Fixing an International Dilemma in an Unstable Region: U.S. Mitigation of the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict
The long-standing relationship between the United States and Turkey continues to deteriorate due to the intensifying armed conflict between the Turkish military and Kurdish insurgent groups in Syria, Iraq and Iran who desire an independent Kurdistan that would give them greater political and cultural rights.
To combat the Islamic State (IS), the United States supports the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) and relies on the PYD’s military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Yet the main reason for the ongoing U.S.-Turkey military conflict lies in US support of the PYD. Because Turkey is battling the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a listed terrorist group that President Erdoğan believes is an offset of the PYD, Turkey sees American support for these Kurdish organizations as undermining their interests and regional power.
It is imperative that the United States act immediately to de-escalate the tensions between Turkey and various Kurdish insurgent groups while continuing the fight against the Islamic State, who, despite recently losing territory and influence in the region, continues to pose a threat to nearby countries and the US. The United States in particular is one of the leading actors in this issue, and must continue to be a primary fighting force, because national interests are at stake. As long-term NATO allies, the US and Turkey not only share an allyship, but Turkey is in a key geopolitical position, serving as a central point between Asia, Europe, and Africa. By mending their relationship with Turkey, the US will continue to be able to rely on Turkey as the only Muslim NATO member to serve as a bridge between the Western and Muslim worlds, which can help stabilize the volatile Middle East. Furthermore, Turkey similarly relies on the United States and its Western forces to battle the IS, a group that continues to engage in violent terrorist attacks within the country.
Failure to immediately rectify the situation may result in the degradation of the US-Turkey alliance and the growth of the Islamic State. Should the US side with the Kurds, they run the risk of Turkey strengthening their political and economic relationship with Russia, and it could push Turkey to further retaliate against the YPG and ultimately the US. Yet, the United States relies heavily on Kurdish insurgency groups, such as the PYD, as the main fighting forces against the IS on the ground, especially in aiding local Arab militias in Syria. Therefore, if the United States sides with Turkey, they may lose critical Kurdish trust and military support in the fight against the IS due to the tension between the Turks and the Kurds. Nevertheless, fixing the rising tensions is possible and can be done three ways: by revising the current Turkish Constitution, continuing to supply Kurdish fighters with American weapons, and utilizing the US-Turkey relationship as NATO allies to begin talks of a ceasefire.
First Recommendation: Modify the Turkish Constitution
The United States should encourage Turkey to make changes to its 1982 Constitution to grant basic rights back to the ethnic minority groups that reside in Turkey. Successfully updating the constitution should be a priority in solving the Turkish-Kurdish dispute. The conflict’s origins and subsequent intensification stems from the lack of rights attributed to the Kurds in the country’s constitution. The Turkish government historically oppressed Kurdish cultural identity and language through impediments in the process of assimilating them into society. After declaring itself a republic in 1923, Turkey’s capital of Ankara adopted an ideology with the goal of eliminating non-Turkish elements within Turkey, all of which were primarily Kurdish. The country’s efforts to “Turkify” individuals by relying on Turkish ethnicity to define citizenship resulted in the mass persecution of the Kurdish population, which is one of the driving forces behind the desire for an independent Kurdistan today.
As of now, the Turkish Constitution is authoritarian and alienating to those who aren’t of Turkish ethnicity, but unfortunately the discussion and possibility of revising the constitution has decreased. The lack of an inclusive constitution with rights and protections that extend to minority groups has been a factor in causing social unrest among the Kurdish population and furthering the mission of the PKK. This, again, contributed greatly to the Kurds’ desire to create an independent Kurdistan that would allow them to have greater political and cultural autonomy. Therefore, the Turkish Constitution should be revised immediately. Significant changes would make it more democratic and establish that all differences, such as ethnicity or language, are protected under the constitution. With this, the improvement in the view and treatment of the Kurds may lay the foundation for peace talks in the future.
Second Recommendation: Return to Supplying Arms
The United States should return to supplying weapons to Kurdish fighters in Syria who are combating the Islamic State. As of late 2017, President Trump announced that the US will no longer provide arms to the Kurds. However, the supply of weapons by the US is vital in creating a strongly armed group of Kurdish fighters that can successfully defend themselves as they counteract the IS. For example, in May 2017 President Trump approved a plan to arm the Kurds, and therefore the YPG, directly to prepare for their assault and capture of Raqqa, which was the IS’ de facto capital of the caliphate. Subsequently, after arming them with machine guns and other warfare weapons, the American-backed YPG successfully seized Raqqa in October of 2017 in what was a major blow to the legitimacy and control of the IS.
However, a drawback of this recommendation is that it could cause even more tension between the US and Turkey. Due to US support of the YPG, a group Turkey believes to be an extension of the PKK, Turkey’s President Erdoğan could see the supply of arms to the YPG as a threat to the country because those weapons could end up in the hands of the PKK. Yet, a benefit of this recommendation is that it aligns with America’s desire to decrease the number of troops deployed in Syria. By providing the Kurds with more weapons, the US can rely more on local forces and slowly begin to withdraw American troops from the conflict zone.
Third Recommendation: Negotiate a Ceasefire
Lastly, the United States should take advantage of its relationship with Turkey as NATO allies to lead a political peace process that negotiates a ceasefire between Turkish military forces and the Kurdish YPG in Syria. The YPG are instrumental in fighting the IS on the ground, yet they are suffering immense losses due to air and land attacks by Turkey’s military force.
However, a downside of this recommendation lies in the fact that Turkey views the YPG’s presence in Syria as a security threat to the country. Turkey’s President Erdoğan also considers the US’s support of the YPG militia to be a betrayal as he sees the YPG as an offset of the terrorist group PKK. Furthermore, the ceasefire would only provide a temporary solution to the complicated conflict so that the two sides could focus on defeating the IS.
An upside of this recommendation is that previous ceasefires between the Turkish government and the PKK succeeded for many years before they were eventually broken. While a ceasefire may be temporary, it would help centralize the fight around the IS and provide the foundation for more comprehensive peace talks and a long-term ceasefire in the future between the two groups.
Looking to the Future
The Turkish-Kurdish conflict began the moment Turkey failed to make a provision for a Kurdish state, thereby leaving the Kurds, a population of around 15 million in the country, with a minority status and a lack of both representation and rights. The tension between the two sides has been ongoing ever since, and as an ally to the United States politically and militarily, as they are instrumental in fighting the Islamic State, the US is heavily interested and involved in the conflict as well. As a result, all three recommendations for ways in which the United States can mitigate the Turkish-Kurdish conflict are presented with the following goals in mind: first, by successfully mitigating the conflict between the two groups, the US can begin to minimize the threat that the IS poses to them, as combating the IS would be easier when the two sides are working together with the same goal in mind; second, the US can start to decrease the volatility of the Middle East, as there will be one less pair of warring groups, and consequently states, to add to the mix.
The conflict continues in 2018, thirty-four years after the insurgency began, with little change. Since President Trump took office and called for a halt on the provision of arms to the Kurds, the Islamic State has lost territory, but still remains a threat, and tensions between the Turks and the Kurds remain high. Not much progress has been made between the two groups to de-escalate the situation, and the United States has failed to enact any significant changes. Unless these recommendations are made, the future for these two warring groups and the prospect of an independent Kurdistan looks to be the same as it currently is now: bleak.