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The US and Turkey are back on collision course over the Kurdish question in northern Syria. The latest spat is a result of Turkish threats to attack Manbij, a strategically located city in Aleppo governorate, to rid it of Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) control. The SDF mainly comprises of People’s Protection Unit (YPG) fighters, which is the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD-YPG allegedly have close links with Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) that has spearheaded an armed insurgency in south eastern Turkey for decades. PKK has used the mountainous terrain and Kurdish demography in northern Iraq and Syria as hideouts and for training its fighters. Turkey accuses PYD-YPG of providing safe-haven for PKK fighters in areas under its control. Hence, Ankara has been urging Washington to end its reliance on the SDF to fight the Daesh (IS). The US is reluctant to end its support because the SDF has proved to be the most effective force in defeating the IS in northern Syria.

In December 2018, as part of his plan to reduce the number of foreign deployment of American soldiers, President Donald Trump announced that the US is going to withdraw its remaining 2,000 troops from Syria. Mr. Trump claimed that the US objective of defeating the IS has been achieved, therefore the US troops will return home. The news elicited cheers in Turkey. Reports from Ankara suggested that Turkey is preparing to expand its military operations in northern Syria with plans to neutralize both SDF and IS. The euphoric reaction notwithstanding, Turkish President Erdogan took a cautious view of the US announcement. He stated that Turkey will wait to “see on the ground the result of America’s decision to withdraw from Syria” before launching the planned “East of the Euphrates” offensive. Later, a high-level Turkish delegation comprising of its Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and security officials visited Moscow to take the Russian view on issue.

President Trump’s surprise announcement created a rift in the US administration. Reportedly, Pentagon was not party to the decision and this led to Defence Secretary James Mattis resigning in protest. The uproar in Washington resulted in Mr. Trump issuing a statement that withdrawal of US troops from Syria will be gradual. Subsequently, the US National Security Advisor John Bolton clarified that the withdrawal of US troops is conditional on complete defeat of the IS and that the remnants of the terrorist group are yet to be eliminated. Mr. Bolton visited Ankara to carry out negotiations on managing the situation in northern Syria but returned without any agreement. President Erdogan reacting to Mr. Bolton’s statements argued that Turkey does not make any distinction between YPG, PKK and ISI who are all terrorists and a threat to Turkey’s national security.

Further, Ankara signalled that it is not willing to review the planned military offensive in Manbij over US opposition. This prompted Washington to issue an open threat that if Ankara goes against the US to target the SDF, Washington will “devastate Turkey economically.”

Syrian Kurds are an ethnic minority with demographic advantage in northeast Syria. They want to achieve political autonomy in the post-civil war Syria. However, various stakeholders with differing interests and views are working against such an eventuality. Turkey takes a hard-line view on Kurds, the US continues to give mixed and confusing signals and Iran insists on restoring complete territorial sovereignty for the Bashar al-Assad regime. Russia, though willing to accommodate some of the Kurdish aspirations, remains non-committal. Amidst tensions between Turkey and the US, and clamour for staking claim to the territories cleared of IS, the Syrian Kurds remain a community whose fate hangs in balance.

India has close ties with the region and wants an amicable end to the Syrian crisis, which is a humanitarian catastrophe. New Delhi hopes that the international community would recognize the contribution of all parties in defeating the IS while finding a solution for Syria   

Note:  This article was originally published in the web journal, Air World Service and has been reproduced with the permission of the author. Web link