Turkey’s unprecedented airstrikes in Iraq and Syria this past weekend could end up costing the American-led coalition a key ally in the fight against the Islamic State group and further complicate an already chaotic web of allegiances in the war-torn region. The recent attacks have already prompted some Kurdish factions to consider breaking ties with the international coalition and allying with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iran’s regional proxies, which could create a rift in Kurdish unity and degrade their ability to fight the ISIS militants.
The Turkish Kurdish factions fighting ISIS in Iraq were previously aligned with President Bashar Assad’s military when it was “useful” for the Kurds, Salih Muslim, co-chair of the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG), said this week. In light of Turkey’s actions, YPG fighters, who have been one of the main ground forces fighting the Islamic extremists in Syria, would not hesitate to do the same if the army made certain ideological changes and stopped targeting Kurds, he said.
“The People’s Protection Units can become part of the Syrian army,” Muslim told London-based Al-Hayat Arabic news Saturday. However, he warned, “there is no going back to the past.”
His statement came after a wave of Turkish bombings and a call for a NATO meeting to discuss a possible buffer zone at the Turkey-Syria border that could include a no-fly zone. Last week, Turkish military troops engaged in cross-border clashes with ISIS militants in Syria, which led to a larger air campaign in the country and eventually in Iraq. Though Turkey claimed the conflict was an expansion of its efforts to target ISIS, bombings in each country also hit Syrian Kurdish and Turkish Kurdish positions.
Syrian Kurdish units vowed retaliation against Turkey for the bombings, and though Muslim threatened an alliance with Assad, his request for a major change in the Syrian army’s ideology was unlikely. But Kurdish activists and politicians alike agreed that Muslim’s underlying message was clear: After the wave of Turkish bombings, Syrian Kurds were no longer going to rely solely on the American-led coalition for support and were looking for a more useful partnership in the event the current one didn't benefit them. That doesn’t guarantee a Kurdish partnership with Assad, but it doesn’t rule it out, either.
"Enemies unify Kurds, but politics always separate them,” Jack Shahine, a Kurdish journalist from the Syrian town of Kobani, told International Business Times. "But after all, Kurds are fighting…the worst regimes in the region, and they should look after their interests and benefits.”
United Against A Common Enemy
Kurds have also shown that they are strongest when united in the face of a common enemy. After the rise of ISIS last year, Kurdish factions from Syria, Iraq, Turkey and even Iran joined to become one of the most effective ground forces in Iraq and Syria battling ISIS with support from U.S. coalition airstrikes. Kurdish fighters battled ISIS in Kobani for months before ultimately pushing the militants out earlier this year. Their success was one of the biggest wins against ISIS, and it was only possible because of "Kurds who came from Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Of course the coalition forces helped in striking [ISIS],” Muslim said.
The Kurds were primarily spread across areas in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey, and each country was home to various Kurdish armed groups and political parties. Though Kurdish groups have had internal disagreements for decades, they have been known to unify when confronting outside threats, and their external partnerships have rarely been anything more than allegiances of convenience.
— goran (@goran199993) February 11, 2015
Certain Kurdish political parties claimed that the YPG had already gone rogue and made an under-the-table agreement that would distance itself from other Kurdish factions and the international coalition. The deal apparently involved both the Syrian regime and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters and happened without consent from the Kurdistan National Council, a coalition of Syrian Kurdish political parties, including the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), aligned with the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, which has historically friendly relations with Turkey.
“The PYD is coordinating with Assad and refusing to share power with the Kurdish National Council and allowing peshmerga to enter the Kurdish areas in Syria to defend it,” Dr. Zara Saleh, a Britain-based politician for the Syrian Kurdish Yekîtî political party told IBTimes.
The YPG, which is the armed division of the PYD, has denied this accusation and claimed it was not ready to give up on the U.S.-led coalition. For now, the Syrian Kurdish faction would only inform the international coalition of the "Turkish violations and that they are attacking our forces and our allied friends in the Free Syrian Army,” Newaf Xelil, a spokesman for the PYD, told IBTimes.
In light of the bombings, Kurdish groups were claiming they want a more direct line of communication with coalition members in order to sidestep any Turkish involvement, saying that Turkey's bias would only undermine the important role Kurds are playing in the anti-ISIS coalition.
"We will be more wary of tricks of [Turkey’s] Justice and Development Party (AKP),” Xelil said. "We will have greater coordination with the international coalition and greater transparency in dealing with the world, especially in the media, because the Turkish government is ready to do anything to disturb or sabotage the relationship with the international coalition.”
Iran's Proxies Bash Turkey
While Kurdish factions were waiting for direct support from the coalition, Iran’s proxies supporting Assad have been quick to offer their condemnation of Turkey’s action. The Syrian regime’s biggest backer has been Iran and its various proxy groups in the region. In Iraq, Iran-backed Shiite militias were fighting the same enemy, and sometimes alongside one another in battle, as the Iraqi military and Iraqi Kurdish forces. Despite their differences, many Iranian proxies and Kurdish factions agreed on one thing: Turkey was backing ISIS to fight to the Kurds.
The leader of Lebanese Hezbollah, a major Iranian proxy that is fighting with Assad’s army in Syria, condemned Turkey earlier this week for launching airstrikes on the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
“In a bid to protect ISIS from any harm, Turkey has targeted the freedom fighters of both the PKK and the [Revolutionary People's Liberation Party–Front],” Hassan Nasrallah said in a statement released Monday by Hezbollah media. “I have no doubt that Turkey helped ISIS, and sheltered it.”
— Mohanad Mezghiche (@Mzey415) June 1, 2015
Photo shows the flags of Hezbollah, Syria, Kurdish YPG and the Kurdish PYD hanging together in Hassaka, a mostly-Kurdish area in Syria.
Any potential alliance with the Assad regime or any of its allies in Syria would cause a rift in the Kurdish unity that has been essential to fighting ISIS.
“I can’t believe that he [Muslim] would do this, because more than 95 percent of Kurdish people don't like the Assad regime,” S. Kurdax, a Syrian Kurdish activist who fled the regime in Syria when protests began in 2011, told International Business Times. "He would be making a big mistake."
Despite Muslim’s comments, many Kurds doubted that he would actually form an alliance with the Syrian president and risk dividing the different Kurdish factions at a time when unity was so critical. That is, as long as the Kurds continued to receive support from the international coalition and that an agreement with Turkey was reached to end the fighting.
While Turkey remained an important member of the international coalition, the U.S. did not seem eager to lose the Kurdish allegiance. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was "concerned about reports of Turkish forces shelling Kurdish villages inside Syria," he said, according to a statement released Monday. Efforts between Turkey and the U.S. to fight ISIS "will be most effective in collaboration with local forces on the ground, including the Kurds," McCain added.
Future alliances with the Kurds would likely come down to which coalition can best support their goals. The rise of ISIS and conflicts in Iraq, Syria and now Turkey has presented an opportunity to create an official Kurdish state across those borders, some Kurds have said. However, one thing has become abundantly apparent: After decades of existing as a people without a land, the Kurds stand to lose too much by remaining loyal to an alliance that was not useful.
"This time is considered a historical moment for border change in the Middle East,” Shahine, the Kurdish journalist said. "So Kurds should act wise, play it wise, try to make the right deals with the right powers, unlike in previous experiences."