SYRIA – The YPG have been key in the defeats of the self-styled Islamic State in Syria, and now they are targeted by Turkey.
The Kurdish militia of the Popular Protection Units (YPG) is the target of the recent Turkish offensive in the city of Afrin, in northern Syria.
On Sunday, the Turkish army announced that it had taken Mount Barsaya, near Afrin and significant because from this the Syrian and Turkish borders can be seen, according to the news agency AFP.
Turkey maintains that these militias are a “terrorist group” that has links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which since 1984 has been fighting for the creation of an independent Kurdish state.
However, the YPG, which has the support of the United States, denies having any terrorist link and any type of political or military nexus with the PKK.
Who makes up the YPG
The YPG lead the Syrian Democratic Forces (FDS) , a Kurdish-Arab alliance that fights the Islamic State in Syria. In that mission, it has the support of the United States.
The website specialising in international security Globalsecurity.org estimates that currently has 65,000 fighters , some of them foreigners.
Although the YPG are considered to be the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) , the main Kurdish opposition political group in Syria – established in 2003 and with an ideology similar to the PKK -, according to Global Security, the militia has tried to define itself as an apolitical and multi-ethnic organization that defends all religious communities, both the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Islamist extremists.
Key against the Islamic State
The militia faces, the Islamic State (IS) since mid-2013, when the extremist group turned to three Kurdish enclaves bordering the territory under its control in northern Syria.
In September 2014, the jihadists launched an attack on the Kurdish city of Kobani, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee across the Turkish border.
Despite the proximity of the fight, Turkey refused to attack the positions of EI or allow the Turkish Kurds to cross to defend themselves.
More than a year later, in January 2015, after a battle that left 1,600 dead and more than 3,200 buildings destroyed or damaged, the YPG regained control of the city of Kobani.
Since then, with the help of the American bombings, its militants recovered thousands of square kilometers taken by EI .
In October 2017, the SDS captured the city of Raqqa, considered the de facto capital of Islamic State.
Their victories, however, put the Kurds and their allies in direct contact with the Syrian government forces supported by Russia and with the rebels supported by Turkey.
Why does Turkey refuse to help the Kurds in their battle against IS?
Ankara sees the Kurdish nationalists as a threat to their integrity, as much as the one represented by the jihadist group.
The hostility of Turkey towards Kurds , who make up between 15 and 20% in that country, is deep and long – standing.
The Kurds have received harsh treatment from the Turkish authorities for generations.
After a series of uprisings between 20 and 30, many Kurds were resettled, the Kurds names and customs were banned, using their restricted language, and even the exists n cia of a Kurdish identity was denied , and concerned they like “Turks of the mountains”.
In 1978, Abdullah Ocalan founded the PKK, which advocates the creation of an independent state of Turkey. Six years later, the group began the armed struggle.
Since then, more than 40,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced.
n August 2016, Turkey, alarmed by the advance near its border of the Kurdish forces, sent troops and tanks to the north of Syria to support the Free Syrian Army (SLA), moderate rebels facing the regime of Bashar al Assad since 2011.
The ELS snatched several key cities on the border from Islamic State, preventing the Kurdish militia from winning more territory.
The announcement this month of the United States to create a new “border security force” made up of 30,000 people , half from the ranks of the SDS, to prevent IS militants from filtering across the borders with Turkey and Iraq, angered Ankara.
The Turkish government considersl as YPG an extension of the PKK , and shares its goal of creating a Kurdish state through armed struggle. That is why he refuses to have armed Kurdish groups on his border, and has referred to the deployment as a “terrorist army”.
What are the ambitions of the Kurds in Syria?
The Kurds represent between 7 and 10% of the Syrian population.
Before the uprising against President al-Assad in 2011, the majority lived in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, as well as in areas near the cities of Kobani, Afrin and Qamishli.
As in Turkey, the Syrian Kurds will s denied basic rights . Around 300,000 were denied citizenship since 1960, and many of their lands were confiscated and redistributed among the Arab population in an attempt to “Arabise” the Kurdish regions.
When the uprising led to civil war, the main Kurdish parties publicly avoided taking a stand. In mid-2012, government forces withdrew to focus on fighting rebels in other areas, and Kurdish groups took control.
In early 2014, the Kurdish parties – including the dominant PYD – declared the creation of “autonomous administrations” in three “cantons”: Afrin, Kobani and Jazira.
In March 2016, they announced the establishment of a “federal system” that included Arab and Turkmen areas taken from EI.
The statement was rejected by both the Syrian government and the opposition, by Turkey and the United States.
The PYD says it does not seek independence , but insists that any political agreement to end the conflict in Syria must include legal guarantees for the Kurds and recognition of Kurdish autonomy.
President Assad has promised to retake control of all of Syria, but other figures in his government have spoken out in favor of negotiating with the Kurds about their demands for autonomy.