The U.S.-YPG Relationship: U.S. Foreign Policy & the Future of the Kurds in Syria and Turkey

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Esra Gürçay

Intern at Middle East Policy Council

U.S. military support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), has been an enduring problem for the U.S. relationship with Turkey, one of its historical allies in the Middle East since World War 1. For the last four decades, Turkey has been waging a war on the PKK, a Marxist-separatist guerrilla group designated by both the U.S. and Turkey as a terrorist organization. Since the PKK has deep ties with the YPG, the latter and its political representative the Democratic Union Party (PYD) have also become targets. The United States, however, has supported the YPG because it has been the most effective force on the ground in combating ISIS. Thus far, the U.S. has resisted calls by Turkey to halt its financial and military support for the YPG. 

Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s response has been far from subtle. It has conducted two military operations into northern Syria: Operation Euphrates Shield (2016-2017), which primarily targeted ISIS but eventually transformed into a battle against the YPG, and Operation Olive Branch (2018), which directly targeted the PKK and YPG in Afrin. In a time when relations between Turkey and the U.S. are on a sharp decline — not only because of the Kurdish issue but also due to Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system and the U.S. refusal to extradite Fetullah Gülen, the alleged plotter of Turkey’s failed coup attempt in 2016 — the future of the U.S.-YPG relationship plays an important role in determining relations between the two countries.

Middle East Policy Council intern Esra Gürçay has conducted interviews with a number of experts in the field on their analysis of the future of the U.S.-YPG relationship, the Syrian Kurds and Turkey’s Kurdish problem. Here is a brief introduction to our interviewees:

Daniel Benaim is a senior fellow at The Center for American Progress as well as a former Middle East advisor and speechwriter to former Vice President Joe Biden.

Dr. Henri J. Barkey is the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Chair of International Relations at Lehigh University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has written extensively on Turkey, the Kurds and other issues.

Dr. Michael M. Gunter is a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University and an expert on the Kurdish issue, authoring five critically acclaimed books on the Kurds. 

Dr. Soner Çağaptay is the Beyer Family Fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has written extensively on Turkey, its Middle East policy and the political trajectory of President Erdoğan.

Dr. Hakan Yavuz is a professor of political science at the University of Utah and has written extensively on political Islam, Turkey and the Kurdish struggle.


What motivated the U.S. to support the Syrian Kurds?

‘’In 2014, the Obama administration set out a strategy to defeat ISIS in 3 years. Obama was very skeptical about putting American troops back into combat on the ground in Iraq and Syria, so he would work through local partners,’’ explains Daniel Benaim. In 2014, when Mosul was captured by ISIS, it became apparent to the U.S. that ISIS was a problem that had to be addressed. Yet after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where nearly 7,000 American troops lost their lives, American public opinion was largely against direct military involvement in conflicts abroad.

Initially, the U.S. attempted to arm the Syrian opposition, yet not only were there various jihadi factions within the opposition, but they also proved to be ineffective in the fight against ISIS. On the other hand, U.S. leadership saw that it wouldn’t be able to rely on its traditional ally Turkey. When ISIS besieged the Kurdish-majority city of Kobane in September 2014, Turkish troops positioned right across the border from Syria chose not to intervene in the destruction of the city and the massacre of its civilian population. Turkish leadership decided that, in lieu of fighting alongside the YPG and allowing it to grow stronger, it would let ISIS take over Kobane. Turkey also allowed foreign fighters ‘’to freely move across its borders and into Syria, where they then joined up with terrorist groups,’’ added Benaim. At the time there were also accusations of much more direct cooperation between Turkey and jihadi groups, brought to light by the scandal in 2014 where trucks owned by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) were caught allegedly smuggling weapons to Islamist-held territories in Syria.

Thus, “seeing Turkey’s unwillingness to contribute to the effort, the YPG was the only group capable of fighting ISIS,’’ said Benaim. ‘’The truth is, the decision to support the YPG was one of naked practicality. The U.S. had no real prior contact with the group and didn’t know them very well – but they were enemies of ISIS, the paramount U.S. enemy in the region, and over time it became even clearer that these Syrian Kurds were the most effective force against ISIS.’’

If the U.S.-YPG relationship has been this strong, what can we make out of Trump’s announcement to withdraw American troops from Syria in December 2018? 

U.S. support for the YPG has been relatively steady since 2014, despite Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops in December 2018. According to Professor Henri Barkey, “there were 2000 American soldiers and 200 would be left behind, but the truth of the matter is, the number has not moved from 2000.’’ He added that Trump made this announcement without consulting the U.S. bureaucracy, military, State Department or his advisors, and had to reverse what he said due to backlash from within his own administration.

