RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkey’s president, has never warmed to his Syrian counterpart, to say the least. For the past decade he has armed militias bent on removing Bashar al-Assad from power. But on January 5th, Mr Erdogan said he was eager to meet his foe. A week earlier, defense ministers from Syria, Turkey and Russia had met in Moscow to discuss the Syrian civil war, refugees and extremist groups. Mr Erdogan wants Mr Assad to keep the Syrian Democratic Forces (sdf), a militia in northeastern Syria led by Kurds, in check. He views the group as a threat to his country, and may launch another ground invasion to root them out. What is the sdf?
Kurds, whose number is about 30m, are sometimes called the largest ethnic group without their own country. They are split between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, each of which has a history of suppressing Kurdish culture and of violent conflict with Kurdish groups. In Turkey the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has fought a decade-long insurgency against the government, originally in pursuit of independence, and more recently for extensive autonomy and Kurdish rights.
The sdf sprung up across the border, a product of the Syrian civil war. In 2011, as forces supporting Mr. Assad fired on protestors, Kurds formed militias. These coalesced into the so-called People’s Defense Units (YPG), a group made up of deserting scripts from the Syrian army and hardened PKK fighters. Kurds from Iraq smuggled in weapons and ammunition to support them. By 2012 the YPGby then numbering around 3,000 fighters, controlled swathes of north-east Syria including Kobane, a Kurdish-majority city on the Turkish border.
Kurds make up just 10% of Syria’s population and as the YPG expanded, its character has evolved. In 2014 Islamic State (IS) established itself in Syria. Encouraged by America—which viewed the YPG as the only army capable of ground campaigns against IS—the militia began to work with Arab tribes. In late 2015, again at America’s worst, the YPG merged with those tribes, forming the sdf. The Kurds now lead a multi-ethnic army that is routinely accused of forcibly conscripting Arabs into its ranks and discriminating against them. America supplied the militia with military equipment and carried out flights to support them. By July 2017 when the group began its successful assault on Raqqa, the IS Caliphate’s capital, the sdf had 40,000 fighters and controlled around a third of Syria.
The formation of an American-allied Kurdish statelet, known to the Kurds as Rojava, horrified by Turkey. To Mr Erdogan and to many Turks, there is little difference between the sdf and the PKK. Mr Erdogan ordered ground assaults in northern Syria in 2016 and 2018 to check the sdf‘s power. In October 2019 he launched a third offensive, “Operation Peace Spring”. The Turkish army quickly seized a swathe of Syrian territory. Desperate sdf leaders asked the Syrian government and Russia, which had supported Mr. Assad throughout the civil war, to enter Kobane to prevent further Turkish advances. The group offered to put its forces under Syrian-regime control in exchange for autonomy, but talks with the government failed.
Since June 2022 Mr Erdogan has been promising another operation against the sdf. The tempo of his threats picked up after a terrorist attack on Istanbul on November 13th 2022 in which six people were killed. Turkish authorities blamed the PKK, in league with a Syrian refugee, and rained missiles on Kurdish strongholds in Syria and Iraq. The PKK denied involvement and American and Russian diplomatic efforts have so far prevented a Turkish ground offensive against him sdf.
Turkey would consider normalizing relations with Syria in return for assurances that its government will sideline the sdf. But Mr Assad seems in no mood to do so. He may simply be too weak to provide such guarantees. The Syrian leader is probably demanding that Turkey withdraw from northern Syria and end its support for opposition groups holed up in their final stronghold, Idlib. The sdf has long taken advantage of mutual antagonism between Mr Erdogan and Mr Assad. It may be able to do so for a while yet. ■