(Bloomberg) -- The Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG has played a major role in the U.S.-led coalition that’s helped to subdue Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Turkey, though a part of that coalition, has periodically attacked the group, which it regards as an extension of the autonomy-seeking Kurds who have battled the Turkish state for decades. Turkey’s latest offensive against the militia has tested the country’s already strained relations with the U.S. and complicated efforts to end Syria’s seven-year civil war.
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. Whose side is the YPG on?
The YPG seeks greater autonomy for Syria’s Kurds and has shown readiness to work with any power capable of advancing that goal. It was never part of the Free Syrian Army, the Western-backed coalition that was the main opponent of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the war’s early years. Some rebels accuse the YPG of collaborating with Assad, who has supported the PKK. Suspicions were raised when forces loyal to Assad withdrew from several majority-Kurdish areas in northern Syria in mid-2012, allowing the YPG to establish control there. In 2015, when the Syrian Democratic Forces were created under U.S. auspices to fight Islamic State, YPG members formed its backbone, though the group includes some non-Kurdish fighters.
3. What’s the YPG’s relationship to the U.S.?
After the SDF was created, the U.S. began providing it material support and backing its operations with air power. At first, the U.S. supplied weapons it said were meant only for the coalition’s non-YPG elements. But in May 2017, the U.S. announced that it would directly arm them, saying YPG fighters were needed for the retaking of Islamic State’s Syrian headquarters, Raqqa. Turkey, which worries the weapons will fall into PKK hands, strongly objected. The U.S. pledged to reclaim the arms after the conquest of Raqqa, which fell to the coalition in October. In November, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said President Donald Trump had told his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the U.S. would no longer arm the YPG.
4. What prompted Turkey’s latest offensive?
Turkish officials were outraged when a U.S. spokesman said the coalition fighting Islamic State would create a force with the Syrian Democratic Forces to guard Syria’s border with Turkey. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later said it was a mistaken description, and the Pentagon released a statement saying its assistance to Syrian forces was aimed at preventing Islamic State from re-establishing itself. Turkish officials were not placated. They accuse the YPG of operating hand-in-hand with the PKK and worry that the militia, with U.S. support, is entrenching its control of a swath of northeast Syria, which it will use as a base to stage attacks on Turkey. Turkish officials claim that about 12,000 people, mostly PKK militants, have died in clashes between security forces and the group since a peace process broke down in July 2015. It was not possible to independently verify the figure.
5. What’s Turkey’s objective?
Turkish forces and rebels from the Free Syrian Army attacked the Syrian town of Afrin with the aim of clearing it of YPG fighters. They said their next target was Manbij, about 50 miles to the east, where U.S. troops are based alongside the Syrian militia, increasing the risk of a clash between the NATO allies. The YPG has pushed to connect these and other towns it has taken during Syria’s war into one contiguous zone of “self-administration.” When Turkey first sent its troops into Syria in the summer of 2016, a key goal was to prevent the Kurdish controlled areas from joining up.
6. Who are the Kurds?
They are an Indo-European people, mostly Sunni Muslims, numbering about 30 million, whose homeland is divided among 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.
7. What else is straining U.S.-Turkish relations?
Notably, a Turkish banker’s conviction in the U.S. on sanctions violation charges, and the failure of the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish-born preacher whom Ankara accuses of instigating a failed 2016 coup. The U.S. has cited a lack of sufficient evidence in the Gulen case. Washington, meanwhile, has cautioned Turkey against purchasing the Russian S-400 missile defense system, which is not compatible with NATO.
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 Syria’s civil war, Islamic State and the Kurds.
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