If last week’s consideration from the Obama administration to arm the Syrian Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State shows us anything, it demonstrates that the U.S. and its ally Turkey strongly disagree on the role the Kurds should play in the fight against ISIS.
The proposal would, for the first time in the conflict, provide small arms and ammunition to Syrian Kurds. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately denounced the proposal, saying, “A very serious mistake is being committed before the world’s eyes.”
The Kurds, who are also an ally of the U.S., are seen by the Obama administration as one of the key pieces in the fight to defeat ISIS.
At the same time, they have been considered one of Turkey’s greatest enemies for almost four decades.
In recent months they have not only reclaimed almost all lands that were lost by ISIS’s advancement in 2013, they have effectively expanded their territory by liberating previous ISIS strongholds.
Although the Kurds presently hold a large swath of territory in northern Syria and Iraq, Western leaders do not recognize it as a state.
The decision by Erdogan to deploy Turkish tanks and special forces across the Syrian border is seen by Western leaders as a way not only to help defeat ISIS but to prevent Syrian Kurdish militias from acquiring more territory within the region.
Turkey’s intervention places the U.S. in an awkward love triangle with its two closest allies in the fight against ISIS, and any action or lack of action from the U.S. will ultimately strain relations between one of the allies.
If the U.S. arms the Kurds, Turkey will see this as a direct assault against its nation, which will further strain the tense relations between Obama and Erdogan.
However, if the U.S. does not arm the Kurds, it would be seen by the Kurds as yet another moment when western powers betrayed them in their time of need.
Some experts say the U.S. can abridge the rivalry by asking for peace between the two warring allies, but that is unlikely.
For one, Turkey sees Syrian Kurdish expansion as a national security threat and, as seen by its repeated bombardment against Kurdish strongholds, intends to stop it at any cost.
Secondly, the conflict lacks a simple resolution because it is deeply rooted within the history of both factions.
Following World War I, Kurdish nationalism blossomed, spurring the Kurdish people to demand to be given their own state.
When the Allied powers were left with the task of breaking up the former Ottoman Empire, they promised the Kurds their own state, but the promise never flourished.
The Western leaders left the Kurds homeless, and scattered over a region shared by Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. They are now the largest ethnic group in the world that has no homeland.
A Kurdish resistance was eventually born. The most influential resistance group evolved in southern Turkey and was led by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party. Since its birth in 1984, the PKK has launched numerous interventions against the Turkish Republic in hopes of securing an autonomous region of its own.
While Turkey and the Syrian Kurds did sign a peace agreement in 2013, the agreement flamed out in 2015 when the PKK accused Turkey of granting amnesty to ISIS fighters and allowed them to cross its border to attack the Kurdish city of Kobanî.
Turkey retaliated with military operations that, according to Human Rights Watch, killed hundreds of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
Since, the two factions have been engaged in small skirmishes around the Syrian-Turkey border. Most recently, on Sept. 25, backed by the U.S., Turkey seized the Syrian town of Jarabulus to prevent the Kurds from capturing it first.
It is expected that interventions such as these will escalate throughout the conflict.
If the escalation is not immediately seen it would surely arise after the defeat of ISIS.
This is because it is unlikely that Turkey will respect the territorial gains made by the Syrian Kurds while fighting ISIS and would seek to take these lands by force.
If the Obama administration chooses to arm the Syrian Kurds, it will perpetuate the conflict. Armed with better equipment, the Kurds will feel more apt to confront Turkish forces, who will obviously retaliate. What is more, Turkey may even seek to break its alliance with the U.S.
However, leaving the Kurds high and dry will open them to attacks from Turkey, which possesses far better equipment and a robust economy to back the conflict.
Consequently, if the Syrian Kurds suffers heavy losses, the U.S. loses a key figure in their fight against ISIS.