‘’I don’t see the U.S. pulling out of Syria any time soon,’’ Barkey said. One of the primary reasons a U.S. withdrawal would be unlikely is the effect Turkish aggression towards the YPG would have on the YPG’s ability to fight ISIS. ‘’There is a belief that if the U.S. were to withdraw, the Syrian Kurdish position would be very difficult because the Turks would threaten to invade them. The YPG would then focus on the Turkish threat — and the real purpose of U.S. policy is fighting the Islamic State.’’

Against this possibility, when Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, he and Erdoğan agreed to establish a joint safe-zone in northeastern Syria that would prevent an ISIS advance in the absence of U.S. forces on the ground. ‘’Erdoğan convinced him (Trump) that Turkey would take care of the situation,’’ said Barkey. Yet soon it was clear that Turkey had its own security interests in mind when agreeing to create the no-fly zone, making it difficult for the two countries to negotiate the deal.

Despite the weakening of ISIS in Syria, it is too early for the U.S. to abandon the fight against ISIS if it is to defeat it entirely. ‘’ISIS is back setting up bases in Iraq. The big fear is, even though ISIS has been physically destroyed in terms of territory, the people it mobilizes are not all captured,’’ said Barkey. A premature move to halt the battle against ISIS could potentially hurt Trump’s domestic reputation, which might have contributed to the reversal of his announcement. ‘’Especially in terms of his election campaign for 2020, if Trump were to withdraw troops and ISIS were to come back, that would be terrible,’’ noted Barkey.

According to Soner Çağaptay, public opinion will have the opposite effect on Trump’s foreign policy and will directly lead to less military engagement in the region. ‘’President Trump is going to run for reelection in 2020 on a platform of ending U.S. wars in the Middle East, because Trump’s foreign policy towards the Middle East is led by U.S. public opinion. There is a sense within the U.S., among both the left and the right, that the U.S. has wasted money and resources on the Middle East to no gain. There is fatigue after long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,’’ Çağaptay argues, drawing a rather pessimistic picture for the future of the U.S.-YPG relationship in the long-run. However, what complicates the situation is the position of the U.S. military. ‘’The U.S. military, including the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), has a positive view of the YPG, and they will rally for a more long-term relationship with the YPG.’’

According to Professor Michael Gunter, another dimension of Trump’s decision to keep U.S. troops in Syria relates to Iran and ensures that an American presence in Syria is likely to continue for the near future. ‘’The main reason Trump hasn’t pulled out troops is not so much to pay the Kurds back for their help against ISIS, but that he rightly sees Iran in Syria as a serious threat. If he wants to oppose Iranian ambitions in the Middle East, he certainly has to stay in Syria or else he is handing Iran a huge victory,’’ Gunter said. Iran already has extensive influence over many parts of the Middle East, including Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, which has been a major source of fear for the U.S. If Trump wants to counter Iranian influence — and recent tensions between the U.S. and Iran signal that he clearly does — the U.S. won’t be pulling out of Syria soon.

To what extent will the U.S. support Syrian Kurds? Would it support an autonomous state? What will the future of the Syrian Kurds look like?

Though it is fairly clear that the U.S. will not abandon Syrian Kurds in the near future, what will happen to this relationship in the eventuality that ISIS is defeated, is unclear. Considering the Kurds’ precarious position in the region, the extent to which the U.S. sticks with the Kurds could have a major impact on the region. Currently, the weak central state allows Syrian Kurds to self-govern — a situation resembling that of Iraqi Kurds, who gained autonomy in the post-war order largely as a result of American support.

In fact, there are striking similarities between the two. After Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the U.S. identified Hussein as an enemy and allied with Iraqi Kurds to counterbalance his influence over the country. Today, though the U.S. is allying with Syrian Kurds primarily against ISIS, ousting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is also a goal. In Iraq, the U.S. created a no-fly zone in collaboration with France and Turkey in the country’s Kurdish-majority northern province through Operation Provide Comfort. Shortly after the establishment of the zone, Iraqi Kurds held the first elections for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), marking the creation of a semi-independent Kurdish entity in Iraq. In Syria today, the U.S. is trying to negotiate with Turkey on the terms of a no-fly zone in northeast Syria, the Kurdish province held by the YPG. Given these parallels, it is up to the U.S. whether it chooses to repeat what it did in Iraq or not.
But not many are convinced that the US will commit long-term to the Syrian Kurds. According to Benaim,‘’there is not a great deal of political will in the U.S. for greater autonomy inside the PYD-held areas. The broader trend we observe today is one of U.S. withdrawal, and this will remove the leverage that the Kurds will need to negotiate the terms of autonomy.’’ Regardless, considering the overall trajectory of the Syrian civil war and Assad’s weak central authority, it will be a challenge for Assad to maintain Syria’s territorial integrity. ‘’The people of eastern Syria do not want to live under Assad’s rule and Assad does not have the manpower to subdue and dominate all of eastern Syria, as such a large geographic expanse would require a significant number of troops. This suggests that a negotiation for some kind of autonomy would be possible for the Syrian Kurds in the future,’’ said Benaim.

