On Wednesday, August 24, Turkish forces launched a major ground assault into Syria, spearheaded by a battalion of Leopard tanks and Special Forces troops and supported by U.S. airpower. The attack was aimed at the town of Jarablus, astride the Euphrates River. The town was speedily liberated from militants of the Islamic State, who had held it for nearly two and a half years. The Turkish attack, however, was aimed as much at keeping Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates as it was at ejecting Islamic State militants from the border region. After all, Turkish forces could have intervened in the conflict years ago, but only chose this moment, when Kurdish forces seemed poised to extend their control of northern Syria closer to the Mediterranean Sea.
Turkey’s concern over Kurdish separatists stems from the post-World War I settlement, which left the Kurds stateless and split among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres would have created a small Kurdistan in southeastern Turkey, omitting the Kurds in areas of Iran and what would become Iraq and Syria. The Turks refused to agree to the terms, however, and three years later the Treaty of Lausanne made no provision for a Kurdish homeland. Nearly a hundred years later, the consequences of this decision are still being felt.
The growth of Kurdish nationalism over the past century has resulted in the creation of Kurdish separatist movements in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Only in the latter state have the Kurds achieved autonomy. The Kurdish region of northern Iraq enjoys its own regional parliament, is governed by its own prime minister, displays its own flag, and is protected by its own military force, the Peshmerga. What the Kurdish region in Iraq doesn’t have, at least yet, is its own source of revenue; although its sits astride significant oil fields, getting that oil to market has been a challenge in the mountainous, land-locked area.
Even considering its challenges, Iraqi Kurdistan is a paradise compared to Kurdish areas in Turkey and Syria. Turkish leaders have long sought to suppress Kurdish nationalism in southeast Turkey, going so far as to deny that the residents of the area are even Kurdish—labeling them instead as “mountain Turks.” The Kurds have risen up in response, with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) waging a guerrilla and terrorist campaign to gain autonomy and political and cultural rights for Turkish Kurds. Since 1984 the conflict has taken upwards of 40,000 lives and cost Turkey hundreds of billions of dollars.
The Syrian civil war has given Syrian Kurds, under the guise of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm (the YPG, or People’s Protection Units), the opportunity to carve out an autonomous Kurdish region in the northern part of the country. Kurdish militias have fought successfully against forces of the Islamic State as well as against rival jihadist rebel groups. The U.S. military has been impressed enough by their performance to support them with Special Forces teams and airpower. Turkish leaders have been less than impressed; they consider the PYD a terrorist organization on a par with the PKK.
The growth of Kurdish power, however, has alarmed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The seizure of the town of Manbij, west of the Euphrates River, by Kurdish and Syrian Democratic forces on August 12 prompted Turkey’s military intervention into northern Syria this week. In the wake of the incursion, Turkish military officials talked about creating a “terror-free zone” in northern Syria, by which they meant a zone free of Kurdish militias as well as Islamic State militants.
One wonders what the diplomats who fashioned the post-World War I settlement would have thought about this week’s events. At the very least, the fighting might have given the statesmen pause, knowing they had only one decent chance to get the borders right and thereby prevent a descent into bloodshed that seems to have no end in sight.