Killing two birds with one stone?
The U.S.-backed militia of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has been advancing toward the town of Manbij for the last couple of days in order to retake it from the occupation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DAESH using Arabic initials. Meanwhile, the Russia-backed Syrian army has entered Raqqa province (not the town itself), which is ISIL’s Syrian HQ and also the target of the U.S.-led forces.
The SDF mainly consists of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has been waging an armed campaign against Turkey since 1984, during which over 40,000 people have been killed.
The PKK has long been blacklisted by the U.S. and the European Union as a terrorist organization.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and the Turkish government have had difficulties convincing U.S. President Barack Obama and EU leaders that the PKK and the PYD are the same - sharing the same organizational network, weaponry, human resources, and ideology (PYD head Salih Muslim says he is a follower of Abdullah Öcalan, the founding leader of the PKK, who is serving a life sentence inside a Turkish jail). So the PKK is actually fighting against both the Turkish government and ISIL, while Turkey is carrying out an anti-terror fight against both ISIL and the PKK.
Ankara believes that international support given to the PYD, as justified by their fight against ISIL, is actually making the PKK stronger. The PYD’s security forces are exhibiting U.S.-made high-tech weapons along with advanced Russian-made weapons. Turkey has not been an active participant in the recent anti-ISIL campaign launched after CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Votel’s May 20 visit to the Kurdish-controlled area of Syria, but it has allowed the strategic İncirlik air base in southern Turkey to be used for operations pounding ISIL positions near the Turkish border, with 45-km range 155-mm howitzers.
The Americans insist that their main support has been to Arab opposition elements, not the PYD, even though this does not always fit with reports from the field. In fact, U.S. officials know that the PYD and the PKK are effectively the same, although they cannot publicly admit it. Obama is keen not to deploy U.S. soldiers in the Middle East (only Special Forces commandos as “trainers”), and YPG militants are the only force on the ground ready to fight and die for their own cause. That cause is the founding of a Kurdish state - perhaps not independent, but as an autonomous region across four neighboring countries: Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq.
But will the U.S. and the international system let the Kurds under the PYD (or the PKK) secure their own controlled areas in the already fragmented and explosive Middle East, let alone establish their own state, if ISIL is “degraded”? That would require the acquiescence of the governments of not only Turkey and Iran (since Syria and Iraq are currently too weak to resist), but also of Russia, Saudi Arabia and NATO? That does not seem very likely.
But at the same time as the anti-ISIL advances backed by the U.S. and Russia, the Turkish army has launched a campaign against PKK positions in rural, mountainous areas of eastern and southeastern Turkey, following an urban campaign to suppress the PKK since September last year.
The PKK seems to have been gaining political credibility because of the ongoing anti-ISIL fight, but it is getting through its weaponry and human resources at a rapid pace - even for such a labor-intensive movement. The PKK chiefs in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq do not hesitate to push teenagers to the front line of the fight against the Turkish army.
It may be difficult to imagine under the current politically strained circumstances that the Turkish and the U.S. governments could be involved in such a project, but under another set of circumstances one might observe that the current fight is weakening both ISIL and the PKK, two major organizations on the terrorism list of many Western countries.