YPG fighters in the outskirts of the Kurdish canton of Afrin. Photo: YPG media
It is no secret that the U.S. has been playing a very delicate balancing act when it comes to maintaining good relations with its NATO ally Turkey while simultaneously giving support to the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, which Turkey is resolutely opposed to, against the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group.
However in practice this balancing act has seen to the U.S. agreeing to adhere to Turkey's clearly drawn “red-line” in Syria which is preventing the YPG from linking all of Syria Kurdistan's (Rojava) cantons together into one contiguous quasi-autonomous entity. The Jarablus-Azaz/Mare line the Turks have talked about establishing a safe-zone on more-or-less corresponds with the, approximately, 60-mile stretch of border territory between the Syrian Kurdish canton of Kobani and the westernmost canton of Afrin.
Turkey drew its line there primarily because it doesn't want the YPG to dominate the Syrian frontier with Turkey. Especially that remaining part of border area which is controlled by Islamist and Turkmen militias that Turkey has been supporting in Syria.
Washington insists that it understands Turkey's concern and says it too is for keeping the YPG out of that area. But here is the thing: Adhering to that policy is seeing the U.S. essentially supporting the Turks in keeping the YPG from clearing very dangerous Islamist's from along that international frontier while not yet taking any steps to clear it themselves. And remember parts of that area are occupied by groups such as ISIS, who are in Jarablus, just west of the Euphrates River from Kobani, and the al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, who are in Azaz, just east of Afrin.
Both these Islamist groups have used those areas to attack those Kurdish cantons. From Jarablus ISIS have launched mortars over the Euphrates at Kurdish villages near Kobani and in Azaz Nusra has been attacking and besieging Afrin. Turkey's armed forces have opened fired on YPG forces attempting to enter Jarablus across the Euphrates to prevent mortar attacks on its own territory. Meaning that the Turkish red-line, regardless of whether they intend it to be or not, serves as a de-facto protective shield for those Islamist's along that northwestern part of Syria so long as the YPG are forcibly kept out and those Islamist’s are not actively combatted.
Such a status-quo is untenable for the YPG for obvious reasons. Yet the U.S. hopes to use them as the primarybac ground force — remember the backbone of the recently formed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition is undoubtedly the YPG — to eventually force ISIS out of Raqqa and other parts of eastern Syria which the group continues to occupy.
But how can the YPG be expected to divert so many of its shoestring resources now to undertaking an extensive southern offensive against ISIS while on two of their home-fronts they are under attack and under siege?
Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani recently referred to the plight of Kurds in Afrin as the siege on that isolated Syrian Kurdish enclave worsens and as the U.S.-endorsed red-line continues to prevent other YPG reinforcements from traveling there from Kobani to protect them.
Surely if the U.S. really expects the YPG to continue heading south it will provide some guarantees that it will take steps to neutralise the jihadis in that 60-mile northwestern border zone and relieve the pressure on Syrian Kurdistan. However neither the U.S. nor Turkey want to send in any of their own ground troops into that zone (Turkey is even reluctant to use its army to fully close-off its side of the border) hoping instead that they can give close air support to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) units and have them do it. However this has yet to materialize and Afrin and Kobani remain in the cross-hairs of very ruthless and violent jihadis as a result.
The Russians are rumoured to have increased their support for the YPG in the wake of their deteriorating relations with Turkey over that country's downing of the Russian warplane late last month. And if the Russians can guarantee the protection of Afrin and Kobani they could in turn become a favoured ally of the YPG. Especially if Moscow places an aerial umbrella over that territory and allows the YPG to clear-out ISIS and Nusra themselves in spite of Ankara's red-line (something they appear to be, gradually, doing by giving air support to YPG counter-attacks in the Azaz region). Moscow could also air drop arms and ammo to them without worrying about having to placate the Turks like Washington does.
Such an outcome is certainly much more likely today than it was just under two weeks ago. What has been certain for much longer is that Washington's aforementioned expectations that the YPG adhere to Turkey's red-line while Kurdish towns and villages are being shelled by an al-Qaeda offshoot and ISIS is absurd and cries out for a fundamental change in policy.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist and political writer who writes on Middle East affairs, politics, developments and history. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.