U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to give a green light to a Turkish military offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria effectively abandoned one of America’s closest allies in the fight against Islamic State to an uncertain future. The People’s Protection Units, or YPG, had been a major component of the U.S.-led effort to combat Islamic State in Syria and had wound up in control of approximately a third of the country. Turkey views the YPG as a security threat due to its ties to separatist Kurds in Turkey and moved against the group to push it back from its border. The offensive raises questions about the fate of tens of thousands of Islamic State fighters and their families in Kurdish custody.

1. What is the YPG?

As the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party of Syria, it seeks autonomy for Syria’s Kurds and has shown a willingness to work with any power capable of advancing that goal. The party itself was formed in 2003 as an offshoot of the PKK, a group that seeks an autonomous region for Kurds inside Turkey, has fought Turkish forces on and off since 1984, and is outlawed by Turkey and considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union. The YPG ranks are thought to include tens of thousands of fighters.

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2. How did the YPG and U.S. become allies?

Gradually. The YPG wasn’t part of the Free Syrian Army, the Western-backed coalition that was the main opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the early years of the country’s civil war. A decision by Assad, who has supported the PKK, to withdraw forces from several majority-Kurdish areas in northern Syria in mid-2012 allowed the YPG to establish control there. In 2015, when the Syrian Democratic Forces were created under U.S. auspices to fight Islamic State, YPG members formed its backbone. The U.S. began providing material support to the SDF and backing its operations with air power but initially said American weaponry was only for the coalition’s non-YPG elements. That changed in May 2017, when the U.S. declared Kurdish forces were needed to retake Islamic State’s Syrian headquarters of Raqqa.

3. How has the YPG responded to Turkey’s offensive?

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Facing an onslaught from Turkish forces and allied Syrian fighters, the YPG struck a deal with Assad’s regime, which is backed by Russia and Iran. The agreement permitted Syrian government troops to advance north toward the border with Turkey through the area in which the Kurds had previously established de facto autonomy. The YPG also said it would now prioritize defending its “own people” over the battle to keep Islamic State from regrouping.

4. What about the Islamic State prisoners held by the YPG?

The surprise White House decision introduced new uncertainty over thousands of captured jihadists and their relatives. Trump said they were the responsibility of Turkey, which said it couldn’t be held accountable for detainees outside the zone of control it’s trying to create. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said his country’s military had come upon a jail in northern Syria that Islamic State members had fled after it was abandoned by the YPG.

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5. What’s behind Turkey’s incursion?

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to create a “buffer zone” inside Syria by pushing back the YPG. Turkey wants to dismantle the embryonic proto-state Kurdish forces have established in northern Syria amid years of civil war. Turkey’s army has been fighting the YPG’s mother organization, the PKK, for decades and Erdogan fears the groups could at some stage use Syrian territory to launch attacks on Turkey. The Turkish government strongly objected to the U.S. arming the Syrian Kurds for this same reason.

6. Anything else?

Erdogan says he will use the buffer zone to settle some of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey. The move is designed to relieve domestic pressure on Erdogan, who lost Turkey’s largest cities in municipal elections this year. Controversially, it could alter the ethnic composition of Syria’s northeast, diluting the influence of the Kurds, though Turkey denies having such an ambition. The vast majority of Syrians who fled since the war began are ethnic Arabs and hail from other parts of the country. Assad’s government has warned that any resettlement needs to be coordinated and that only people who originally fled homes in the northeast should return there.

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7. Who are the Kurds?

They are an Indo-European people, mostly Sunni Muslims, numbering about 30 million, whose homeland is divided among Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Kurds have been persecuted in those countries in a variety of ways: stripped of their citizenship, excluded from some professions, barred from giving their children certain names and restricted in speaking their own language. They’ve pushed for equal rights and autonomy over their affairs and periodically rebelled. National authorities have responded at times severely, expelling Kurds from their villages in Syria and attacking them with chemical weapons in Iraq, where they now have an autonomous region in the north that is recognized by the Iraqi constitution.

--With assistance from Ben Holland.

To contact the reporter on this story: Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara at shacaoglu@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at asalha@bloomberg.net, Mark Williams, Lisa Beyer

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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