Why Is Turkey Fighting Syria’s Kurds?

Turkey’s president says Syrian Kurdish fighters are terrorists—but he’s a very unreliable narrator.

Kurdish female troops from the Syrian Democratic Forces overlook the front line.
Kurdish female troops from the Syrian Democratic Forces overlook the front line near the town of Hol, Syria, on Nov. 10, 2015. John Moore/Getty Images

Almost everyone agrees that the chaos that has descended on Syria since last week—when Turkey invaded Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria after the Trump administration’s announcement of a withdrawal of U.S. troops—was the bloody aftermath of a betrayal. But just who stabbed whom in the back is up for debate.

Kurdish forces based in Syria say the United States abandoned them with no warning and no justification after years of cooperation fighting against the Islamic State. But Turkey says the U.S. decision to partner in the first place with the Syrian Kurdish forces—which it considers an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group based in Turkey—was itself a betrayal of Washington’s fellow NATO ally. U.S. President Donald Trump seemed to endorse that view in a press conference on Wednesday in the White House.

The Kurdish claim is easy enough to adjudicate: The U.S. military made promises to the Kurds, or at least implied commitments, that it failed to keep. The Turkish claim—essentially, that Syrian Kurdish forces are allied with terrorists—is more complicated and more dubious. Here’s why.

Who are the Kurds?

Having first emerged in the 10th century, the Kurds are today considered the world’s largest ethnic group without a state of their own, despite having been promised autonomy in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. “The two great powers of the day, Britain and France, reneged in 1923 and carved up the Kurdish territories into modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria,” writes the historian Bryan R. Gibson in a recent article for Foreign Policy. Kurds have been fighting for some form of independence ever since, often in the teeth of state atrocities such as Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical warfare against Kurdish civilians. The closest the Kurds have come to an independent state is an autonomous region of northern Iraq, which has been largely self-administered since the U.S. invasion of 2003.

What is the PKK?

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by the Kurdish acronym PKK, was founded as a Marxist-Leninist group in Turkey in 1978 in response to state-backed discrimination against Turkish Kurds, with the goal of creating an independent Kurdistan. A PKK insurgency against the Turkish state began in 1984, and fighting between the two sides has continued intermittently ever since, accompanied by heavy-handed Turkish repression in Kurdish areas, resulting in the deaths of more than 40,000 people, a majority of them Kurdish civilians. The PKK, for its part, has focused its attacks on the Turkish military over the years, but it has also hit civilian targets. Turkey and the United States have both designated the PKK a terrorist organization.

What is the SDF?

The Syrian Democratic Forces were officially founded in northern Syria on Oct. 11, 2015, to defend the area amid Syria’s civil war and the rising Islamic State. The organization includes Arab and Assyrian militias, but its primary component has been the People’s Protection Units (abbreviated from the Kurdish name Yekineyen Parastina Gel as YPG), made up of ethnic Kurds. The United States encouraged the formation of the SDF and partnered with it to fight against the Islamic State.

What’s the relationship between the SDF and the PKK?

The SDF, as described above, is primarily composed of the YPG militia. That militia was itself officially founded in 2011 as the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish party Democratic Union Party, or PYD. Turkey’s claim is that the PYD is an offshoot of the Turkish PKK and that the PKK had a hand in initially setting up the YPG. The PYD denies those links.

What’s indisputable is that the PKK had a presence in Syria until 1998, when the Syrian government banned the party. The PYD was formed in Syria five years later, with much of the same membership. Less clear is whether there are ongoing organizational and operational links between the PYD and PKK. Turkey says the cooperation between the two is clear, though it rarely cites concrete evidence. In 2016 testimony before the U.S. Congress, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter also asserted there are “substantial ties” between the PYD and PKK. Independent reporting has described overlaps in membership.

However, in a 2017 article for Foreign Policy, Aldar Khalil, a high-ranking Syrian Kurdish politician, denied any such connections, writing that the PYD, like other Syrian Kurdish political groups, strictly adheres to a doctrine of noninterference in other countries. “It pains us to see those on the Turkish side of the border suffer from oppression and fear under Erdogan,” Khalil wrote. “But that is not our struggle, and we have said publicly and will say again that our territory and resources are not going to be used by the PKK or any other groups fighting Turkey.”

Still, it would be wrong to suggest there’s no connection at all between the Turkey-based PKK and the Syrian PYD, and by extension the YPG (and by further extension the SDF). As Khalil’s Foreign Policy article makes clear, the parties share an intellectual lineage tracing to the political teachings of the jailed PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan. Regardless of how closely the two groups work together in practice, they clearly sympathize with one another’s political goals.

So, are the SDF terrorists or allies with terrorists?

Turkish rhetoric on this point has been exaggerated, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish media organizations often claiming that Syrian Kurds are no different from—and, if anything, worse than—the Islamic State they helped fight. (Trump echoed this view at his press conference.) By any reasonable measure, that’s simply not true. They have administered the territories under their control better than many feared, with an absence of the sorts of sectarian massacres perpetrated by many of Syria’s other armed factions. The multiethnic territory of Rojava earned acclaim as a remarkable democratic success story.

And it’s unclear to what degree the concept of guilt-by-association even makes sense in such an unstable and violent region. There is no shortage of nonstate groups engaging in violence, whether in Turkey or its neighboring countries. In Syria, some of those groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham could be described as allied with Turkey itself. At a time when everyone in the Middle East has shaken hands with unsavory actors, pointing to the SDF’s ties might represent canny politics—but it’s questionable as a moral argument.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi