The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) utility to the US-led coalition against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has bolstered its military capability and territorial position in Syria – despite Turkey's opposition. But if the eventual defeat of ISIS results in a scaling back of US involvement in Syria, the PYD will be weakened and will probably seek a more durable alliance with President Bashar al-Assad's regime and its ally, Russia.

The Syrian Kurdish Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (Democratic Union Party or PYD) has been one of the main beneficiaries of the continuing chaos of the Syrian civil war, expanding an initially limited presence on the ground to control of a large swathe of northern Syria. It has become the most effective non-state force opposed to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and – by virtue of its relationships with the United States and, to a lesser extent, Russia, and an informal non-aggression pact with the Syrian regime – has bolstered its own military capabilities and insulated itself against aggression from Turkey. Ankara regards the PYD as an extension of the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK), which has been waging an insurgency for equal rights and self-determination in Turkey since 1984. On 9 May 2017, to the fury of the Turkish government, the US announced that the Pentagon would begin to supply weapons and equipment to the PYD’s military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), in preparation for a joint offensive to retake the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s main stronghold in Syria and self-declared capital.

The PYD’s long-term prospects nevertheless remain uncertain, particularly if the eventual defeat of ISIS results in a scaling back of US involvement in Syria. Much would depend on the circumstances on the ground at the time of a substantial US pullback. If, however, the current balance of military power in Syria remains largely unchanged, the PYD will probably seek a more durable alliance with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and its ally Russia, which – unlike the United States – appears determined to remain in Syria for the long haul.

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The Kurds’ precarious balancing act in Syria

The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s utility to the US-led coalition against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has bolstered its military capability and territorial position in Syria – despite Turkey's opposition.

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