Elephants in the Room

The Kurdish Explosion Is Unleashing Demons

The United States needs to put a stop to this flashpoint before it’s too late.

The insignia of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) on a member's uniform in al-Karamah, Syria on May 10. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)
The insignia of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) on a member's uniform in al-Karamah, Syria on May 10. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

As if the Middle East were not explosive enough, it is on the verge of yet another conflict that threatens further destruction and division in a region of vital geostrategic importance. The “Kurdish question,” which has bedeviled empires and superpowers for centuries, has returned as a dangerous flashpoint with potentially seismic implications.

The Kurds are often referred to as “the largest ethnic group without a state.” They number roughly 30 million and inhabit large areas of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. For the past 100 years, they have sought autonomy and independence, to which regional powers have responded with violent repression. During the Anfal campaign, for example, Saddam Hussein destroyed over 2,000 villages and killed 180,000 Kurds in northern Iraq between 1986 and 1989. Some 5,000 Kurds alone died in the infamous chemical weapons attack on the town of Halabja in 1988.

Today, Iraq and Syria are convulsed by civil conflict. The violence, dislocations, and political vacuums created by the Islamic State, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutality, and the military interventions of Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the United States have created an environment in which a variety of local actors are competing for control of territory and power, and the Kurds are no exception.

On Sept. 25 and over the objections of the United States, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and the European Union, the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan held a referendum on independence. Ninety-five percent of the population voted in favor. Within days of the vote, Iranian forces entered territory held by the Kurds and expelled them. Iran now has boots on the ground in a part of Iraq that they had never previously controlled. This intervention represents yet another historic setback not only for Kurdish national aspirations but also for U.S. interests.

A similar scenario is in the process of unfolding in Syria. A separate Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), controls large parts of northern Syria. The PYD/YPG are offshoots of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has been waging a guerrilla war for the past 30 years against the government of Turkey. The PKK is responsible for bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and armed attacks that have killed thousands in Turkey and neighboring states. It is listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States.

Despite its terrorist connections, the YPG has been America’s ally of choice in combating the Islamic State in Syria for the simple reason that they are the most effective fighting force. The United States provided the YPG with the arms, training, and logistical support necessary to liberate territory in Syria that was held by the Islamic State. (U.S. aid was provided to the rebel coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG forms the largest and most capable component.) With the capture of the self-proclaimed caliphate’s capital, Raqqa, in October, the military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria is coming to an end.

Now, however, we have on our hands a well-armed, battle-hardened, and cohesive Kurdish movement in control of significant territory in northern Syria that borders Turkey. Ankara is understandably concerned, because of the very real possibility that the PYD-YPG will join forces with the PKK to create an autonomous enclave that challenges existing national borders and sovereign authority.

In early October, Turkish troops, tanks, and armored vehicles entered Syria in an operation designed to prevent further consolidation and expansion of the YPG military presence in northern Syria. This move, which is being coordinated and supported by Russian forces already present in Syria and fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, comes on the heels of Turkey’s previous armed foray into Syria: Operation Euphrates Shield.

All the ingredients are in place for a dangerous conflagration: an armed revolutionary nationalist movement (the SPG/YPD) that has clear links to terrorism; a NATO ally (Turkey) that is determined to wipe out a credible threat to its territorial integrity; two foreign powers (Iran and Russia) that seek to extend Assad’s ruthless control over all of Syria; and a hapless superpower (the United States) that has yet to articulate a clear policy to defend its interests and those of its allies.

The fuse has been lit and further explosions are likely. The breakdown in state control in Iraq and Syria has led Kurdish groups in both countries to take dangerous and precipitous moves in pursuit of their national ambitions. These moves will be met with force from the governments of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, who believe their border — if not their national existence — is at risk. A responsible U.S. policy would be to pursue de-escalation and to make clear to all parties, but especially the PYD-YPG, that the United States will not condone or accept challenges to the status quo.

Correction, Nov. 22, 2017: A previous version of this article gave an incorrect name for the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Adam Ereli is a former U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson and former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain.

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