The battle for Islamic State’s self-declared capital is approaching and the U.S. has decided that one force is essential in order to secure victory -- a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG. The Pentagon has announced that it will directly arm YPG fighters, aggravating NATO ally Turkey, which sees the group as an extension of the autonomy-seeking Kurds who have battled the Turkish state for decades. Turkey has attacked the YPG in the past, and an escalation now could have major implications for the push against Islamic State and Ankara’s shifting big-power allegiances.
1. What is the YPG?
The YPG, or People’s Protection Units, is the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party of Syria. The party was formed in 2003 as an offshoot of the PKK, a Kurdish group outlawed by Turkey that is also considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union. The PKK has fought Turkish forces on and off since 1984. YPG fighters are estimated at 50,000.
2. On whose side is the YPG fighting in Syria?
That hasn’t been entirely clear. The YPG has never been part of the Free Syrian Army, a coalition fighting to defeat the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Some rebels accuse the YPG of collaborating with Assad, who has supported the PKK. Suspicions were raised when regime forces withdrew from several majority-Kurdish areas in northern Syria in mid-2012, allowing the YPG to establish control there. In 2015, the YPG formed the Syrian Democratic Forces, focused on fighting Islamic State. The umbrella group includes some non-Kurdish fighters but is mostly made up of YPG members. The U.S. soon began advising the SDF, backing its operations with air support, and supplying weapons it says were meant for the coalition’s non-YPG elements.
3. Who are the Kurds?
They are an Indo-European people, mostly Sunni Muslims, numbering about 30 million, whose homeland is divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Kurds have been persecuted in those countries in a variety of ways: stripped of their citizenship, excluded from some professions, barred from giving their children certain names and restricted in speaking their own language. They’ve pushed for equal rights and autonomy over their affairs and periodically rebelled. National authorities have responded at times severely, expelling Kurds from their villages in Syria and attacking them with chemical weapons in Iraq. Turkey claims about 12,000 people, mostly PKK militants, have died in clashes between security forces and the PKK in Turkey since a peace process there broke down in July 2015. It was not possible to independently verify the figure.
4. What’s made the issue of the YPG pressing?
Having gained control of the Kurdish-majority districts of Jazeera, Kobani and Afrin along the border with Turkey, the YPG has been pushing to link these areas into one contiguous zone of "self-administration." By August, after taking the mainly Arab town of Manbij from Islamic State, it was close. Too close for Turkey’s comfort. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the YPG’s wartime gains threaten his efforts to vanquish the PKK’s insurgency in Turkey.
5. What has Turkey’s response been?
Within weeks of the fall of Manbij, Turkey, in its first major direct intervention in the Syrian war, sent tanks and warplanes roaring across the border. The stated goal was to oust Islamic State from the city of Jarablus. But the Turks also took the lead in capturing Al Bab, which had been key to the YPG’s plan to create a single enclave. In case the point wasn’t clear, Turkish planes bombed YPG headquarters in April, killing some 20 fighters and prompting the U.S. to express “deep concerns.” The Turkish military said the strike was provoked by attacks against its outposts near the borders with Iraq and Syria. Turkey also pressed the U.S. to keep the YPG out of the coming fight for Raqqa and has proposed its troops as a replacement. It has also drawn closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s biggest ally, working with Moscow on a plan to establish safe zones in Syria.
6. What does the U.S. say?
U.S. officials have expressed appreciation for Turkey’s concerns. However, a Pentagon spokesman said May 9 that the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes the YPG, “are the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.” The same day, U.S. President Donald Trump approved directly arming the YPG despite objections from Turkey, which worries the weapons could fall into the PKK’s hands. A Pentagon official said the Kurdish fighters would be trained and armed specifically for retaking Raqqa and that the U.S. would make efforts to reclaim the weapons afterward.
7. Is that the last word?
No. Erdogan continued to press his case with Trump during a visit to Washington May 16-17. Appearing with Trump before reporters, Erdogan stressed the importance of Turkish-U.S. relations but said of the YPG, through an interpreter, "taking them into consideration in the region will never be accepted, and it is going to be against the global agreement that we have reached." Turkey has leverage, not least because of the importance of its Incirlik air base, which hosts about 1,500 U.S. troops and is used for airstrikes against the Islamic State by the U.S. and its allies. The U.S. has also used Incirlik to supply military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Erdogan has also threatened unspecified military action against Kurdish groups in Syria, saying, “We can suddenly descend one night.” Such action could complicate the offensive to take Raqqa.
The Reference Shelf
- Two papers by the International Crisis Group explore the stakes for Turkey, the U.S. and the Kurdish factions.
- Reports by the Congressional Research Service examine the YPG and recent strains in U.S.-Turkey relations.
- The Council on Foreign Relations profiles the groups fighting in Syria.
- Related QuickTakes explain proposed combat-free zones for Syria, Syria’s civil war, Islamic State and the Kurds.