US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis looks at a map of the Middle East showing ISIS positions as he holds a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on May 19, 2017. The US has so far limited its relations with Syrian Kurds at a military level, though the mainly-Kurdish administration has shown willingness to develop political and diplomatic ties with the United States. Photo: AFP /Saul Loeb
Jonathan Cohen, a US State Department official, didn't mince words about the nature of the United States' partnership with the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) when he declared that it is: “temporary, transactional and tactical.”
“We have not promised the YPG anything,” Cohen said at a May 17 Middle East Institute panel. “They are in this fight because they want to be in this fight.”
“We have the YPG because they were the only force on the ground ready to act in the short term. That is where it stops,” he stated, quite unequivocally.
Cohen's comments came a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Washington. The Turkish president once again failed to convince the US to ditch the YPG in the ongoing operation to rout the ISIS group from Raqqa.
Erdogan's visit came as the delicate balancing act the US has maintained between the Turks and the YPG for years seems on the verge of collapse. Turkey's airstrikes on YPG targets in Syrian Kurdistan in late April incurred strong denunciatory responses from the US military against Ankara. Tensions increased when the Americans dispatched armored vehicles to the Syrian-Turkish border to deter clashes between the two sides. Since the US military currently relies heavily on the YPG, which leads the larger Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Arab-Kurdish coalition, for the Raqqa operation, the last thing they need is Turkey shooting these forces in the back.
However, after the operation is complete it's not a sure thing that the US will exert as much, if any, diplomatic pressure against their longstanding NATO alliance partner to cease and desist any future airstrikes and/or cross-border attacks against the YPG. The YPG – and their political wing, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – fear being thrown under the bus when their usefulness as a proxy against ISIS recedes along with the caliphate itself.
On the other hand, Washington may ultimately decide it's in its interests to establish more permanent relations with the Syrian Kurds. After all, other threats like ISIS, or worse, could well arise in that region in the foreseeable future and having a battle-hardened and formidable Kurdish ally in northeast Syria would continue to be in Washington's strategic and security interests. That said, to assuage some of Turkey's more genuine security-related concerns over the PYD/YPG, the US will need to first push the Syrian Kurds to make some reforms to bolster what could prove to be a mutually beneficial long-term partnership.
For years now the US has tried to soothe Ankara's concerns about PYD links with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) by stressing a technicality, that the PYD is an affiliate or offshoot rather than a direct part of the PKK, which Washington also designates as a terrorist organization. Incidentally, early this month the commander of the US-led campaign against ISIS Colonel John Dorrian mistakenly said “PKK” instead of “YPG” when discussing the forces on the ground and later apologized. The co-chair of the PYD itself, Salih Muslim, also recently promised that US arms deliveries to the YPG for the Raqqa operation not be transferred to the PKK, perhaps a subtle admission of links between the two groups.
The PYD has to demonstrate to the US that they are a party focused solely on the future of Syrian Kurdistan and not any of its neighbours. This will help the US to ease some of the pressure mounted by Ankara.
Other important reforms Washington should pressure the PYD authorities on concern the domestic political situation in Syria Kurdistan (Rojava). Members of the Kurdistan National Council (KNC, or ENKS) should not be harassed or imprisoned, but permitted to stand in future elections for leadership positions. Masrour Barzani, the Chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC), recently said that the Kurdistan Region is ready to host more negotiations between these parties in hopes of resolving this political impasse in Rojava. If such negotiations are successful, it could lead to better relations between Erbil and Rojava.
Also, the Rojava Peshmerga – an army of Syrian Kurds loyal to the KNC, who have long been disallowed from returning to their homeland from the neighbouring Kurdistan Region, where they were trained by the authorities to fight in defense of Rojava – should form part of the armed forces defending Rojava. Integrating them into one military force and placing them firmly under the civilian control of elected officials should also be a priority after ISIS's defeat. It wouldn't be an easy process but is doable. In the Kurdistan Region, advisors from the US-led anti-ISIS coalition are staying on after ISIS's defeat to reform and train the Peshmerga forces there, a process which will include unifying the different factions into one force.
Aside from occasional sporadic clashes, the PYD/YPG and the Syrian regime have stayed out of each other’s way. The YPG did not join the uprising against the regime. The KNC on the other hand is a member of the opposition Syrian National Council coalition. Nevertheless, they have made clear and demonstrated that they have no interest in sending their forces outside the boundaries of Syria's Kurdish regions to fight the regime. The Syrian regime's manpower is quite limited, after years of depleting war, and its ability to hold parts of the control is in question given its heavy reliance on militias in recent years. Consequently, it's unlikely to venture into Rojava for the foreseeable future when that region isn't actively attacking its forces elsewhere in that war-torn country.
For its part, Turkey said it would attack the PYD/YPG in the future if that group first attacked Turkey. Any deal with the US would negate the possibility of these forces unilaterally attacking Turkey unprovoked.
The PYD remain the dominant party in Syria Kurdistan and retain control over all the armed forces there. They may very well win the support of the people if a free, fair and open election is conducted in that region tomorrow. Nevertheless the US shouldn't assume this is so and push for reforms after the ISIS threat is neutralized, incentivizing them to do so by assuring them that they are a way of essentially guaranteeing a continued working partnership between them against common threats in that troubled country.