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War of Shadows: How Turkey’s Conflict with the PKK Shapes the Syrian Civil War and Iraqi Kurdistan

War of Shadows: How Turkey’s Conflict with the PKK Shapes the Syrian Civil War and Iraqi Kurdistan
8th August 2017 ICSR Team
In Publications, Reports

By John Holland-McCowan

The full report can be accessed here

Key Findings

• With Syria and Iraq in flames, Turkey’s escalating conflict with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has created yet another tinderbox in the region. This report seeks to explain how the fate of the Syrian Civil War and Iraqi Kurdistan has and will continue to be influenced by this bitter contest.

• Despite the PKK’s terrorist designation, the organization has played an instrumental role in both the Syrian Civil War and the fight against the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL).

• Yet while they have gathered their strength in Iraq and Syria, Ankara has grown increasingly restless. An intervention in northern Syria, an offensive in the predominately Kurdish southeast of Turkey, and intensified airstrikes in both countries against PKK affiliated forces were all triggered by President Erdogan’s fight against the PKK.


• Multiple credible sources indicate that the PKK is the driving force behind both the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

• US cooperation with the PKK and their affiliates dates back to the beginning of Washington’s involvement in the anti-ISIL campaign. Their partnership successfully repulsed the ISIL offensive from Iraqi Kurdistan and has aided in the recapture of much of northern Syria from ISIL control.

• Turkey has responded in kind by increasing their support for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the ruling political party in the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), in order to serve as a counterweight against the PKK’s interests in the Levant. The struggle for control of the strategically important city of Sinjar serves as an illustrative example.


• Despite vehement Turkish objections, the US government appears likely to only ramp up their support for the YPG and SDF in the foreseeable future due to their tightening cooperation in the fight against ISIL.

• The struggle between the PKK and Turkey hinders the recapture of Raqqa, poses large obstacles to political solutions of the conflicts in both Syria and Iraq, and ultimately prolongs the existence of the so-called Islamic State.

• Policy makers should recognize that a volatile Turkey is likely to resort to extreme and unexpected measures going forward in order to weaken the PKK in both Iraq and Syria. This war of shadows risks sparking an even deadlier regional conflagration.

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