“People have causes, but nations have interests,” my PKK host told me as we drove through Qandil in the mountains of Kurdistan. “We can be friends with people but not with states.” His point wasn’t that the PKK and Kurdistan can’t have relationships with other states, they know that they have to, but they realize that these relationships will always be based on realpolitik rather than friendship.
Two offshoots of the PKK, the YPG and YPJ, have been fighting a ruthless war against ISIS in northern Syria, a region they call Rojava. That war does not take place in a vacuum, but involves players as diverse as Turkey, Russia, the United States, the Assad regime, and the numerous rebel factions vying for control of Syria. The United States and some coalition partners have offered limited support to the YPG and YPJ. While in Sulaymaniyah, I spoke to a Kurdish officer who personally oversaw the airdrop of supplies to the YPG by American military aircraft. U.S. airstrikes and some close air support has made a big difference in helping the Kurds in Rojava capture territory from ISIS.
However, everyone on the ground has always known that the defeat of ISIS is not the end game. After ISIS is wiped out, the Kurds in Rojava will have to continue to fight for their autonomy, politically if not militarily. The escalation of Russian military involvement in the Syrian conflict brings a new urgency to this task. Allied with the Assad regime, the Russians have reportedly been bombing ISIS and FSA targets in Syria over the last week.
The United States has offered support to Rojava, but has also hedged its bets. Nations have strategic interests, and America has greater interests in maintaining influence in Turkey than in Rojava. The Turkish government’s longstanding war with the PKK ensures that the United States is forced to accommodate the Erdogan government as a strategic partner, putting the YPG/YPJ war against ISIS on the back burner, so to speak.