Turkish forces continue to bombard Afrin, a district in Syria currently controlled by Syrian Kurds. Turkey justifies its actions in the presence of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a Kurdish militia which Turkey accuses of being a terrorist group. The State Department and Pentagon, meanwhile, reticent to see hemorrhaging U.S.-Turkish ties decline further, split hairs: They explain their support for Syrian Kurds is limited to areas where the YPG (or Syrian Defense Force, of which the YPG is the dominant portion) fights the Islamic State, but that the United States is under no obligation to help the same groups where they live elsewhere in Syria.
There are two problems with that sort of hairsplitting: First, while it may pass for sophistication in Washington, no one is fooled in the real world. They see the United States abandoning a partner in time of need. The cynicism this breeds throughout the region can be corrosive. Second, if the goal is to assuage Turkey, then it is also doomed to fail. Turkey sees the YPG as a terrorist militia, period. For Ankara, it is a black-and-white issue with no shades of gray. Turkey will object if the United States supports the YPG anywhere.
The problem with the Turkish position, however, is it ignores both how the United States arrived at its policy of support for the Syrian Kurds and also the reality of Syrian Kurdistan. Prior to my 2014 visit to Rojava, as the Syrian Kurds call the federal region they have established inside Syria, I met with U.S. diplomats who, at the time, had been instructed not to engage with YPG officials, both because they feared that group’s links to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, would antagonize Turkey and because the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, did not engage productively with U.S.-backed Syrian opposition groups.
Today, however, the United States and YPG have become partners. What happened?
Firstly, Turkey consistently undermined the fight against the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and also ISIS. Not only did it give free passage to foreign fighters, but it also supplied and equipped both groups. Just as in Pakistan, when criticism grew too great, it would symbolically detain token terrorists, but as soon as press or diplomatic attention would move on, the Turkish judiciary would quietly release them from prison. In contrast, the YPG proved itself the most effective fighting force against ISIS. In addition, the extreme transactionalism of Turkish diplomacy further pushed the United States to partner with the YPG, especially against the backdrop of constant Turkish threats to deny the Incirlik Air Base to U.S. personnel engaged in counter-ISIS actions. Lastly, reality became an important corrective to the U.S. approach to the Syrian opposition. Far from democratic, many of the Syrian groups whom the United States had championed were either radical or radicalized against the backdrop of uneven and unreliable U.S. support.
Turkey is correct that the YPG and the PKK are linked; it’s disingenuous to say otherwise. But, while Turkey obsesses about the PKK due to the group’s decadeslong insurgency inside Turkey, it’s not clear that Turkey is correct to say the YPG are terrorists, regardless of links. Put aside the fact that Turkey asked PKK fighters to go to Syria as a preliminary commitment to the Turkey-PKK peace talks. And also put aside the fact that Turkey’s definition of terrorism is subjective — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan embraces Hamas, for example, a group that unapologetically targets civilians, in contrast to the PKK which engages in a more traditional insurgency. The simple fact is that the Turkish government has been hard-pressed to point to a single terrorist attack launched on Turkey from Afrin. Indeed, Turkish officials have been hard-pressed to show any YPG terrorism.
Visitors to Syrian Kurdistan can see a group that is engaged in reconstruction and the responsibilities of governance — trash collection, schooling, refugee relief, electricity provision, and security — rather than terror training. In Turkey, the same visitors see indoctrination into Islamist radicalism and a state of emergency that allows Erdogan to wield power arbitrarily. That is not to suggest that the YPG is a democratic panacea for the region, as some of its supporters proclaim. Rather, it and the broader movement with which it is affiliated continue to struggle with democratic culture and personality cults. Then again, these problems also exist among Iraqi Kurds. Nor is the group’s evolution from PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan’s one-time Marxism complete. But, when it comes to democracy, tolerance, and governance, Syrian Kurdistan compares favorably to Turkey.
To suggest that the U.S. needs to sacrifice Kurds and embrace Turkey despite Turkey’s behavior is to repeat the mistakes the U.S. made for decades in its support for Pakistan, a country which like Erdogan’s Turkey has fanned the flames of Islamist radicalism.
Back to Afrin: Turkey has moved into Afrin not to fight terrorism — because Afrin isn’t a center of terrorism — but rather as part of its obsessive and unhinged campaign against Kurds. What Turkey seeks to do in Afrin is not eradicate terrorism but rather to engage in ethnic cleansing. Also motivating Erdogan is a desire to claim the mantle of military hero, something he lacks, and to silence domestic opposition which he can depict as treasonous if they question him in a time of war.
Neither appeasing Erdogan nor abandoning Kurds is a wise policy. Turkey was an ally in decades past; it no longer is. The YPG, in contrast, are. It’s time to stand up for Afrin.