This is part 4 of a short mini-series on Turkey’s invasion into Syria. The prior post was a reference guide, a sort of cheat sheet, with all (or at least most) of the acronyms you’ll need to parse any news articles on this topic. This article will provide a bit more context on these groups, their inter-group dynamics, and foreign policies.
Check out parts 1-3 here:
Part 2 (podcast): Is America’s Syria withdrawal a betrayal to the Kurds?
Part 3: What is a Kurd? Reference Guide
What is a Kurd? Explainer
Since the reference guide went country by country, let’s do that here too, and explain who these actors are, what they want, and how their interests either collide or intersect.
When the Syrian civil war broke out, the US initially supported what they thought were moderate Sunni rebel groups in their fight against Assad. After the US dedicated $500 million to a program to train Sunni rebels, the program was shut down after $41 million only produced 5 fighters. That's not a typo: 5 fighters. Also turns out that there weren't any moderate rebels in Syria, so a number of US arms ended up in the hands of jihadist militias that don't look particularly kindly upon the US.
As this policy was proving a miserable failure, the Islamic State (IS) was seizing territory and threatening the regional order of the Middle East. Something had to be done. But after a decade of war in Iraq with nothing to show for it, Americans’ appetite for a new Middle Eastern war was low, to say the least. The US could use air force that did not expose US personnel to too much harm, but who would do the fighting on the ground?
Enter the YPG.
The YPG were natural allies for the US in the fight against IS, since IS was directly threatening YPG territory with a form of government that was very much worth restisting. At the time, Assad and the YPG had made a deal. Assad would not deploy his forces to Syrian Kurdish territory in the north, which would allow him to concentrate his forces elsewhere. In exchange, the YPG would be granted greater autonomy, at least until the war was over. Syrian Kurds and Assad were not adversaries in the Syrian civil war.
The YPG forms the majority of the SDF. However, there are Syrians that live in northern Syria that are not Kurds. The SDF is therefore comprised of a number of non-Kurdish fighters, including "Syrian Arabs, Turkmen, Kurdish, Christian and Assyrian fighters". I've read estimates that about 25% of the SDF is comprised of Syrian Arab fighters, with other ethnicities and religions making up a much smaller minority.
Unlike in many western countries, Kurdish custom allows women to fight actively on the front lines. The YPJ is the sister organization of the YPG, comprised entirely of woman fighters. These women are often in their late teens and early twenties. Some believe that YPJ fighters were particularly feared by IS, since being killed by a woman would, according to their beliefs, prevent them from getting into heaven and reaping the rewards of martyrdom.
Turkey has essentially fought a low-grade civil war - or a long-lasting insurgency, depending on who you ask - against the PKK since the 1980s. Every source you come across cites 40,000 killed in this conflict, but in all honesty, I've tried to track down the original source for this number and failed, so use it to gauge of relative scale rather than a precise figure (Turkey is a country of 82 million people).
Turkey has for a long time been an adversary of Assad (for reasons I won't get into here). When the Syrian civil war first broke out, Turkey infamously let foreign fighters seeking to join IS cross its border into Syria. Before the US teamed up with the YPG, it first sought out Turkey to wage war against IS. Turkey, however, saw IS primarily as a force that would weaken its adversary, Assad, and therefore did little.
There are an estimated ~30 million Kurds living between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, but the highest number are believed to live in Turkey, congregated in the southeast of the country near the Syrian border.
Kurdish parties are not illegal in Turkey, but Turkish Kurds generally face greater than average persecution. For example, Turkey imprisoned the former leader of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, for "spreading terrorist propaganda", but in reality his jailing was entirely political. As a sense of scale, the HDP took a small percentage of the votes in the 2019 Turkish local elections (~5%), in which the AKP performed far worse than was expected (including losing the Istanbul mayoral election, a major symbolic defeat).
Turkey's relationship with the KRG is more positive than with the PKK or YPG. Turkey regularly buys oil from Iraqi Kurdistan, and the KRG does what it can to maintain good relations with Turkey.
However, many Iranian Kurdish groups (more below), which are all outlawed in Iran, seek refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. The PJAK (an Iranian Kurdish group) is believed to be closely affiliated with the PKK, which is also believed to hide and conduct training in the difficult-to-reach mountain areas of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey regular conducts special forces operations and airstrikes in Iraq targeting these groups.
The KRG is publicly opposed to the PJAK and PKK hiding out in its mountainous hinterlands. At the same time, the PJAK and PKK are still there, which raises the question of whether or not these groups are cooperating in some way with the KRG. The KRG is potentially caught between showing solidarity for its fellow Iranian Kurds, forced to serve in exiled militias, or maintaining good relations with Turkey, which buys a lot of its oil and has demonstrated a willingness to invade neighboring countries if it perceives a PKK-related threat.
Iranian Kurdish parties, such as the PJAK and KDPI, are outlawed militias in Iran. Iran regularly conducts attacks against Iranian Kurdish groups in Iran’s north, and there is some evidence that the US is using the Iranian Kurds to keep up the pressure on Iran (you can read the details about that here).
Iranian Kurds are far poorer, on average, than other Iranians. The government often ignores the challenges they face, despite the potentially serious threat that Iranian Kurdish militias pose to the regime. The reason for this is simple: Iran is stretched thin, has limited resources and not enough cash to go around to keep everyone happy.
Iranian Kurds are treated extremely poorly by the Iranian regime. One example is that of the Kolbars, couriers that carry goods across the hazardous, freezing mountain border between Iraq and Iran. The terrain is too jagged and rocky for pack animals, so Kolbars carry the often extremely heavy loads on their backs. The Iranian government considers Kolbars’ goods to be trafficked, and Iranian soldiers regularly fire on and kill Kolbar couriers.
Why, you ask, would someone choose such a profession? There are so few opportunities in Iranian Kurdistan that people seek out any opportunity that pays, regardless of the risk, and despite the atrocious, inequitable risks they face to earn a living. Kolbar trade, therefore, makes up a significant portion of the Iranian Kurdistan economy, even as the Iranian Regime has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to kill Iranian Kurds for taking up the occupation.
This is a ton of information, and if it’s new to you, it would be entirely unreasonable to expect it all to stick at first reading. Use this and the prior reference cheat sheet as guides to help you parse new events as they come out of Syria.