By Jacob L. Shapiro
Of the Middle Eastern states where Kurds are a sizable minority, Syria has the smallest Kurdish population and also the newest – most of the territory on which Syrian Kurds live only became Kurdish in the last century. And yet, because of their location – sandwiched between Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, the Islamic State and Bashar al-Assad’s forces to the south and west – Syria’s Kurds find themselves on the world’s center stage. Led by their militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Syria’s Kurds have seized a significant amount of land. However, the YPG has only been able to accomplish this because of the anarchy that the civil war in Syria created. There are limits to what the Syrian Kurds can realistically accomplish. Notions that the YPG is going to cross the Euphrates River and create a contiguous, independent Kurdish state ranging from al-Hasakah in the east to the Mediterranean in the west are at best wishful thinking and at worst willful ignorance – and obscure the very significant role the Syrian Kurds play in the overall conflict.
The Current Situation
Syria’s Kurds are in an offensive posture in three key regions: on the Euphrates River, south of the city of al-Hasakah and in Aleppo province in northwest Syria. In December 2015, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of the YPG and various Arab and Christian groups, seized Tishrin Dam from the Islamic State and crossed over to the west of the Euphrates River. The eventual target of this offensive is Manbij, a city of 100,000 people that has been held by IS since January 2014.
South of al-Hasakah, a force of about 6,000 fighters is attempting to gain control of al-Shaddadi. The eventual goal of this offensive is to push south and either attempt a direct assault on Deir el-Zour, or more likely, attempt to cut the Islamic State off from its positions in Iraq. That goal is likely too ambitious – advancing much further than al-Shaddadi will put the SDF’s supply lines in danger of IS attacks. Both of these offensives have the support of U.S. airstrikes, and in October 2015 the U.S. said it sent 50 special operations forces to help the SDF. The U.S. has also provoked the ire of Turkey for air-dropping unspecified amounts of ammunition and weapons that have ended up in the hands of SDF and, therefore, also under the YPG’s control.
The YPG’s third active front is near Afrin Canton in northwest Syria. Recent weeks have brought gains on the battlefield for the Russia-backed Assad regime – and the Syrian Kurds have scored some small tactical victories of their own by taking advantage of the pressure Assad and Russia are putting on other Syrian rebel forces. The YPG recently managed to push militants affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syrian wing, out of the small villages in northwestern Aleppo province, and to capture Menagh air base.
It was the YPG’s moves in Aleppo province that got the attention of the Turks and resulted in Turkish artillery beginning to shell YPG-controlled areas on Feb. 13. However, Turkey seems willing to turn a blind eye to SDF and YPG success in the other Syrian Kurdish areas, specifically against Islamic State targets, even if it means SDF forces crossing the Euphrates, which Turkey had identified as a red line before. But Turkey was not happy when Kurdish forces near Afrin pushed back the Syrian rebel groups Ankara has been backing in its bid to unseat Assad from power.
Syrian Kurdish Weaknesses
The YPG has managed to unite Jazira Canton and Kobani Canton, expelling IS from Kobani and pushing IS forces further back into the Syrian desert. Now that it has done so, there has been a great deal of speculation in the media that the YPG is attempting to create a contiguous Syrian Kurdish state. However, this is a flawed understanding of the current situation.
First of all, the numbers simply do not add up. There are no precise figures, but a YPG spokesperson told Reuters in August 2015 that the YPG had approximately 40,000 fighters. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the number closer to 50,000. Reportedly, 30,000 of the YPG’s fighters are involved in fighting with the SDF, alongside roughly 4,000 Arab fighters under the Syrian Arab coalition and an unknown number of Christian militias. NBC News reported in 2014 that the YPG also had a women’s unit – the YPJ (Women’s Protection Unit) – with approximately 7,000 fighters.
Even if the higher estimates are correct, a large number of these YPG forces are spread out in the northeast, pushing back IS in al-Shaddadi and preparing for an eventual assault on Manbij. At least 6,000 SDF troops are active in al-Shaddadi. If the YPG were to attempt to link Kobani Canton with Afrin Canton, it would have to conquer 60 miles of territory separating Jarabulus from Azaz. It would have to defeat IS forces and Syrian rebel forces along the way, and if the Assad regime is able to keep up its momentum, it could face his troops as well. Linking Jazira and Kobani was easier because the two are relatively close to each other and the areas between them are relatively sparsely populated. The same is not true for the rest of the territory the YPG would have to control to unify Syrian Kurdish lands.
It is unknown how many YPG fighters are in Afrin Canton – but considering the town of Afrin has a population of roughly 35,000, it cannot be that many. YPG’s recent tactical victories in Aleppo involved taking towns of a few thousand people. But its main combatant in the area, Jabhat al-Nusra, while capable, is facing a sustained Assad regime offensive backed by Russian air support. Also, the Institute for the Study of War estimates Jabhat al-Nusra only has between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters. There is no way for YPG fighters to reinforce Afrin because of the wide swath of enemy territory lying between Afrin and the other Syrian Kurdish areas, and the U.S. is not directly backing YPG forces in Afrin right now. YPG fighters are proving to be a nuisance to al-Nusra and other Syrian rebels. But the Kurds are not about to stage an assault on Azaz, let alone push east in a bid to link up with Kobani Canton. YPG is fighting to score opportunistic victories to gain a little bit of strategic depth against more powerful forces.
