This article was first published on LobeLog.

Alongside the wave of Syrian Kurdish refugees into Turkey this month is an equally unsettling story: alarming gains by the Islamic State in an offensive against a potential ally. Syria’s Kurds carved out their own regional bastion extending west from their main base in the extreme northeast corner of Syria. For two years they have fiercely defended their lands against the Islamic State and other extremists, employing many thousands of veteran Kurdish fighters.

Yet due to these fighters’ ties with the militant leftist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)—a designated terrorist organization in the United States and Turkey—and an alliance of convenience of sorts with the Assad regime, the US and the Islamic State’s (ISIS or ISIL) other foes have held them at arm’s length. Stemming from all this could be severe damage to, and possibly the eventual loss of one of the most effective contingents of indigenous anti-ISIL boots on the ground in Syria.

The Syrian Kurdish World

Comprising roughly 9 percent of the Syrian population, Syrian Kurds mostly inhabit the country’s extreme northeast al-Hasakah Governorate wedged between Iraq and Turkey, large swathes of real estate across northern Syria extending westward. Since 1970, the Kurds have had profound differences with the authoritarian Assad regime, toward which their leading parties pose a threat. So the PKK and other Kurdish parties seeking independence or greater autonomy were banned and suppressed.

Still, given Syria’s adversarial relationship with Turkey, Damascus turned a turned a blind eye toward (or was unable to prevent) PKK operations against Turkish targets during various periods, especially between 1980-99. With or without central government approval, many PKK elements have also been sheltered in Kurdish northwestern Iran and northern Iraq (the latter resulting in numerous Turkish anti-PKK air strikes in Iraqi Kurdistan over the past 20 years).

Despite past differences, Syrian Kurds opted not to attack Syrian forces and maintained a rather distant relationship with Damascus. Since Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria have had an uneasy relationship with non-Kurdish rulers and local communities for a very long time, Syrian Kurds were wary of Sunni Arab Syrian rebels. That fear grew with the increasing Muslim militancy of large numbers of rebels. So, for over two years, markedly secular Kurds, mostly alone, successfully fought off first the al-Nusra Front and then ISIL.

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