The nature of the conflict in Syria is changing shape again, with two important developments taking place over the past week. First, Turkey proposed cooperation with the United States in Afrin and Manbij, both of which are held by Syrian Kurds, whom the Turks consider hostile forces. Though no formal agreement has been reached, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the U.S. would work with Turkey to coordinate their actions in Syria. Second, the Syrian Kurds appear to be willing to work with the Syrian regime against the Turkish assault on Afrin. Pro-regime forces reportedly entered Afrin on Feb. 20, a move that would require coordination with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which controls the region.
This graphic maps Turkish military operations taking place in Syria between 2016 and 2018. To find out more about Turkey’s security situation and its military operations in Syria, see Fabien Merz’s recent addition to our CSS Analyses in Security Policy series here. For more graphics on defense policy, see the CSS’ collection of graphs and charts on the subject here.
The failure of Iraq, breakdown of Syria, and changes in Turkey have created opportunities for Kurds in all three countries. They are not quite the regional kingmakers that some Kurds have boasted they might become, but Kurdish political and military power is now a growing factor in Middle East geopolitics. This has produced not only unique challenges, but also new possibilities for U.S. policy in the region. As President-Elect Donald J. Trump shapes his administration and officials look at the Middle East beyond the battles against the so-called Islamic State in Mosul and Raqqa, they will have to come to terms with the Kurds, some of whom are intent on using their new clout and political developments around them to push for a sovereign Kurdistan.
It is unlikely that Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) or its fighting force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), or Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) will realize their objectives of statehood, but Iraq’s Kurds may be in a far more advantageous position to press for independence. Significant obstacles remain for Iraqi Kurds, but the combination of regional instability, the coming liberation of Mosul, and the state of Iraqi politics may help advance the historic goals of Kurdish leaders.
Last week, Kurdish forces fighting for the Syria-based Democratic Union Party (PYD) wrested control of the border town of Tel Abyad from the Islamic State. The seizure of the town cut off a key supply line to the Islamic State’s de-facto capital in Raqqa and allowed for the unification of two Kurdish controlled cantons, Kobane and Jazira, between which sits Tel Abyad.
The victory came after the Islamic State nearly defeated PYD forces in Kobane last October, before the dramatic increase in coalition air strikes helped turn the tide of the battle. During the Islamic State’s siege of Kobane, the United States set up a conduit for the PYD to provide targeting data to a military planning office in Erbil, which is then relayed to coalition aircraft. The PYD has since relied heavily on U.S. airpower to aid in their advance and eventual capture of IS-held territory. » More