The Implications of a Kurdish Victory Over ISIS in Tal Abyad

Last week, Kurdish forces fighting for the Syria-based Democratic Union Party (PYD) wrested control of the border town of Tel Abyad from the Islamic State. The seizure of the town cut off a key supply line to the Islamic State’s de-facto capital in Raqqa and allowed for the unification of two Kurdish controlled cantons, Kobane and Jazira, between which sits Tel Abyad.

The victory came after the Islamic State nearly defeated PYD forces in Kobane last October, before the dramatic increase in coalition air strikes helped turn the tide of the battle. During the Islamic State’s siege of Kobane, the United States set up a conduit for the PYD to provide targeting data to a military planning office in Erbil, which is then relayed to coalition aircraft. The PYD has since relied heavily on U.S. airpower to aid in their advance and eventual capture of IS-held territory.

Neighboring Turkey has shunned the PYD, owing to its close links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a U.S., EU, and Turkish-designated terror group that has been waging an on-and-off-again conflict against the Turkish state for more than three decades. Ankara does not differentiate between the two groups and argues that the PYD’s actions in Syria are tantamount to ethnic cleansing, and part of a broader effort to create a PKK-allied state along its longest land border.

The United States has ignored Turkey’s concerns, pointing to the group’s success against the Islamic State and its distance from Islamist rebel groups — most of which Turkey supports — as the reasons for its continued support. American policy has thus helped to create a Kurdish-controlled enclave in Syria that is hostile to Turkish interests, both inside Turkey and throughout areas in northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. Further still, the United States has indirectly signaled that it will now protect Kurdish gains, lest it risk the Islamic State overrunning Kurdish forces in an organized counter attack.

This poses a problem for Turkey. Ankara has pursued on-and-off-again peace negotiations with the PKK since 2006. The Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led process was primarily aimed at ending the violence and creating a viable pathway for the PKK to rely on democratic politics to advance its cause, rather than violence. The two sides agreed to a cease-fire in 2013, but the talks eventually stalled after the AKP demanded that the PKK disarm before negotiations advanced to the next stage. The PKK, in contrast, conditioned its disarmament on the AKP taking more steps to grant Kurdish rights in Turkey.

Read the entire article, “PKKistan: Brought To You by American Close Air Support,” on the War on the Rocks blog.

Related Experts: Aaron Stein