Even if the YPG could gather enough manpower to attempt to push from Jarabulus all the way to Afrin Canton, such a military operation would have to supply its forces over at least 60 miles. The U.S. is backing the YPG to fight IS, not to pursue a contiguous Western Kurdistan. If the YPG attempted such a move, it would do so without U.S. air-support or backing. Even if the YPG concentrated every one of its fighters on such a project, it could not defend its supply lines and it would lose one of its most important foreign backers.
And one last major stumbling block: The areas between Kobani Canton and Afrin Canton are simply not Kurdish areas. Linking Jazira and Kobani cantons was possible because the area between them is sparsely populated, and that sparse population is made up mostly of Kurds. The Islamic State is a brutal organization, but it is still a Sunni Arab one – the YPG would not be able to count on the support of the local population between Kobani and Afrin cantons if it attempted to make such a move.
Syrian Kurdish Strategy
Syria’s Kurds have a relatively limited number of options. They are not masters of their own fate – they cannot achieve an independent nation-state strictly through military aggression. Rather, they are seeking to retain autonomy over the lands in which they reside by pursuing three main strategic imperatives: avoiding conflict with Assad, avoiding conflict with Turkey and securing the support of outside powers like the U.S. and Russia.
To avoid conflict with Assad and attempt to curry Russian support, the YPG does not target Assad regime forces. There has been a de facto non-aggression pact in effect between Assad and the Syrian Kurds since July 2012, when Assad evacuated his forces from much of northern Syria, turning control over to the YPG. From Assad’s perspective, for the time being, it’s better to have a buffer zone between his forces and Turkey that is filled with forces backed by the United States. From the YPG’s perspective, this arrangement allows Syrian Kurds the autonomy they desire and puts them in Russia’s good graces.
Assad is using the Kurds just as his father, Hafez al-Assad, did before him. When a military coup occurred in Turkey in 1980, Hafez gave Abdullah Öcalan, the Turkish leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), safe haven in Syria and training camps in Lebanon. Syria and Turkey have always been in opposition – they were on opposite sides in the Cold War and have had disputes over territory and water. Hafez helped the PKK when he knew it would annoy Turkey, and then in 1998 when it no longer served him to support them, he kicked them out. The Syrian Kurds know this and are aware of what can happen to them if Assad’s forces continue to regain some of Syria’s former strength and he then finds the YPG expendable.
To secure U.S. support, the YPG positions itself as an effective opponent of the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and any other radical jihadist or Islamist group fighting in Syria. The U.S. spent years and upwards of $500 million attempting to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels toward this end. Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, revealed on Sept. 16, 2015 that the U.S. had only four or five fighters to show for its efforts. The U.S. can bring a great deal of force to bear in Syria, but it does not want to commit ground troops of its own, and that is ultimately the only way to dislodge IS from its core territory. It therefore needs partnerships with militias on the ground. The YPG does not really have a choice in the matter – it must present itself as that force. Without U.S. support, the YPG would have to worry about defending its territory from IS as well as keeping Turkey from destroying the tenuous autonomous region it has managed to create.
Beyond avoiding conflict with Assad and securing U.S. support, the YPG’s most difficult imperative is to avoid significant conflict with Turkey. Convincing Turkey not to view the YPG as a threat is close to impossible. The best the YPG can do is try not to provoke too harsh a response from Ankara as it attempts to carve out autonomous Kurdish zones in Syria. The YPG is not overly concerned about low-level artillery shelling from across the Turkish border. The graver strike was Turkey’s attempt to tie the YPG to the PKK in the eyes of the West. On Feb. 17, Turkey blamed the YPG for a bombing in Ankara that killed 28 people and injured 61 because it is trying to delegitimize the YPG and tie them to the Turkish-based PKK – which the United States and many other countries view as a terrorist group.
Turkish Kurds and Syrian Kurds are closer in terms of language and culture than some of the other Kurdish tribes in Iraq and Iran, but there are still important differences. When the PKK was active in Syria in the 1980s and 1990s, many Syrian Kurds chafed against PKK demands that they support the PKK cause with money and recruits. Syria’s Kurds are sympathetic to the PKK but generations have passed with these Kurds calling Jazira home. The YPG cannot afford to be associated with the PKK or they will risk Turkey taking its gloves off. That is not as hard as it seems to Syria’s Kurds, because key cultural differences have developed over the last century that make them distinctive groups.
Syria’s Kurds have been able to use the chaos of civil war and proxy conflicts to carve out a sphere of autonomy for themselves. Their hold over this territory, however, is extremely precarious. The YPG cannot hope to achieve an independent nation-state out of this situation. The borders of such a state would be too hard to defend, and the YPG doesn’t have the military strength necessary to create a contiguous state out of Kurdish territories – let alone defend such a state from the many potential hostile forces that would surround it. The YPG is pursuing autonomy, and it is buying the space for that autonomy by cooperating with Assad’s objectives, fighting IS at the behest of the U.S. and walking a tightrope on the border with Turkey. To understand the tactical situation in Syria, understanding the Syrian Kurds is crucial. And because they are one of the few fighting forces willing to make real sacrifices to take the fight to IS, the YPG’s actions on the ground often affect the relative balance of power in Syria. Even so, it is important to keep some perspective. Ultimately, the Syrian Kurds are pawns on the chessboard.