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US support, Turkish tolerance for Syrian Kurds adds to regional confusion

Turkey says it will finally help Kurdish peshmerga fighters from Iraq enter Syria to help brethren; US drops arms

Turkey announced Monday it would allow Iraqi Kurdish security forces — or peshmerga — to pass through the Turkish border into Syria to fight with fellow Kurds attempting to defend the enclave of Kobane, a city that remains in grave danger of falling to ISIL.

Despite the backing of U.S.-led air strikes and — as of Sunday — arms deliveries, Kobane’s Kurds have warned in recent weeks that the city might fall to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which seeks to capture the city to consolidate its power in northern Syria.

Turkey’s decision to allow Iraqi Kurds to join the fight against ISIL marked a departure from Ankara’s longstanding refusal to do anything in Syria that it fears might bolster its own Kurdish insurgency, orchestrated by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The PKK is allied with the Kurdish defenders of Kobane – the YPG armed fighters and their political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Turkey – and also its NATO ally the United States – regard the PKK as a terrorist organization, and had previously sealed its border with Syria to Turkish Kurds hoping to join the fight against ISIL or even help with the humanitarian effort.

Though the Iraqi peshmerga forces in question have a complicated relationship with the PKK – they have often been at odds, in fact – many saw Ankara's decision as a sign that its resolve to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime had momentarily taken a backseat to the brewing tragedy in Kobane. Ankara has come under growing domestic pressure in the form of lethal protests by Kurds in its major cities, who accuse their government of allowing ISIL fighters to transit through Turkey because they effectively countered Turkey’s main enemies in Syria – Assad and the Kurds.

There are signs Ankara has grown to regret its ISIL policy, as Kurdish refugees fleeing ISIL violence increasingly burden government resources and ISIL cells in Turkey pose a growing domestic threat. 

But Turkey has refused to assume a wider role in the U.S.-led coalition currently striking ISIL in Syria and Iraq, because it believes the effort is too narrowly focused on the extremists and has no plan for defeating the Assad regime.

The global spectacle of Kobane has lent sudden urgency to U.S. pleas, however, as the town is surrounded by ISIL on three sides and Turkey’s border on the other, and faces almost certain brutality if it falls.

Analysts are still parsing the implications of this week’s escalated coalition support for Kurdish fighters in Kobane, but they caution that Turkey has made only a modest compromise on the city’s behalf so far.

Syria’s Kurds are positioned awkwardly between Syria’s disjointed rebel factions – which include ISIL – and the Assad regime. The regime long oversaw the marginalization of Syria’s Kurds, but could now be an ally of convenience in combatting ISIL, the Kurds’ greatest threat.

For the past several years, the PYD have maneuvered through the chaos of Syria's multifarious war to carve out three semi-autonomous cantons in Syria, a process that began in 2012 when the Assad regime withdrew the bulk of its forces in a strategic gamble to concentrate efforts elsewhere. Above all else, the Kurds want greater autonomy for themselves in the northern and northeastern parts of Syria collectively known as Syrian Kurdistan.

The Kurds could live with greater autonomy, even if Assad remains in power.

It is unclear how the crisis in Kobane has changed the PYD’s long-term calculations, but boosted coalition support could complicate things for the Assad regime. YPG militias have fought alongside the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) – the so-called “moderate” rebels – in the past, and some suspect that cooperation could become more commonplace now that they share the same foreign backing.

“There is a risk for Assad that there could be a Kurdish-FSA alliance in the future supported by Turkey and a Western anti-ISIL coalition, but so far, there seems to be ongoing rivalry" playing out between the Turks and the Kurds in Syria, said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst of Kurdish politics with the Jamestown Foundation. “As long as the attacks will focus on ISIL, it would not mean much for Assad.”

Others argue that this week’s shift in Ankara and Washington will still not be enough to facilitate a Kurdish victory in Kobane, and that a major ISIL conquest of Kurdish lands would actually push the PYD closer towards some sort of backdoor deal with the Assad regime (rival Syrian rebel factions have long suspected such a deal already exists).

According to van Wilgenburg, the PYD is aiming for “confederalism” – or an autonomous administration in Syria that is loosely tied to other Kurdish regions in Iraq, Turkey and Iran. The Assad regime, which has seen its stock rise as rebel factions increasingly fight each other, could grant the Kurds greater autonomy in return for their cooperation.

The entrance of peshmerga forces into Kobane could also add another layer to Kurdish regional rivalries. The peshmerga are loyal to the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), ruled by president Massoud Barzani and more closely aligned to the PYD’s rival party in Syria, the Kurdish National Conference (KNC). Barzani has long sought to wield greater influence over the PYD and there are even rumors he has accused PYD co-leader Salih Muslim of being a regime collaborator in closed-door meetings.

Helping the PYD in Kobane, analysts note, could inadvertently boost the KRG’s other enemies – including the Assad regime. Meanwhile, the critical role played by PKK fighters in the fight against ISIL in Iraq, has made the KRG wary about its preeminence among Kurds in Iraq.

Writing in The National Interest, George Petrolekas and Howard Coombs summarized this tangle of alliances and unsolvable conflicts of interest: “Whether Kobane falls or not it presents a series of contradictions for everyone – whichever camp they belong to.”

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