According to Barkey, one reason the U.S. will likely not commit to the Syrian Kurds is that influencing change in the borders of the Middle East would hurt the U.S. status within the region, considering the Western world’s record of creating or drawing borders. ‘’Clearly, given the history of the region, it would be terrible for the U.S. to say it wants to change borders in the Middle East. It would create a huge reaction.’’

Yet, what is more important is the U.S. fear of isolating Turkey, especially at a time when Turkey seems to be shifting away from the Western camp and strengthening its relationship with Russia. ‘’On its own, the U.S. is not going to push for Kurdish autonomy in Syria,’’ Barkey said, and this is primarily because ‘’Turkey doesn’t want a federal state in Syria.’’ When the U.S. pushed for the no-fly zone in northern Iraq that resulted in autonomy for Iraqi Kurds, former Turkish president Turgut Özal had supported it. Today, however,  the situation is different and Turkish policy-makers will be much less tolerant  of the notion of Kurdish autonomy — including Erdoğan, who previously had deepened Turkey’s ties with the KRG and contributed vastly to its economic independence from central Iraq. ‘’The KRG already exists, so if there is a second Kurdish region that is autonomous who is next? Erdoğan is strategically terrified of this and I don’t blame him,’’ said Barkey. This means that if the U.S. were to try to repeat what it did in northern Iraq in northeast Syria, it would cost its relationship with Turkey.

Still, Barkey suggests that regardless of whether the U.S. actively supports a Kurdish entity in Syria’s post-war settlement, time will be on the side of the Kurds — not only those in Syria but elsewhere too. ‘’Politics will change, and it will change in ways we do not know, but the Kurds have not given up. In Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, repression of the Kurds has been horrible, and yet they haven’t disappeared; they haven’t succumbed to Hussein, Assad, the Islamic Republic or Erdoğan,’’ said Barkey. Framing the struggle of the Kurds as one of human rights, Barkey emphasizes that the Kurdish struggle now has a permanent presence in Middle Eastern geopolitics. ‘’If the world ultimately will be a better place in 50 years than it is now, the Kurds will get more rights; so eventually, there will be autonomy. Fundamentally, it is the right of the Kurds to ask for whatever they want. They have the right to self-determination — how can we say they don’t when we have recognized the self-determination of hundreds of countries?’’

So far, it seems that time has been on the side of the Syrian Kurds – and arguably Kurds in other parts of the Middle East – as they have strengthened their position throughout the years. Especially after the YPG’s success in the fight against ISIS, the Kurds have gained the world’s attention, which is remarkable for a group that has rarely made headlines up to this point. Nonetheless, it is difficult to make a direct connection between international familiarity with the Kurdish population and the realization of autonomy or independence because a Turkish invasion could completely undermine that aspiration. The YPG will be under a continuous existential threat until Turkey no longer sees it as its enemy; thus, counter-intuitively, an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan would require Turkey’s permission. According to Gunter, the solution to this dilemma lies in Turkey’s fixing its own Kurdish problem by making peace with the PKK, because if Turkey were to negotiate a deal with the PKK, the YPG would need to go along with it and as a result de-radicalize. ‘’Once you get the peace process going between Turkey and the PKK, then I think Turkey would be more willing to consider working with the U.S. and supporting some level of autonomy for the Syrian Kurds,’’ Gunter said.

If the future of the Syrian Kurds depends largely on Turkey’s domestic Kurdish problem, how can Turkey solve it?

Weighing Hypothetical Options: More Democracy vs. Autonomy/Independence: 
Gunter highlights the key role that the Turkish-PKK peace process plays in resolving the Kurdish problem in Turkey, and as a result, in Syria, too. There are a number of steps Turkey can take to achieve this: ‘’I would encourage Turkey to drop the terrorist designation of the PKK because you don’t negotiate with terrorists. Once you drop the terrorist label, then, you’re challenging the PKK to negotiate seriously. Another thing Turkey can do is improve Abdullah Öcalan’s imprisonment conditions,’’ said Gunter.

