Security and Foreign Policy

Continued Clashes Between Turkey and Syrian Kurds Endanger U.S. Action Against ISIS

Turkish clashes with the Syrian Kurds in Afrin have increased in the past month. Marc Barnett explains how the conflict between the two has the potential to endanger the United States' action against Daesh.


Turkish forces, bolstered by an Arab militia, close in on the majority Kurdish city of Afrin in northern Syria, close to the Turkish border. After almost two months of fighting and skirmishes, Turkish forces have besieged the city of 200,000. Ankara aims to push the YPG, a Syrian-based Kurdish militia, out of Afrin, due to its ties with the PKK, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey, as well as the U.S., considers a terrorist group. The YPG have formed the vanguard of the coalition against Daesh, or ISIS, constituting some of the most effective ground forces against the terrorist group in Syria, often closely collaborating with U.S. Special Forces as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Clashes with Turkey and pro-Turkey forces in northern Syria threaten progress made against ISIS.

In both Iraq and Syria, Kurdish forces have proven effective against Daesh, particularly in repelling ISIS advances against Kurdish positions. For example, Kurdish troops repelled Daesh military action against Kobane, a key battle — if mainly symbolic — for the northern Syrian city in 2014-2015, capturing the attention and imagination of the world media. Kurdish commanders and troops time and time again demonstrated themselves to be well-organized and well-disciplined throughout their ranks, proving to be a reliable partner on the ground for Western governments including the U.S. and Germany – who supplied lethal aid to the Kurdish militias, or Peshmerga. Iraqi Kurds and their Syrian counterparts were integral actors in the retaking of both Mosul and Raqqa, respectively, from Daesh. As Turkish military action continued in northern Syria against Afrin, many YPG soldiers left their positions in the SDF to protect the Kurdish majority in Afrin, weakening the fight against the Daesh remnants in the countryside.

The Kurd’s ambitions for a state have surely been stoked by military success against ISIS, hardening an already robust national and ethnic identity. In Turkey, the PKK, formed with a Marxist-Leninist ideological foundation in 1974, sought and fought for an independent Kurdish state carved out of southern Turkey and other neighboring states, including Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The PKK during the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s targeted local Turkish government buildings, police stations, as well as Turkish troops and kidnapping foreigners. In Iraq, Kurds maintain an autonomous region with Erbil as the capital. On the other side, Turkey has been a NATO ally since 1952 but has proved to be a difficult partner in Syria. The Turkish border was notoriously porous for incoming Daesh fighters into Syria. As clashes and skirmishes quickly escalate in Afrin between the YPG and Turkish forces, America has notably steered away from involvement.

As military action increases in northern Syria, continued momentum against ISIS has stalled and efforts diverted elsewhere. Similar to Iraq after the “Awakening” movement against what was at that time the Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), Daesh has melted away from strongholds and positions in Syria as the YPG-led SDF campaign continued. However, as seen in Iraq during the wake of the “Awakening,” ISI regrouped in the Iraqi desert, stoking sectarian divisions. Daesh remains dangerous, and continued military action will help to prevent security repercussions in the region and beyond. Daesh fighters can easily regroup and lay low in the Syrian countryside until coalition pressure subsides. Fighters could also travel to other conflict zones in the region, including joining with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in war-torn Yemen that could further destabilize the country. Daesh insurgents traveling back to their “home” countries, including to pro-Western regimes in Saudi Arabia and Jordan could further destabilize these authoritarian regimes, stoking extremists. Fleeing insurgents will also destabilize and increase sectarianism in an already weak Iraq teeming with Shia militias controlled by Tehran and Revolutionary Guards. As Western Daesh militants return to their home countries in the West, including Europe and the U.S., the risk of terrorist attacks rises. Especially in France, Germany, the U.K. and Belgium with approximately 3,700 ISIS recruits. “Repatriating” fighters significantly raises the security risk of further Daesh directed terrorist attacks in Europe.

Furthermore, a lack of finality in the coalition campaign against Daesh plays into the hands of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who previously exploited Western terrorist fears to strengthen his hold on power. Should ISIS regain a firm foothold, Assad can continue to exploit his position as a “defender against terrorism” and scapegoating Daesh for his own brutality. Mainly, if the Syrian rebels make gains against the regime and pro-regime forces, an ISIS resurgence looks particularly attractive to Assad. Continued Daesh presence in the region will also lead to continued U.S. military action, airstrikes, special forces, and an advisory role.

Ultimately, the Turkish assault on Afrin endangers U.S. success against ISIS in the region with potential security repercussions throughout the Middle East and Europe. The coalition must continue to pursue Daesh positions and fighters to reach a definite conclusion and prevent the flow of fighters out of the country and into pro-Western regimes in the region or Europe. With the YPG rapidly deploying to defend Afrin, coalition efforts against ISIS will surely suffer.

Marc E. Barnett is Legislative Assistant at VH Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based government affairs firm. In 2016, Marc graduated with a Master of Arts in International Relations from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and a Master of Public Policy from the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, Germany. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Political Science from Wake Forest University. During his graduate studies, Marc held various research and fellowship positions, including with the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs, Council of Europe, Transparency International-Secretariat, and International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.


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