The Syrian Conflict in a Nutshell

New mapThe US has reportedly agreed to directly arm Syrian Kurdish forces to help them attack and retake the ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria.  If true, the move would further muddy an already convoluted situation in that region. WHAT IS KURDISTAN?

The concept of a Greater Kurdistan encompasses the mountainous regions of southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, and western Iran.  There are large Kurdish minorities in all four nations that share a common culture and heritage.  The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims.

The goal of establishing an independent Kurdistan took hold in the early 20th century.  After World War I ended with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the Western nations made provisions for the establishment of a Kurdish state.  When the Treaty of Lausanne was later signed in 1923 to set the boundaries of modern Turkey, the idea of a Kurdish state was eliminated from the agreement.


1) Turkish Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in that country.  Kurdish rebellions against the Ottoman Empire were seen for centuries, even before modern-day Turkey was established.  In modern times, the separatist movement has been spearheaded by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) after it was founded in 1978.  It launched an armed struggle in 1984, leading the PKK to be classified as a terrorist group by the Turkish government, the EU, and the US.  In the 1990s, the PKK ended its demands for a separate state and will instead settle for more autonomy within Turkey.  The pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy party (HDP) denies links to the militant PKK.

2) Iraqi Kurds have lived in an autonomous region since 1992.  An autonomy agreement was originally struck between the Iraqi Kurds and government in 1970 after years of heavy fighting.  However, it wasn’t implemented until after the First Gulf War in 1991, when the creation of no-fly zones in northern Iraq helped provide the basis for Kurdish self-rule as Saddam Hussein’s troops left the area.  The Kurdish military forces here are known as the Peshmerga, which translates as “those who face death.”  The Peshmerga actively fought against Hussein, right up until he was toppled in 2003.  Afterwards, US forces continued to work with the Peshmerga.

3) Syrian Kurds have established a de facto (if not de jure) autonomous region, filling the void left by the ruling Bashar Assad as the civil war deepened and government forces withdrew from the Kurdish enclaves in 2012.  Syrian Kurdish militias eventually banded together to form Popular Protection Units (YPG).  YPG has been very effective in fighting ISIS, and has been one of the main partners with the US in this regard.  That is why the US recently decided to arm them directly for an assault on Raqqa.  On the other hand, Turkey considers YPG to be an extension of the PKK.

4) Iranian Kurds fall mainly under the banner of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI).  PDKI was founded in 1945 and has been fighting for Kurdish rights since its inception.  The PDKI was forced into exile after Iran’s revolution in 1979, maintaining a base in northern Iraq.  Other Kurdish groups have since been formed in Iran, including the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) and the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK).  And so unlike Iraqi Kurds, Iranian Kurds are split into different factions, making it more difficult to unite behind a common cause.

5) Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) came about in large part because of the Syrian conflict.  ISIS was originally a Sunni extremist group called al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) that sought to foment civil war throughout the region.  It used the opportunity afforded by the Syrian civil war to seize Syrian territory and rebrand itself as ISIS in 2011.  In Iraq, ISIS took advantage of the void left by the departure of US troops and took major Iraqi cities, threatening to advance on Baghdad itself in 2014.  ISIS declared the territories it controls to be a new caliphate, ruled under sharia law.  While most view ISIS as a terrorist group, it doesn’t really fit the traditional description since it currently controls territories in Iraq and Syria and has a large standing army.

6) Turkey borders Syria, and so has taken a keen interest in seeing a lasting solution its neighbor’s conflict.  Syrian refugees have poured mostly into Turkey, straining the nation’s ability to absorb them.  ISIS has also made incursions into Turkey with deadly bombings in some major cities.  Yet Turkey is also struggling with how to deal with its own Kurds.

7) Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire.  After World War I, Ottoman territory was basically split up between France and Britain, with Syria eventually falling under the former.  Syria gained independence from France in 1946.  The population is mostly Sunni Muslim, though senior government and military leaders are dominated by the Alawites (Shia Muslim).  As the Arab Spring spread through the region, there was a revolt in Syria against ruling Bashar Assad.  There are many rebel groups (mostly Sunni) fighting to overthrow the Assad regime, and operate under the umbrella of the Syrian National Coalition.

8) Russia (then the Soviet Union or USSR) became active in the region after World War II, filling the void left after Syrian independence.  At that time, Syria aligned itself with the Eastern bloc and the USSR.  Indeed, Soviet support for Syria picked up during the Cold War, with many in the Syrian military (including Hafez Assad) given training in the USSR.  Indeed, after the 1970 coup brought Hafez Assad to power, he went to the USSR seeking weapons and aid.  This was granted, and in turn the USSR was allowed to open a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus.  It remains Russia’s sole naval base in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean Sea.

9) The US has remained a strong regional presence after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  The US is most keen to stop the destabilizing terrorist activities of ISIS, which explains this week’s decision to supply arms directly to Syrian Kurds that are battling ISIS.  US-led airstrikes on ISIS positions were ordered in 2014 after the group made a series of advances into Iraq.


1) Given the long history between the two nations, it should come as no surprise that Russia has inserted itself into the Syrian conflict as Assad’s ally.  When this conflict began in 2011, Russia’s role was limited to military aide and advice.  However, Putin has since escalated his nation’s role.  In September 2015, Russia embarked on direct military involvement in support of Assad.  While Russia claimed its airstrikes targeted ISIS and “terrorists” but reportedly hit some

2) Not surprisingly, Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkish Kurds are natural allies in the fight against ISIS.   The US also sees the Kurds as its most effective ally in the efforts to remove Assad from power.

3) The Global Coalition to Counter ISIS was formed in 2014 under the leadership of the US.  This multinational coalition of 68 countries has launched many airstrikes on ISIS positions, mainly in Iraq.   These have been instrumental in turning the tide against ISIS (see map below).

3) Turkey finds itself the odd man out.  It prefers Assad out of power, but it also does not want the Kurds to gain in their efforts to gain greater autonomy.  Turkey also does not want ISIS to continue targeting domestic targets within its borders, but overall, Erdogan seems more concerned about the Kurds.  Indeed, Turkey has reportedly bombed Kurdish forces fighting ISIS under the guise of bombing ISIS forces.


Syrian Kurds are reportedly preparing for an assault on the ISIS capital of Raqqa.  This is the reasoning behind the US decision to provide arms directly to the Syrian Kurds.  The US and its allied are probably hoping that the Kurdish attack will be the killing stroke, but they may ultimately be disappointed.

ISIS control peaked in August 2014.  Since then, it has lost key cities such as Kobane and Palmyra in Syria, and Ramadi in Iraq.  ISIS has lost almost a quarter of the territory it controlled over the past year.  This follows a loss of around 15% of its territory over the course of 2015, and so ISIS is on the ropes.  As ISIS lost more territories, it also lost access to resources (oil, money) that were used to fund its activities.  Besides Raqqa, the other major ISIS stronghold is the city of Mosul in Iraq.


No one wants ISIS operating in their backyard, and so the multilateral efforts to eliminate its threat will continue.  However, this will be nearly impossible to accomplish as long as the Syrian conflict rages on.  Recall that is was the vacuum created by the Syrian conflict that allowed ISIS to thrive.  With Assad digging in with Russia’s backing, we believe a military solution to the Syrian conflict remains out of reach.

Rather, it will be up to the parties involved to come up with a viable political settlement.  It would seem that only then can the allies hope to remove the ISIS threat once and for all.  Recently, there have been some modest attempts at diplomacy.  For instance, UN-sponsored peace talks were held in Geneva this February.  Unfortunately, the sides all remain far apart and cannot agree on even the simplest of issues.  Turkey probably stands to lose the most from a protracted Syrian conflict.