In the Northern corner of Syria, bordering Turkey, two million Kurds live in a state of order as compared with the rest of the region. They have democratic and focused governments and a strong security force. Elsewhere, the once glorious cities of the Middle East have been ravaged by evacuating residents, drone strikes, insurgent guerilla fighting, and daily mortar shelling.
In Kurd-controlled Syria, the largest ethnic minority in the fighting country lives in a state of order, as the region continues in violence. Kurds speak their own language and maintain a strong sense of self-determination and nationalism for their lands. In Syria, the Kurds have long been a repressed minority, restricted in the press and in the justice system with sanctions on the language and the prohibition of Kurdish schools. The repression of Kurdish culture and identity in both Syria and Turkey echoes the 1930s Stalinist censorship of Ukrainian in schools and public, in an attempt to aesthetically bind Ukraine to the U.S.S.R.
The oil fields of Northern Syria have accounted for approximately one third of all of Syria’s gross national product. The Turks wish for greater control over the region, which would allow them more easily to put down Kurdish unity movements permeating into Turkey, and to restrict Kurdish ethnic control over the black gold of the region. The overall importance of the region economically cannot be understated, and as with the rest of the seven-year Syrian conflict, bigger regional and international powers have come into play to maintain their preferred stability with high risk economic zones.
In Syria, Kurdish fighters have worked with U.S. air power and special forces to clear the region of ISIS fighters, which has greatly angered Turkey (which has maintained hostilities with Kurdish groups for many years because of conflicts over ethnic sovereignty in Turkey, nearby). American forces succeeded in clearing large towns and cities and aided in the Kurds successful campaign to recapture their highly valued oil fields from ISIS fighters. The relationship between American forces on the ground and Kurdish residents and local governments is unprecedentedly harmonious. They collaborate effectively and maintain order and sovereignty. It is rare for occupation forces like those in stabilized parts of Syria to be welcomed and collaborated with as unilaterally as with the Kurdish Armed group YPG.
This relationship of requited support is clear in American rhetoric, “One team, one fight,” said a visiting coalition general when discussing strategy with the Kurdish forces.
American forces patrol the region both to fend off jihadis, but also to ensure Turkish supported units do not descend upon the region. Turkey claims the area is a hive of radical terrorist groups, and has repeatedly asked the American forces to leave so that they may launch an attack on cities it deems swarming with ISIS fighters. The city of Afrin, just beneath the Turkish border, is currently being attacked directly by Turkish forces, attacking U.S. supported Kurdish fighters within. The marinating tensions between the two powers have been growing in the past few years, and seem to have hit a boil with this proxy showdown. The two populist and openly nationalist presidents, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump, have held firm on their views.
America and its allies are most importantly concerned that the fight against ISIS will be distracted by a new front opening up between the new and weak Kurdish government and military, and strong Turkish forces on an incursion into Northern Syria.
“It’s illogical that while we are fighting ISIS, the enemy of the world, over there, the Turks attack us in Afrin,” said Shervan Derwish, the spokesman for the U.S. backed Kurdish regional military council, to the New York Times. “Our fight against ISIS has had to be minimized as we reduce our power there to defend Afrin.”
Erdoğan claims that his goal is centered on Turkey’s national security, and he argues that both the American-backed Kurdish fighters and ISIS fighters pose dangerous risks so close to Turkey. Turkey holds particular animus for the Kurds because of the continued uprising of ethnic Kurds within Turkey. Kurds in Turkey have long hoped to form an independent state with Kurds from Iraq and Syria, which Ankara feels is a threat to Turkey. Approximately 18 million Turks identify as ethnic Kurds, and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has long been involved in terroristic and deviant activities in Southern Turkey.
The growing tension between Turkey and America on who should be fighting who in Northern Syria has been invigorated by phone meetings between Trump and Erdoğan, in which Trump made his stance clear, saying that Turkey must exercise caution in preventing conflict between American and Turkish armed forces. The rhetoric of both leaders suggests a clear conflict. The potential for two NATO allied countries to engage in armed conflict is unprecedented and potentially destabilizing.
Oleg Syromolotov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister has stated that the standoff between Americans and their allied Kurdish security forces, and Turkish military personnel is “provoked” by America’s support of groups Turkey views as hostile.
Erdoğan views the Syrian Kurdish armed forces as equal to ISIS, seeing no difference between the groups. Erdoğan has emphatically refuted claims that Turkey is an invader of Syria, seeking to take advantage of the destabilized situation.
“The humanity of those who accuse Turkey of being an invader and support an organization that has the blood of tens of thousands of innocent children, women, elderly people and innocents on its hands,” Erdoğan said in a recent speech.
The issue of control in an unstable country continues to be determined mostly by outside powers impressing their will on a weakened people. In this case Kurdish fighters and American forces have reached an unparalleled relationship of trust and effectiveness. However, this effectiveness is threatened by the animosity the Turks hold for Kurdish interests in the region. Escalation of the conflict, carried out by the continued presence of American and Kurdish forces in Northern Syrian cities, could see shots fired between Turkey and its NATO ally, America.