey. Syria’s Assad regime, supported by Iran and Russia, further complicates this already crowded geopolitical conflict, most recently by deploying pro-Syrian government militias to assist the YPG defense in Afrin against Turkish forces.[6] This factsheet aims to illuminate the different actors in this conflict and the history of their relations, while explaining how the U.S. and Turkey have reached this potential collision point.



Who is Involved and Why?
Breakdown of Factions in Northern Syria

The YPG and Its Affiliates
Although it is often said that Kurds make up the largest group of stateless people in the world, there is much that divides the Kurdish community in the Middle East. This ethnic group is split largely between Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Although the majority are Sunni Muslims, Kurds themselves are a diverse group spanning different tribes, dialects, religions, and political affiliations.[7] Kurds make up roughly 7-10% of Syria’s population (2016 estimate), with the majority living in northern Syria near the borders with Turkey and Iraq.[8] Syrian Kurdistan, often referred to as Western Kurdistan or Rojava, is also home to sizeable ethnic Arab, Syriac, and Turkmen populations.[9] Although historically an impoverished and marginalized minority denied legal status by the Syrian government, Kurdish communities have been able to achieve varying levels of de facto autonomy across substantial territory in northern Syria throughout the Syrian civil war. The most prominent example is administration by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is teaching Kurdish in schools and setting up local administrations.[10] The movement to establish autonomous Kurdish rule manifests itself within different groups across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Both the PKK in Turkey and the PYD in Syria fall under a larger umbrella organization known as the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) that seeks to impose the ideals of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan.[11] The YPG, the militant wing of the PYD, is only one segment of this larger movement. It is the YPG’s deep ties to the PKK that has Turkey on high alert. Many YPG leaders speak openly of their history with the PKK, and fighters from Iraq, Iran, and Turkey have joined the movement in Syria.[12] The PKK is considered to be a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the U.S. for its violent separatist movement inside Turkey.[13] In addition, Turkey has accused the YPG of preventing Arabs from returning to the land the group now controls, along with creating a fabricated democracy that is controlled by the PKK.[14] Part of the latter view is rooted in examples of other Kurdish political parties, such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Syria (PDK-S), facing intimidation and violence under PYD rule.[15] However, proponents of the PYD say they do not seek to divide Syria but rather to lead a long-term social revolution that will ensure gender and minority rights along with Kurdish autonomy.[16]

The Turkish Response
Since 1984, conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state has killed more than 45,000 people in Turkey.[17] This conflict has included direct clashes between the Turkish state and PKK combatants, as well as hundreds of PKK terror attacks throughout Turkey.[18] Throughout the conflict, Turkey and the PKK have alternated between periods of peace and violence. Following several failed attempts at peace, the latest of which ended in 2015, the Turkish government views a military operation as the best course of action for preventing further attacks by the PKK. The PKK’s connection with the PYD and YPG is Turkey’s stated reasoning behind conducting Operation Olive Branch, as Turkey believes Syria to be a platform through which PKK fighters are equipped and trained.[19] This belief originates from the fact that PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan headquartered the PKK in Syria for nearly 20 years prior to his capture. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that perpetrators of multiple bombings in Ankara and Bursa in 2016 had spent time in YPG military training camps within northern Syria.[20] To combat the YPG, Turkey has allied with the FSA, a collection of Syrian rebel groups opposed to the Assad regime and its allies.[21] The U.S. considers ISIS to be the main threat in Syria instead of Assad, leading Washington to back the YPG rather than the FSA.[22] Turkey has previously warned the U.S. of the dangers of arming the YPG to fight ISIS. However, the U.S. has sought to differentiate between the Kurds it supports in Manbij and those who fought against Turkey in Afrin, whom it does not support – a distinction that YPG fighters themselves do not recognize.[23] Thus far, the American promises of refusing support for YPG forces west of the Euphrates river, and the retraction of American weapons from the YPG after the defeat of ISIS, have not yet been actualized.[24] This continued U.S.-YPG relationship has Ankara worried that U.S. weapons will end up in the hands of the PKK.

