During a visit to Stanford University last week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out five objectives of the US military involvement in the Syrian conflict. Ranging from expelling Daesh and controlling Iran’s influence to facilitating the return of refugees, his comments on the issue seemed to be an attempt to prove that the US did have some rational basis behind its controversial backing for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The US’ role in the conflict has attracted criticism in recent months due to the SDF being primarily made up of militants from the YPG (People’s Protection Unit), an offshoot of the designated terror organisation, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). To continue to back a terrorist affiliate has often been hypocritical and, given the group’s stated desire to establish a state in the north of the country based on federalism inspired by the communist values of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, are contrary to the US’ own interests.
Yet the Trump administration’s continued support for the YPG is not as entirely baseless as portrayed. The militants’ objectives in the region complement many of those stated by Tillerson and the group has largely shown itself as a willing proxy for the US to aid. But whilst such support may make sense in principle, in practice, the effects could be more detrimental to America than predicted.
The benefits in theory
The US’ first objective in Syria is to ensure Daesh and Al-Qaeda experience an “enduring defeat”, according to Tillerson and with this in mind, America’s continued support of Kurdish groups makes sense. Initial aid for the YPG was primarily prompted by the US’ need to have a stake in the conflict and monitor the situation in regards to Daesh. The SDF has been largely successful in this regard, driving out Daesh militants from numerous areas in Syria, including the group’s strongholds in Raqqa, Mayadeen and Deir Ez-Zor, and also gaining control of strategic oil reserves in the process. It has also made tackling Syrian opposition groups, all of whom it views as terrorist organisations, a priority, admittedly more so than the regime.
Support for the SDF has allowed the US to maintain a diplomatic and military presence on the ground, whilst Kurdish groups also remain active on the same battlefronts. Such a strategy is helpful for the US, who in the words of Tillerson, wish to avoid “the same mistakes that were made in 2011 when a premature departure from Iraq allowed Al-Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into ISIS [Daesh].”
In terms of resolving the Syrian conflict, the US has called for an UN-led political process that would see the establishment of “a stable, unified, independent Syria, under post-Assad leadership”. Whilst the YPG had largely been seen as an obstacle to that process, such a proposal seems up for discussion.
In an interview released last week with Middle East Forum research fellow Aymenn Al-Tamimi, YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud emphasised that the group did not want to divide Syria: “We don’t have a problem. We are prepared to discuss and we don’t want to partition Syria. And we don’t want to draw new borders … but we want Al-Shaam [Syria] to be democratic.”
The SDF further called on the Syrian government last week to aid them in their fight against Turkey, stating that Ankara’s aim was to occupy Syrian land: “We call on the Syrian state to carry out its sovereign obligations towards Afrin and protect its borders with Turkey from attacks of the Turkish occupier … and deploy its Syrian Armed Forces to secure the borders of the Afrin area.”
Whilst the US has given little indication that it would support calls for an independent Kurdish state, having condemned last September’s Kurdish referendum in Iraq as “illegitimate”, the YPG’s potential flexibility on the issue may present it with a more feasible ally. Similarly its calls for democracy and staunchly secular stance seem more palatable to the US’ desire for a quiet transition, particularly when contrasted with the various Islamic factions present among Syrian opposition groups.
The YPG also mirrors the US’ interest in mitigating Iranian influence. The Trump administration has expressed its concern at the establishment of an “Iranian crescent”, with sympathetic governments in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, creating a corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea. The YPG is also determined to prevent such a reality being permanent: “Iran stands in the way of democracy in Syria, in order to protect its interests, and Iran is sowing war, supporting war in Syria in order that the security stability should continue in Iran,” spokesman Mahmoud emphasised.
With supporting the YPG proving helpful for the US to fulfil arguably their three primary objectives, it is unsurprising that Washington opted to continue to support them under the guise of the SDF. With little other side to support and a need to monitor the ever-changing situation in the region, as well as the relationship between Turkey, Russia and Iran, such an offer seemed better than any other alternative.
The difficulties in practice
Despite supporting the YPG posing numerous benefits to the US in isolation, the move cannot be said to be positive in reality, most importantly in terms of international relations. Funding an organisation connected with the PKK, that has killed more than 40,000 people in Turkey in the past 30 years, was always going to produce a response from Ankara. Turkey had arguably been patient for over two years, but the US declaring its intention to establish a permanent, 30,000 strong border force made up of the SDF, proved a step too far. Whilst Turkey’s recent ground offensive against the Kurds has been condemned by all sides of the conflict as per the usual routine, the White House and the EU have been forced to admit that Ankara has legitimate grievances. For the US to side with a known terror affiliate over a NATO ally does nothing for the Trump administration’s image.
How successful the YPG will be against Turkish forces is also debateable. Whilst the militia proved effective against Daesh fighters, it has already made several key losses against Turkey and its eighth most powerful military in the world. To what extent the US will continue to support the group remains to be seen, given its repeatedly broken promises to cut funding.
Escalating tensions and violence in the region also does not serve to fulfil the US’ objectives of ending the conflict and facilitating refugee return. Creating another battlefront, which is spreading to involve Syrian opposition groups and the regime, is only adding a further dimension to the complex web of fighting that has existed for the past seven years. Even if the latest offensive were to be ended quickly, the numerous allegations of war crimes committed by YPG forces recorded by human rights organisations, including forced conscription, the razing of non-Kurdish villages, torture and extrajudicial killings, does not suggest that the group would facilitate the mass return of civilians who have fled the conflict.
The only practical benefit, at least for the moment, is that US backing the Kurds gives America a continued foothold in Syria to oversee the ongoing events. However, to what extent the YPG will prove a useful proxy remains to be seen; preliminary indictors show that Western influence is minimal at the present time in their failure to de-escalate events of the past week.
A dangerous move
When solely considering that the US only made use of the YPG given it had no one else to back, its continued support makes some degree of sense. Whilst an unpopular move, the US has repeatedly shown its contentment with violating the international law it rebukes others for not abiding by, and President Donald Trump has shown himself happy to go against the entire international community in other Middle Eastern affairs, most recently recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. To endure the hypocrisy of supporting a terrorist affiliate to target other Daesh terrorists, will not worry the US unduly.
Yet in practice, Washington’s refusal to cut support to the Kurds has set off a chain of events that is largely unpredictable. It is not clear how Turkey’s ground offensive will end, although the success of the Kurds against the might of the Turkish military is unlikely. Whilst the continued US funding of the group hangs in the balance, Turkey looks to Russia to share its security concerns.
There is also no guarantee that the Kurds will continue to share the same interests as the US, particularly in regards to the establishment of Kurdish independence. Despite temporary concessions being made, the Kurds have fought long and hard, largely with a federalist vision in mind. How such a desire will be construed in the long run, with or without US aid, remains to be seen.
The US has made a mistake in supporting the YPG, but how big a mistake, remains to be seen.