U.S. Safe Zone Deal Can Help Turkey Come to Terms with the PKK and YPG

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: Joint U.S.-Turkey efforts to establish a safe zone in Syria could help reconcile Turkey with one of its main domestic antagonists, and subsequently strengthen U.S.-Turkey relations.

Safe zones could help realign the incentives of two splinter groups in a way that aligns with Turkish interests.

For years, Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has engaged in domestic insurrection against the Turkish government. A Syrian offshoot, the People’s Defense Units (YPG) has taken control of large parts of northern Syria. The United States has always joined Turkey in condemning the PKK.

This balance shifted with the war in Syria.

Since 2014, the United States has relied on the YPG to help fight the Islamic State in Syria. So, while joining Turkey in condemning the PKK, the U.S. has been supporting its Syrian military offshoot. The success of the YPG has bolstered the PKK in Turkey, thus reducing the possibility of peace talks and staining U.S. turkey relations.

The establishment of a safe zone in Syria will help straighten out each of these dynamics.

Establishing a safe zone will allow the U.S. and Turkey to transfer power from the YPG to local groups. This will serve to bring the PKK back to the table with the Turkish government, which will, in turn, strengthen the U.S.-Turkey dynamic. With a safe zone in place and a renewed alliance, the two nations can defend Turkish stability, promote peace in the region, and meet the growing refugee crisis.

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