In July 2015, we discussed a potential future problem for America and the Middle East. The article, Following a familiar pattern, Syrian Kurds could be the next Middle East threat, stated that in the effort to fight ISIS and remove Syrian President Assad the Obama Administration is helping to destabilize the region. Specifically the key concern is the support of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the evolving nature of the tensions in the region.
The political connections and military actions of various groups involved in the Syrian civil war is similar to a spider web. Tendrils of mutual support and shared ideology reach out to splinter groups, complicating any US actions in the region. Thus the US support of Syrian Kurds (known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG) is connected to the PKK. The Turkish government considers the PKK a terrorist group, and that the YPG is directly aligned with the PKK. That connection is disputed by Russia and the US.
The Obama Administration, in October 2015, scrapped its plan to directly train Syrian rebels as frontline ground troops to fight ISIS and Prime Minister Assad’s forces. The program had cost $560 million and only created 60 troops, many of which abandoned fighting and surrendered supplies to ISIS directly. In response the Obama Administration embarked in a new plan of supporting existing anti-Assad organizations, which includes the YPG in Turkey.
This support of the YPG (and potentially the PKK) has raised tensions with Turkey. According to a report by Amnesty International, October 13, 2015, the YPG has conducted “forced displacement and unlawful demolitions” of civilians. Amnesty International believes this is a violation of international humanitarian law.
As recently as January 7, 2016, it was reported that the Turkish government was sharing its concerns of Kurdish expansion. The US has reiterated its desire to have ISIS contained to Syria, with the Kurds being a key part of securing the Turkish border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan authorized raids in Kurdish portions of Turkey that resulted in 300 members of the PKK being killed, as well as bombing Northern Syria – where Kurds have alleged civilians were targeted, which Turkey denies.
On January 13, 2016, the PKK allegedly set of car bombs in Turkey’s southeastern Diyarbakır province, killing 39 including 3 children. The US immediately denounced the attack. The next day, the PKK is alleged to have attacked 8 schools – no injuries or loss of life were reported in these attacks.
In the meantime ISIS has continued its efforts. A suicide bomber, who had infiltrated Turkey as a Syrian refugee and cleared background checks. The bomber, Nabil Fadli. set off a bomb killing 10 German tourists and injured 11 others in Istanbul.
This back and forth between the PKK, the YPG, Turkish and Syrian forces (as well as ISIS from time to time) is growing even more complicated with the entrance of Russia in the conflict. Historically Russia has had close relations with the Kurds, and recent military action by Russia has emboldened the YPG. As reported by the Wall Street Journal on January 14, 2016, the YPG has broken a Turkish ‘red line’, taking territory from ISIS on the western bank of the Euphrates. This has caused a situation where, as stated by Andrew Tabler, Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,
“So now it seems that the Kurds can play Russia and America off against each other.”
The potential for further destabilization in this part of the Middle East appears to be growing. The conflict between the US and its NATO ally Turkey is widening, even as the US is being drawn into a battle of influence with Russia. The spider web of factions and mixed regional interests is getting more tangled with the US deeply entrenched at every turn. While national attention may be firmly focused on ISIS, the stage for future conflict in the region is largely being ignored.