U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to give a green light to a Turkish military offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria effectively abandons one of America’s closest allies in the fight against Islamic State to an uncertain future. The People’s Protection Units, or YPG, have been a major component of the U.S.-led effort to defeat Islamic State in Syria and now control approximately a third of the country. Turkey views the YPG as a security threat due to its ties to separatist Kurds in Turkey and wants to push the group 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. Some rebels accuse the YPG of collaborating with Assad, who has supported the PKK and whose decision 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. What could the U.S. decision mean for the YPG?

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The YPG now has one eye on Turkish forces massed to the north, who have repeatedly attacked it despite being part of the same coalition against Islamic State. It has the other eye on Syrian government forces to the southwest, who with the help of their Russian allies are determined to recapture all of prewar Syria. The YPG has said it would now prioritize defending its “own people” over the battle to keep Islamic State from regrouping. The group has said in the past that it would consider a deal with Assad if the U.S. leaves Syria.

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

The surprise White House decision also introduced new uncertainty over thousands of captured jihadists and their relatives. Trump said they were Turkey’s responsibility, but it’s unclear how they would be transferred to Turkish custody. A spokesman for the Kurdish forces warned that the prisons and refugee camps housing them are “ticking time bombs.”

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5. What are Turkey’s plans?

Turkey has said an incursion into Syria to fight the YPG is imminent. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to create a “buffer zone” inside Syria by pushing back the Kurdish forces and settling some of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey. But most of those refugees are ethnic Arabs from other areas and the move could set Turkey up for another confrontation with Assad, whose government has warned that any resettlement needs to be coordinated and only people who originally fled homes in the northeast should return there.

6. What’s Turkey’s larger objective?

Essentially, Turkey wants to dismantle the embryonic proto-state Kurdish forces have established in northern Syria amid years of civil war, saying it could be used by the PKK to launch attacks on Turkish territory. The Turkish government strongly objected to the U.S. arming the Syrian Kurds for this same reason.

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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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