Assad’s Involvement
On February 20, 2018, pro-Syrian government forces entered Afrin in northern Syria, joining the YPG in their fight against Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch.[25] In July of 2012, Syrian government forces had withdrawn from northern Syria in response to anti-Assad uprisings elsewhere in the country, leaving a vacuum for the YPG to occupy. The oscillating relationship between the YPG and Syrian government forces is best represented by the transition from direct hostile engagement in February of 2013 to joint cooperation against Syrian rebels in February of 2016, with both events occurring in the Syrian city of Aleppo.[26] Despite representing seemingly opposing political systems, Syrian government forces and the YPG have created a realpolitik alliance to contest common enemies such as ISIS, Turkey, and the FSA. However, in the case of Afrin, this partnership was unable to prevent Turkish forces and the FSA from taking the district. Overall, this alliance appears unstable, as Assad has vowed to take back all YPG-held territory and has described Kurdish governing bodies as temporary structures.[27] Assad and his Syrian government forces have been supported throughout the conflict by their long-standing allies Russia and Iran, who have much to gain from Assad remaining in power. Russia has blocked UN Security Council resolutions critical of President Assad with the goal of maintaining its oldest ally in the region as well as its naval facility in Tartus and air base in Latakia.[28] The consensus in Washington is that Russia also seeks to drive a wedge in NATO between the U.S. and Turkey. Furthermore, Iran is providing Assad with military advisers, weapons, and oil transfers in order to maintain Syria as a corridor through which to transit Iranian weapons to Shia militias like Hezbollah in Lebanon.[29]



How Did We Get Here? 
A Brief History Between Key Combatants

1962: In a census of Syria's Hasakah governorate, Kurds who cannot prove their Syrian residence prior to 1945 and those who fail to participate are stripped of their Syrian citizenship, rendering them stateless and unable to travel.[30] This status is hereditary, forcing descendants of these Kurds to inherit their statelessness.[31]

1978: Abdullah Ocalan founds the PKK, a Marxist organization with the aim of establishing an independent Kurdistan in the southeast of Turkey.[32]

1979: Abdullah Ocalan flees Turkey and finds refuge under Hafez Assad's protection in Syria, where he begins training guerilla militias.[33]

1984: The PKK begins waging an insurgency against the Turkish state that includes terrorist tactics.[34]

1997: The U.S. designates the PKK as a terrorist organization.[35]

1998: Under military pressure from Turkey, Syria signs the Adana Agreement committing to end support for the PKK, causing Abdullah Ocalan to flee Syria.[36]

1999: With help from U.S. intelligence, Ocalan is apprehended by Turkish forces in Kenya. In Turkey, he is then sentenced to life imprisonment for treason.[37]

2003: Affiliated with the PKK, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is founded in Syria. Its platform calls for the recognition of Kurdish rights and regional autonomy.[38]

2009: Then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government announces a “Kurdish Initiative” with plans for reforms to address grievances regarding lack of recognition of Kurdish rights. The effectiveness of the initiative wavers in response to nationalist backlash.[39]

2012: The latest round of peace negotiations begin directly between the Turkish government and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan with the intent to bring an end to three decades of conflict.[40]

July 2012: Bashar al-Assad’s military pulls out of northern Syria to fight rebel groups elsewhere in the country, leaving a vacuum that allows the YPG to inhabit the three regions of Kobani, Jazira, and Afrin near the border with Turkey.[41]

March 2013: Following protracted talks with the Turkish government, Abdullah Ocalan announces a ceasefire and an end to the PKK’s armed struggle.[42]

July 2013: Then PYD Co-Chairman Salih Muslim visits Istanbul, assuring Turkish government officials that the PYD is part of Syria and poses no threat to Turkish territorial integrity.[43] 

November 2013: Amid the ongoing Syrian civil war, the PYD establishes three de facto autonomous cantons in Syria's north known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, or Rojava, where it unilaterally declares autonomy.[44]

2014: Aiming to establish a caliphate in the Levant, ISIS takes control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria.[45]

May 2014: Then U.S. President Barack Obama announces the U.S. counterterrorism strategy to “train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces.”[46]

September 2014: ISIS attacks the northern Syrian town of Kobani. The attack is repulsed by the YPG with help from American airstrikes and Iraqi Kurdish fighters (Peshmerga), who are allowed by Turkey to transit through its territory. U.S. support for the PKK's affiliate results in tensions between the U.S. and Turkey.[47]

October 2014: The U.S. officially launches Operation Inherent Resolve, a combined joint task force with the mission objective of defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria.[48] 

June 2015: YPG forces and allied Arab rebels capture Tal Abyad, connecting the YPG-controlled regions of Kobani and Jazira and consolidating PYD-controlled territory from three non-contiguous regions to two. The Afrin region remains isolated.[49] 