Gunter, who interviewed Öcalan in 1998 and works with PKK-affiliated groups in Europe via the EU Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC), emphasized that ‘’Öcalan is willing to negotiate. He said he doesn’t want to break up Turkey, but simply wants more democracy — and the vast majority of the PKK would certainly follow what Öcalan says.’’ According to Gunter, it is largely a myth that the PKK and the majority of Kurds in Turkey want a unified Kurdistan. In fact, as a self-identified Kurdophile, Gunter estimates that autonomy or independence isn’t a viable solution to the Kurdish problem. ‘’The trouble with the Kurds gaining autonomy or federalism in Turkey is that they are spread all around the country: there are more Kurds living West of Ankara than in their historic homeland,’’ he said. Another factor to consider is that ‘’there is not just one Kurdish identity in Turkey but many, and many different Kurdish desires. A lot of Kurds think of themselves as Turkish, don’t speak Kurdish and are well on their way to assimilation. What you need to solve the Kurdish problem is democracy.’’

As a result, Gunter suggests that the future of Turkish-PKK peace lies in the hands of Erdoğan: if he is able to convince the Kurds that democratic reforms would be guaranteed by way of a peace process, the PKK is willing to halt violence. ‘’Erdoğan already has a track record of working with Öcalan,’’ Gunter said, referring to the Kurdish Opening, which was arguably the bravest step taken by any Turkish policy-maker toward solving the Kurdish conflict openly. Yet, a significant obstacle in the way of the peace process was Erdoğan’s fear of losing his nationalist voter base by compromising too much with the Kurds. ‘’Erdoğan stopped the peace process in 2015 because it was hurting his election possibilities and instead aligned with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is not interested in solving the Kurdish problem except with a big fist,’’ Gunter said. If Erdoğan continues to allow public opinion to dictate his Kurdish policy, the future of negotiations seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, though they are good friends and work closely, Hakan Yavuz holds a polar opposite viewpoint from Michael Gunter on the solution to Turkey’s Kurdish issue. Yavuz isn’t convinced that the Kurds in Turkey are willing to give up their bid for autonomy or independence. ‘’The Turks feel that the Kurds made it very clear that they wanted a federation, or increased autonomy — that was the main demand during the Opening. I don’t think cultural rights address the problem,’’ he said. At the same time, Yavuz suggested that Turkey isn’t likely to ever expand minority rights to the extent that Kurds desire due to ‘’the shadow of the past.’’ In the Ottoman Empire, minorities were granted a considerable number of rights, including the right to self-govern through the millet system, which is most similar to federalism. Thus, when seemingly nationalistic minority uprisings erupted in the late Ottoman era and contributed to the fall of the empire, Turks would perceive them as minorities’ abuse of their privileges. For this reason, ‘’a historical fear’’ exists in Turkey regarding minority rights: ‘’they know what it did to the Ottoman Empire,’’ said Yavuz, and they don’t want to repeat that.

Instead, there is hope that an entirely new approach can be taken towards dealing with the Kurdish problem, he argues. ‘’The nature of the discussion on the Kurds is changing in Ankara, though it isn’t voiced as such yet. I was shocked to hear from a number of retired generals that maybe the best decision for Turkey is to let the Kurds go. Rather than autonomy or expanding minority rights, let’s put the ultimate question on the table: do we want to live together?’’ said Yavuz. Surprisingly, he explained that these opinions were voiced mainly by those coming from ‘’a hardcore nationalist establishment: the Kemalist generals and elites,’’ who are known for their hardline approach towards the Kurdish issue and their unyielding commitment to protecting Turkey’s territorial integrity.

Yavuz added that a former chief of staff told him that the separation of the Kurds from Turkey would also diminish the Islamist threat within Turkey, since many members of the Nakşibendis and the Nurcus – Islamic movements that many Turks consider fundamentalist – are Kurds. Another aspect mentioned in talks was economic. Some businessmen expressed frustration over the large amounts of tax money the government is allocating to support the economy of Diyarbakır, the unofficial Kurdish capital, and other parts of southeast Anatolia. Being the least developed region of Turkey, primarily due to its geographic characteristics and the effects of continuous military conflict, southeastern Anatolia has been the target of various costly economic development projects since the late 1980s. Additionally, Turkish military operations in southeastern Anatolia have subjected taxpayers to a massive economic burden, not to mention the heavy human cost of the war.

In regards to Yavuz’s personal take on the issue, he is ‘’convinced on the basis of [his] research and interviews that this would be the better solution for the Kurds and the Turks,’’ he said. ‘’The Kurds need to realize their own dream of an independent state, but they should draw borders that they are capable of protecting. The Turks should not deny rights to them.’’

