How the ‘Kurdish question’ complicates the anti-ISIS alliance

Updated 8:13 AM EST, Sun November 6, 2016
01:29 - Source: CNN
What are the Kurdish factions in Turkey and Syria?

Story highlights

Kurdish forces are among the most effective on the ground against ISIS

But their role in anti-ISIS operations has put allies at odds

(CNN) —  

Nowhere is the messy geopolitics of the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq more complicated than in the question of the Kurds.

The United States supports Kurdish groups in both Syria and Iraq as critical assets in the battle against the terror group.

But key US ally Turkey considers one of those groups to be terrorists – and says it killed as many as 200 YPG fighters in airstrikes in al Bab, northern Syria in October.

In recent days, the Turkish government has also detained nearly a dozen pro-Kurdish lawmakers, in what Turkey’s semi-official news agency Anadolu said was a terror investigation. Hundreds of people who turned out to protest against the arrests clashed with police in Istanbul on Saturday.

But across the border in Iraq, Turkey enjoys a close relationship with the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the north.

It even has at least 1,000 troops stationed in northern Iraq, training police and volunteers for anti-ISIS operations with the blessing of the KRG – and much to the annoyance of Iraq’s central government, another vital US ally.

Confused? Let’s break it down.

Female YPG fighters walk to a checkpoint on the outskirts of the destroyed Syrian town of Kobane.
Ahmet Sik/Getty Images Europe
Female YPG fighters walk to a checkpoint on the outskirts of the destroyed Syrian town of Kobane.

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurds are an ethnic group in the Middle East who have never had a nation state of their own, resulting in Kurdish nationalist movements across the region.

They make up a sizable minority in a number of Middle Eastern nations, comprising about 10% of the population in Syria, 18% in Turkey, 15-20% in Iraq, and nearly 10% in Iran.

Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, known as Peshmerga, and in northern Syria, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG, have proven some of the most effective fighting forces on the ground against ISIS.

Mosul: Most intense day of fighting since offensive began

Turkey is battling Kurdish militants

For decades, Turkey has been facing a violent insurgency from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK – a banned group that first took up arms against Turkey in 1984, seeking an independent state for the Kurdish minority concentrated in the southeast of the country.

Tens of thousands have been killed in the conflict, which resumed in earnest after a peace process collapsed in 2015.

The PKK is considered a terror group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkey considers Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists, while its ally the US supports them

The main Kurdish militia force in northern Syria, which lies on Turkey’s southern border, are the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, often referred to as the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish opposition party.

Turkey and others view the PYD and YPG as an offshoot of the PKK, indistinguishable from the separatist group banned in Turkey, says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at Chatham House.

Kurdish YPG fighters fighting on the front line against ISIS.
Tim Lister/CNN
Kurdish YPG fighters fighting on the front line against ISIS.

As such, he said, members of the YPG are considered terrorists, and Ankara has worked to drive them from Syrian territory along its southern border, fearing that an entrenched Kurdish canton there would fuel momentum for an independent greater Kurdistan that could claim Turkish territory.

When Turkish tanks rolled into northern Syria in August, their military efforts were focused not just against ISIS, but also the YPG – groups that were already fighting each other.

The Kurdish haven in the middle of Syria’s war

The United States, on the other hand, draws a distinction between the YPG and the banned PKK, providing significant support to the Syrian Kurdish group as a critical fighting force against ISIS and other Islamist groups in volatile northern Syria. This has complicated the relationship between Washington and Ankara, its NATO ally and key partner in the fight against ISIS.

For their part, the YPG/PYD acknowledge that they draw inspiration from imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, “but are careful not to link themselves openly” to the banned group, says Hakura.

But Turkey has a good relationship with Iraq’s Kurds

Despite Turkey’s tensions with Kurds at home and in Syria, it enjoys close economic and political ties with Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq, which lies to Turkey’s southeast.