July 2015: Turkey joins the fight against ISIS and begins bombing the group's positions in Syria while also allowing the U.S. to use Incirlik Air Base to support air raids on ISIS targets. At the same time, the ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK, declared in 2013, ends under increased tensions caused by the Syrian civil war and domestic political issues. The PKK insurgency erupts once again.[50]

August 24, 2016: After years of indirectly supporting the FSA, Turkey intervenes directly in northern Syria with Operation Euphrates Shield, backing FSA fighters against ISIS. An additional motivation for the operation is to halt the YPG advance west of the Euphrates river and prevent the group from connecting the cantons of Afrin and Kobani. This goal is largely achieved, with the YPG unable to advance west of Manbij.[51] At the same time, then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden states that the YPG will lose all U.S. support if it does not return east of the Euphrates river.[52]

May 2017: U.S. President Donald Trump, via the Defense Department, approves a plan to arm the SDF as the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS prepares to seize Raqqa.[53] U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis states that the weapons will be taken back after the defeat of ISIS, in addition to providing Turkey with a monthly list of weapons supplied to the SDF.[54] 

January 19, 2018: Russian President Vladimir Putin begins removing military observers away from northwestern Syria, clearing a path for a Turkish military operation.[55] 

January 20, 2018: Turkey launches Operation Olive Branch against YPG forces in the district of Afrin in northwestern Syria. These YPG fighters are not directly backed by the U.S., as they are not included in the fight against ISIS in eastern Syria.[56]

February 2018: Then U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to repair strained relations. Both countries agree to set up a diplomatic working group to resolve the dispute over the U.S. partnership with the YPG.[57] Just days later, pro-Syrian government forces enter YPG-held Afrin to assist the YPG against Turkey.[58] 

March 2018: The Turkish military and FSA forces capture the city of Afrin, defeating the YPG and pro-Syrian government forces.[59] President Erdogan vows to extend Turkey’s operation to Syria’s northeast, where U.S. troops are stationed.[60]

Endnotes

  1. Nordland, R. (2018, February 7). On northern Syria front line, U.S. and Turkey head into tense face-off. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/07/world/middleeast/us-turkey-manbij-kurds.html
  2. Erdogan vows to extend Turkey's operation to Syria's northeast. (2018, March 20). Al Jazeera. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/03/erdogan-vows-extend-turkey-operation-northeastern-syria-180320072120759.html 
  3. Wilkinson, T. (2018, February 16). Tillerson offers working group on disputes with Turkey. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from  www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-essential-washington-updates-tillerson-offers-working-group-on-1518811607-htmlstory.html 
  4. Lodge, F. (2017, September 22). The promises and perils of Syrian Kurdistan. The Cipher Brief. Retrieved from https://www.thecipherbrief.com/promises-perils-syrian-kurdistan
  5. Foreign terrorist organizations. (n.d.). U.S. Department of State.  Retrieved March 26, 2018 from https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/123085.htm
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  7. Who are the Kurds? (2017, October 31). BBC. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440
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  11. Stein, A., & Foley, M. (2016, January 26). The YPG-PKK connection. Atlantic Council. Retrieved from http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/the-ypg-pkk-connection 
  12. Barnard, A., & Hubbard, B. (2018, January 25). Allies or terrorists: Who are the Kurdish fighters in Syria? The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/world/middleeast/turkey-kurds-syria.html
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  25. Al-Khalidi, S. (2018, January 21). FSA commander says 25,000 Syrian rebels back Turkish force in Syria. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-ria-turkey-rebels/fsa-commander-says-25000-syrian-rebels-back-turkish-force-in-syria-idUSKBN1FA0OK 
  26. Kotan, B. N. (2018, January 4). Is Assad's dance with the YPG coming to an end? TRT World. Retrieved from https://www.trtworld.com/mea/is-assad-s-dance-with-the-ypg-coming-to-an-end--13909
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  29. Fulton, W., Holliday, J., & Wyer, S. (2013). Iranian strategy in Syria. Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of War. Retrieved from http://www.understandingwar.org/report/iranian-strategy-syria
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  57. Wilkinson, T. (2018, February 16). Tillerson offers working group on disputes with Turkey. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-essential-washington-updates-tillerson-offers-working-group-on-1518811607-htmlstory.html
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