U.S. policymakers across the political spectrum have recognized that to effectively combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the United States needs reliable allies on the ground to follow up on their aerial campaign. For a while, it seemed that Kurdish militias could provide this much needed support. Both Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have made significant gains against ISIS, while Kurdish resistance in the town of Kobane, Syria, drew widespread attention to their cause.
However, the U.S.’s long-standing ally, Turkey, has begun bombing Syrian Kurdish militias and has moved to block several key Kurdish groups from attending U.N.-sponsored peace talks.
So which side is the United States to support?
To understand this complex and controversial issue, a few key elements need to be established: who the Kurds are, how the Kurdish people are politically and socially divided, Turkey’s historical experience with Kurdish nationalism, and how the current Kurdish militias fit into this context.
During the rise of the Seljuk and later Ottoman Turkish empires, the independent Kurdish kingdoms were absorbed and their autonomy compromised. At the end of World War I, as the Ottoman Empire dissolved, the Kurds were promised self-determination at the . However, when Ataturk overthrew the Ottoman monarchy, he categorically refused to recognize an independent Kurdistan. In the infamous , Turkey and the European powers ignored the Kurdish plea for recognition and sought instead to incorporate them into the newly formed states of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria.
Most Americans understand the Kurds along these lines, as a marginalized group denied Wilsonian self-determination. However, it leaves out several key details and ignores how the situation has developed since then. The presentation of the Kurds as a united front is misleading, and ignores the lack of cohesion between and within Kurdish nationalist movements.
The most important separatist movement is the Marxist-Leninist , whose leader Abdullah Ocalan launched an armed insurrection in Turkey’s majority-Kurdish southeastern provinces in 1984. The conflict has raged on despite sporadic ceasefires, and the PKK has even survived the capture of Ocalan by Turkish agents in 1999 in Kenya.
However, the majority of Kurds in Turkey have by no means rallied behind the extreme and often fanatical views of . The People’s Democratic Party (HDP) secured 13.1% of the vote in 2015 elections by appealing primarily to the country’s Kurdish minority. While the HDP is seen by many as the , they reject the violent separatism of the PKK and seek the enfranchisement of the Kurds within Turkish democracy. Their electoral success on the national stage demonstrates that the majority of Turkish Kurds do not desire their own state, as claimed by the PKK, but simply desire that their rights be respected. Many of the HDP’s supporters in southeastern Turkey view the PKK and the Turkish government as for the continuing violence, and would like to see peace return to their homes above all else.
The situation in Turkey’s Kurdish provinces is complex enough on its own, but the Turks’ relationship with the Kurds in a regional context is even more so. Oil-wealthy and largely autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan actually enjoys with Turkey due to economic and oil interests. As a result, Turkey has responded well to the Iraqi Peshmerga, even allowing them to use Turkish territory to launch attacks against ISIS. This works well for policymakers in Washington, who have long nurtured close relations with Iraqi Kurdistan for its oil and post-invasion support. Furthermore, after years of controversy, Iraqi Kurdistan has disavowed all links to the PKK and no longer allows PKK fighters access to their territory.
However, in Syria, the dominant Kurdish group is the , and their militant wing, the People’s Protections Units (YPG). Both groups are closely associated with the PKK and advocate similar separatist positions. They deeply dislike Turkey and have no interest in remaining part of a fractured Syria. Turkey understandably fears that an independent, PYD-dominated Kurdish state along its southern border would become a permanent launching point for PKK offensives into Turkey. Turkey’s southeastern provinces are already ridden with instability, as evidenced by escalating violence over the past few weeks. An openly hostile PYD in ascendancy is dangerous to Turkey’s . While Turkey’s response to the situation is open to humanitarian critiques, it’s hardly as shocking as many make it out to be.
But how can the United States make the best out of the current scenario? As has been the case in Syria since the beginning of the conflict, there are no perfect solutions. However, Turkey is a far more reliable pillar for stability in the region than any of the fractious Kurdish groups and as Turkey grows ever stronger, U.S.-Turkish cooperation is set to become even more important. It would be a serious mistake to compromise a pivotal alliance in the Middle East for transient victories against ISIS.
One aspect of coalition building is recognizing the interests of coalition partners. In Turkey’s perspective, the United States has not been doing this due to their continued support for the YPG. As a result, Turkey feels it has less of an incentive to assert itself in the Middle East on behalf of American interests that do not necessarily align with its own. The United States must recognize that while Turkey’s refusal to include the YPG in a Syrian peace settlement is a serious obstacle for American policymakers, it is a relatively insignificant piece on the board for American grand strategy, while it poses an existential threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity.
While support for Kurdish nationalism may seem enticing, the United States cannot alienate more important allies in the process.