Skip to main content

Turkey squabbles with Kurds over who is leading the fight against Islamic State

With the threat of a Turkish ground invasion in Syria, the title of chief IS opponent is taking on new importance
A picture shows a view of the 'Free Woman' square in the Kurdish majority northern Syrian city of Kobane, on 24 November 2022. Kobane, a Kurdish-majority town near the Turkish border, was captured by the Islamic State group in late 2014 before Syrian Kurdish forces drove them out early the following year (AFP)

Reinvigorated Turkish attacks on northeastern Syria have diverted attention back towards the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, with Turkey and Kurdish forces in the region jostling for the valuable mantle of chief IS opponent.

Turkey, which has been threatening a new ground offensive in Syria for months, accelerated its artillery and air campaign there soon after a bomb attack in Istanbul in November killed six people and wounded dozens more.

Turkey's looming invasion of Syria tests US-Kurdish ties
Read More »

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Turkey blamed the attack on the People's Protection Units (YPG), which it views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an armed Kurdish faction that has been at war with Turkey for decades.

The YPG is also the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US-led international coalition's local partner fighting IS in the country.

Both Syrian government forces and YPG fighters have been killed in the Turkish retaliation to the Istanbul bombing. The PKK, YPG and SDF denied any involvement in the attack.

Now, with the ground offensive looming, the YPG and Turkey are fighting for regional legitimacy by amplifying the threat posed by IS and their own role in combating the group. Up for grabs are regional and political clout. Leading the charge against IS brings, in theory at least, the favour of the 84 countries in the international coalition, in particular the US.

The buffer zone

Turkey launched its first invasion of Syria in 2016, with the aim of depriving Kurdish fighters of a base along its border. Two more military forays followed in 2018 and 2019, giving Turkey and its Arab allied armed groups control over large swaths of Syrian territory.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Turkey will continue to target YPG forces within the 30km area south of its border declared a buffer zone in September 2018 in a set of deals with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's patron Russia.

Map syria

Last week, Erdogan said that Ankara wants to normalise ties with the Syrian government through trilateral contacts that would include Russia.

In August, he said that Ankara isn't seeking to unseat Assad, a shift from his decade-old policy of backing the Syrian rebels against Assad's government.

War of words

IS still poses a danger in the region, despite losing its territory, as shown in the deadly prison break earlier this year and almost daily attacks against security forces and citizens in northeastern Syria.

Both Turkey and the SDF have insisted they are the principal threat to the group.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said recently that Turkey is "the only country fighting Daesh [the Arabic acronym for IS]", warning allied countries not to support the PKK, which it described as "a bloody terrorist organisation".

"Turkey, which has neutralised 4,500 radical Daesh terrorists in northern Iraq and Syria, is ready for all kinds of cooperation to combat Daesh and all other terrorist organisations," said Akar.

Turkish authorities are thinking of next year's elections as they push to monopolise the fight against IS, according to Yahya Hakoum, a PhD candidate in political studies at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris.

Eliminating what they see as the threat of the PKK from their southern border would be a win for Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the run-up to the June vote. He could "present a model of victory for the Turkish people over the enemy - represented by the PKK", said Hakoum.

For Omer Ozkizilcik, a Turkish foreign policy and security analyst based in Ankara, Turkish airstrikes and shelling have nothing to do with the battle against IS, as the SDF claims.

"Geographically, Turkish operations are in the north, and IS cells are in the south," he told MEE, adding that the United States' refusal to stop supporting the PKK is at the root of the current conflict.

Turkey's muscle on the ground is the Syrian National Army, composed mainly of non-state armed groups that once fought against IS in the areas of Al-Bab, Jarabulus and the northern Aleppo countryside in mid-2016.

For its part, the SDF has warned that a Turkish ground incursion would jeopardise its fight against IS, diverting resources from protecting prisons holding IS fighters or fighting IS sleeper cells waging hit-and-run attacks.

Syria: 100 children still missing after Islamic State attack on Hasakah jail
Read More »

Increasing numbers of SDF officials have threatened to abandon their duties if there is no international intervention to stop the Turkish attacks.

On 23 November, the head of the SDF Media Centre, Ferhad Shami, tweeted that a Turkish warplane had struck one of the Kurdish Internal Security Forces' - or Asayish - checkpoints near the Al-Hol camp, which contains more than 60,000 residents, mostly wives and children of former IS members. Several pro-SDF news websites also indicated that some IS families escaped from the camp in the chaotic aftermath.

Naima Um Ahmed, a Syrian woman who lives in the fifth section of the camp, told MEE that the camp was never bombed, although Turkish airstrikes targeted Al-Bahra road, five or so kilometres north of the camp. "There were no cases of escape from the camp that day because it is completely surrounded by walls and fences, like a prison," Um Ahmed said.

Naima adds that she has not seen any change in the security measures inside Al-Hol camp since Turkey intensified its attacks: "We have not noticed any decrease in the number of SDF guards. The SDF's security grip in the camp is still the same."

In October 2019, Turkish forces bombed the camp at Ain Issa, which contains IS-linked women and children. The SDF reportedly allowed camp residents to leave in the aftermath.

What's more, the part of the SDF that would confront a possible Turkish ground attack is entirely separate from that which carries out security operations against IS, Muhammad Othman, a media activist from Raqqa, told MEE.

"The responsible component for protecting the borders of the SDF with the areas of Turkish control in northern Raqqa and Hasakah is SDF Army Forces, which consists of fighters and those who are compulsorily recruited from among the young men who the SDF arrests in its areas of control," he said.

"These forces are backed by the deployment of the Syrian regime forces and its auxiliary militias… under direct Russian supervision," he added.

The Asayish, especially the local counter-terror units, known as "Hat", were trained specially by the International Coalition and therefore aren't allowed to interfere in the fight against Turkey. Plus, most are Arabs, not Kurds, making them less of a priority for Turkey.

Middle East Eye contacted the official spokesman of the SDF, Aram Hanna, for comment but received no response.

'The US is not going to go to bat for the SDF'

The SDF appears to have less sway with the US, its principal international ally, than it once did.

On 2 December, the SDF and US forces announced that they were suspending joint operations against IS in Syria due to Turkish aggression in the region.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin told his Turkish counterpart recently that the United States was in "strong opposition to a new Turkish military operation in Syria".

US spy chief 'strongly opposes' Turkey's bombing campaign in Syria
Read More »

A Pentagon spokesperson said in November that a ground invasion "would severely jeopardise the hard-fought gains that the world has achieved against IS and would destabilise the region". 

A recent Turkish drone strike on a base in Hasakah, Syria, came within 300 metres of American troops. Without naming its Nato ally, the Pentagon said the strike "directly threatened" US forces.

But while the coalition "urges for de-escalation", the US is unlikely to take a hard line with Turkey over Syria. Washington's attention is on Ukraine, where Turkey is a key player. Erdogan is one of the few international leaders still speaking to Putin.

So while the US has previously tried to prevent escalations between the Turks and the Kurds during previous flareups, analysts and former US officials are less optimistic about Washington's mediation efforts this time.

"The US is not going to go to bat for the SDF against the Turks in the way the SDF lobbies for," Sam Heller, a Syria expert at the Century Institute based in Beirut, told MEE in November. "It's just not plausible."

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.