As U.S. forces continue to try to exterminate ISIS in Syria, they are faced with a fresh problem. Turkey, a country which was criticized for initially sitting on the sidelines in the war against ISIS, has launched attacks against the United States’ Kurdish allies in northern Syria. To try to shore up their forces against the Turkish incursion, Kurdish leaders are pulling their fighters from the war against ISIS.
The New York Times reported that “[i]n recent weeks, Kurdish officials have pulled thousands of fighters and commanders from that battle [against ISIS] and rushed them to Afrin, in Syria’s northwest, where other Kurdish militia are facing sharp attacks from Turkish troops.”
Kurdish forces have been crucial to the U.S. fight against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. The Times article called the Kurds in Syria the U.S. military campaign’s “most effective fighting partner.” Last year, the State Department approved a deal to send $300 million in weapons to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Iraq, and U.S. forces had trained “more than 22,000 Kurdish fighters” as of August, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The Kurds primarily inhabit a region called Kurdistan that stretches across the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and parts of Armenia. The Turkish government and the Kurds have been at odds for decades. In a push for greater autonomy, a Kurdish militant group called the PKK has been fighting in Turkey since 1978. Turkey, the EU, and the U.S. have all declared the PKK to be a terrorist group, but the U.S. sees a difference between the PKK and other Kurdish groups, while Turkey views them all as terrorist organizations.
In 2014 and early 2015, Turkey repeatedly refused to attack ISIS, frustrating the U.S. and its allies. That changed on July 20, 2015, when an ISIS suicide bomber attacked the Turkish town of Suruc, killing 32 people. Since then Turkey has launched a “synchronized war on terror” against ISIS — and the Kurds.
According to U.S. commanders and analysts cited by the Times, the Kurdish retreat to defend against Turkey “threatens not only to slow progress against several hundred Islamic State fighters who are hiding along the Euphrates River or in nearby deserts, but also could allow battle-hardened foreign fighters to escape deeper into western Syria and eventually into Turkey or Jordan — and possibly return home to Europe or Africa to commit mayhem there.”