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Diplomatic Dilemmas: Should Washington Directly Arm Kurdish Soldiers in Syria?

On 28 November, human rights lawyer Tahir Elci was fatally shot as he addressed the media in the southern Turkish city of Diyarbakir. The violent end met by this prominent Kurdish moderate strikes yet another blow to the fragile peace established in 2012 between the Turkish government and the country’s restive Kurdish population.

Conflict between Ankara and the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has long plagued electoral politics in Turkey, with skirmishes costing around 30 000 lives over the last three decades. The PKK’s militant tactics have led organisations and states (for example, NATO and the US) to label it a terrorist group. For the most part, however, Turkey’s Kurdish question has been an irritant at the fringes of the international security scene, rather than occupying a starring role.

This might be changing. In the fight against IS in northern Syria and Iraq, Kurdish soldiers have proven themselves the most capable on the battlefield. While the Sunni Arab resistance has failed to coalesce into a competent and unified force, the Kurds have – according to some estimates – defeated around 20 000 fighters on the battlefield. On 13 November, the US-backed Kurdish peshmerga – the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan – liberated the Northern Iraqi city of Sinjar after 15 months of devastating IS occupation. The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a close affiliate of the Turkish PKK, have successfully reclaimed Kobane, Tal Abyad, Hasakah City and al-Houl from IS this year.

That Washington should back the YPG directly has been a common refrain among analysts. Many are frustrated by Obama’s reticence: until October, all arms destined for Kurdish soldiers were still being routed through the fractious government in Baghdad. Since then, however, US forces have been airdropping ammunition directly to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group whose ethnically diverse composition the Pentagon is at pains to emphasise, despite its Kurdish leadership.

If the YPG and Iraqi Kurdistan’s peshmerga are the best soldiers on the ground, then why beat around the bush when it comes to arming them?

The first problem is Turkey, whose proximity to the battleground and status as NATO’s only Muslim member makes it an invaluable ally in the fight against extremism. Unfortunately, anti-Kurd fear mongering seems to be a reliable electoral strategy for Turkish President Erdogan. Consequently, he has little tolerance for a potential Washington-YPG partnership.

Ankara fears the influence of the Kurdish “state” in Northern Syria – known as Rojava – on its own Kurdish population and, as such, sees support for the YPG as a direct affront to its sovereignty. Erdogan’s regime continues to bombard Kurdish territory, much to the displeasure of its NATO allies, who wish Ankara would take a stronger stance against IS (to date, Ankara has conducted over 300 raids on the Kurds and only three on IS targets). Last week, Turkey rebuffed US suggestions that it close the border with Syria – an operation that would require roughly 30 000 troops but would halt the Islamic State’s trade in oil and fighters. Erdogan’s obstinacy is both frustrating and strategically detrimental to the US, but he remains an important ally and so Washington continues to exercise caution vis-à-vis the Kurds.

Second, Kurdish military successes in Syria don’t come without local baggage. Syrian and Iraqi Kurds have gone beyond simply securing traditionally Kurdish territory and are now recapturing majority-Arab towns. Continued Kurdish presence is breeding resentment amongst locals and risks exacerbating post-conflict chaos. The US is aware that allowing the Kurds free rein will not only undermine existing borders by fuelling Kurdish ambitions of statehood, but could also stoke the sectarian squabbling already rife in the region.

Like most questions of Middle Eastern politics, there is no simple answer to the Kurdish question. Some analysts have suggested that Washington should directly arm the Kurds but condition its support on respect for existing borders. Others have argued that US forces should place greater emphasis on building functional relationships between Kurdish and non-Kurdish forces in the region. In any case, it has become increasingly clear that a political roadmap – not just a military strategy – will be a necessary antecedent to stability.

Isabella Borshoff is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image credit: Kurdishstruggle (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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