Turkish-PKK Peace Talks, the U.S. Role & the Safe-Zone Option
Another view worth mentioning is that advocated by Çağaptay, who sees potential in the resolution of the conflict through Turkish-PKK peace talks — but only if they are done at a time when Turkey has the upper hand in negotiations. ‘’I think the path to new PKK-Turkish talks goes through fixing the YPG problem in Syria. The problem is that the YPG’s fortunes are rising — it controls a third of Syria’s territory, half of its oil reserves, and has the backing of the U.S. and Russia, and as a result, the PKK feels that it doesn’t need to talk to Turkey.’’ In comparison to Gunter, who argued that Öcalan and the majority of the PKK are willing to negotiate with Turkey, Çağaptay emphasized that the PKK doesn’t have enough of a reason to negotiate with Turkey at this time. 

‘’The only way there can be Turkish-PKK talks is if the YPG’s wings in Syria are clipped,’’ Çağaptay stated. Therefore, the future of Turkish-PKK peace talks doesn’t depend much on Erdoğan’s attitude towards the Kurds, which explains the increasingly nationalistic path he is taking. ‘’Erdoğan is pragmatic before he is an ideologue. He has realized that the gains he would make from an alliance with the MHP are greater than the votes he would get if there were peace talks, because the HDP’s base is not friendly to him regardless of his attitude towards the PKK and Öcalan,’’ he argues. He added that the results of the recent Istanbul elections have confirmed once again that friendliness toward Öcalan won’t do the trick. In the run-up to the second mayoral vote, Erdoğan had convinced Öcalan to call on the Kurds to remain neutral in the elections. His move was an unsuccessful attempt to counterbalance the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which had openly endorsed the AKP candidate’s rival, who later won the elections. Thus, due to his own political goals, Erdoğan is not looking to make peace with the Kurds.

At a time when neither the PKK nor Erdoğan seems to be in a position to reinitiate peace talks, Çağaptay argued that the future of peace talks ultimately depends on the U.S. ‘’Unless the U.S. recalibrates its relationship with the YPG, we won’t see the PKK coming to the negotiating table from a position of weakness, so Erdoğan won’t be interested in peace talks,’’ said Çağaptay. He also pointed out the inconsistency in U.S. policy: ‘’Washington’s problem is that it wants Turkish-PKK talks, but at the same time its policy in Syria, where it assists the YPG, undermines that.’’

Though it seems that U.S. support for the YPG will continue in the near future, there is some hope that the Kurdish problem both in Turkey and Syria could be eased by means of a joint buffer zone in northeast Syria. According to Çağaptay, the best way to weaken the YPG and create the potential for Turkish-PKK peace talks would be through establishing a Turkish-American safe-zone in northeast Syria. ‘’The safe-zone would allow Turkey to control parts of the northeast. This would signal to the YPG that the U.S. will ultimately pick Turkey, not the YPG, and that the PKK family will be better off in not confronting Turkey and in going back to peace talks,’’ said Çağaptay.

If Turkey and the United States are able to successfully negotiate the terms of the safe-zone, it will prevent a Turkish incursion into northeast Syria. The safe-zone would be the most ideal option for Turkey, yet if the U.S. fails to fully address Turkey’s security concerns, an invasion is likely to take place. ‘’Turkey doesn’t want to go for an incursion until the safe-zone option is exhausted. Erdoğan has been delaying the incursion for a number of reasons,’’ said Çağaptay. There are many drawbacks to the invasion of which  Turkey is fully aware. ‘’First, Turkey cannot afford to have the collateral damage of U.S. troops and needs to coordinate with the U.S. government and military,’’ said Çağatay. Moreover, to go through with the invasion Turkey would need Russia’s green light, which depends on the delicate balance between Russian and Turkish forces in Idlib. More important, Turkey knows that once it invades, the U.S. congress will immediately implement the CAATSA sanctions that Trump has been trying to delay for Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 aircrafts. ‘’If Turkey delays intervention into northeast Syria, Trump will delay sanctions, and if Trump delays sanctions, Turkey will delay intervention — a balancing act where each side shies away from taking the next step,’’ said Çağaptay. For this reason, the safe-zone negotiations are crucial: If successful, they could weaken the YPG’s position and incentivize the PKK to negotiate with Turkey, while easing one of the many strains in U.S.-Turkish relations. If unsuccessful, they would make way for Turkey’s third incursion into Syria, forcing Washington to make a difficult choice between the Kurds and its historical ally. 

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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