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Mason professor explains why the fight between the Turks and Kurds is dangerous for the United States

January 24, 2018

Richard Kauzlarich

Turkey’s advance into a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria is not just another dustup in the war-torn Middle East. If it continues or escalates, it could have a major impact on U.S. relations with a valued NATO ally, and perhaps disrupt the ongoing fight against ISIS, a George Mason University professor said.

Richard Kauzlarich, a former U.S. ambassador who teaches courses on the geopolitics of energy security in George Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government, said the United States is walking a tightrope in the conflict.

“And it’s easy to fall off a tightrope,” he said.

The fighting began last week when Turkey pushed into Afrin in northern Syria to oust fighters affiliated with the People’s Protection Units. Turkey considers the People’s Protection Unit a terrorist organization and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has waged an insurgency inside Turkey as part of a fight for Kurdish autonomy.

The current fight has created several problems for the United States, said Kauzlarich, a former ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Azerbaijan.

Turkey has allowed the United States to conduct military operations from its territory during the Iraq wars and against ISIS. But the United States has also counted on the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, including the People’s Protection Units, to fight against ISIS, and has provided them with military hardware.

If the sides are fighting each other, the fight against ISIS could become less of a priority, Kauzlarich said.

“We want to try to keep the focus on what we do to keep ISIS on the run,” he said.

The United States also must keep strained relations with Turkey, a NATO ally, from deteriorating further. Reports that the United States was to set up a Kurdish force on the border between Turkey and Syria to stop ISIS fighters from moving into the region controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces was troubling to Turkey, which wants to keep the Kurds isolated, Kauzlarich said.

“We want to keep the focus on fighting ISIS, keep the Turks on side, and not do anything that will make that relationship worse,” Kauzlarich said. “We also want to make sure the Iranians and Russians don’t take advantage of the disorder to keep Syria (and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) a threat to regional peace. It’s a balancing act and not easy.”

Richard Kauzlarich, co-director of Mason’s Center for Energy Science and Policy, can be reached at 703-993-9652 or

For more information, contact Damian Cristodero at 703-993-9118 or

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George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 36,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.