The Kurds are feeling the squeeze from Turkey’s operation to route them from northern Syria, and with their benefactors in Washington unwilling to garner support, they are looking to former enemies to save them.
DAMASCUS, SYRIA (Analysis) — The war in Syria has been relatively absent from media coverage in recent weeks following the declared victory of Syrian, Russian and Iranian militaries in their battle against the U.S.- backed rebels and terror groups, including ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Now Washington is changing its strategy to draw Syria further into chaos and is poised to do just that with the help of Kurdish allies in the north of the country. Allies who have already been twice rebranded by Washington in an attempt to avoid drawing the ire of fellow NATO member Turkey.
But could this plan have already backfired?
When the Kurds recently began losing ground to Turkey in Syria, the U.S. didn’t heed their calls for help. So they turned to the Syrian government seeking help to “protect Syria’s borders.” While this is the correct course under international law, it is sure to stir up mixed feelings in light of the recent history of Kurdish separatism in Syria.
In order to better understand that history, the complex series of alliances and rivalries that impact northern Syria must be understood — beginning with who and where these Kurds are, and the way in which that impacts their relations with Washington, Ankara, and Damascus.
It is as important to understand why Ankara launched the incursion it is calling “Operation Olive Branch,” as it is to understand why one U.S. ally (the People’s Protection Units, or YPG) has called on a U.S. adversary to expel another NATO member.
This fight against a fellow U.S. ally was spurred by Turkish anger over the elements that compose Kurdish forces in northern Syria, owing to the YPG’s connections to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group deemed a terrorist organization by all of NATO. This designation derives from PKK attacks which regularly target NATO member Turkey, despite this, the YPG has been receiving weapons and air support from the U.S. since 2015.
As the fight between the Turks and Kurds intensified on January 25, Kurdish authorities inside the region surrounding Afrin issued a call to the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), rather than to their Western benefactors, to “defend Syria’s borders.” To the casual observer, it may seem odd that Washington’s closest ally in Syria was calling on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad to rescue it from the incoming Turkish advance. But due to the fact that Afrin, like several other areas in northern Syria, was not historically under YPG control, and has only been occupied by the YPG since a 2012 standoff with Damascus, the Syrian government is the only legitimate authority in the region, leaving the Kurds little choice.
Most major media, whose coverage of the Kurds is typified by the likes of The Washington Post and The New York Times, fail to address this factor. Instead, their coverage is typically sympathetic, as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is the United States’ most effective proxy on the ground in Syria, and it is typically implied that the Kurds have a de facto right to their own territory in the country. These stories leave out key pieces of history which have unfolded in the past six years, and fail to explain is the background of the SDF, or how long they’ve actually occupied Syrian territory.
The Syrian War creates opportunity for YPG
Initially founded in 2004 as the armed wing of the Democratic Unionist Party (PYD), the YPG didn’t truly gain notoriety until 2011-12, during the initial stages of the Syrian War.
As Kurdish forces seized Afrin in the north, Damascus was on the verge of being overrun by terrorists and Aleppo had been surrounded and was soon to be seized by groups such as the al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra in an occupation that would last for four years. It was these circumstances that led Assad — not yet backed by Russian air support — to make the crucial decision to allow the Kurds temporary autonomy in cities like Afrin, Amuda, and Kobani.
Damascus had dealt civilly with Kurdish elements in the past, and Assad claimed early in the war that his government would be open to granting greater autonomy in Kurdish regions. Assad likely felt he would be able to negotiate with the Kurds when the situation calmed since at that moment the rest of Syria had become a breeding ground for more dangerous Salafi groups.
However, the Kurds wasted no time in striking at elements of the Syrian Army (SAA). As far back as 2012, during the early days of the siege of Aleppo, YPG elements were carrying out attacks on the SAA – who were focused on routing groups like Jabhat al Nusra and the Free Syrian Army from the city.
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These attacks continued for some time until the primary focus of the Kurds changed when they found the same terror groups fighting the SAA on their own doorsteps. At this point, the Kurds were devoting themselves primarily to keeping groups like al Nusra, IS, and the FSA from gaining ground in Kurdish cities.
The success of the YPG in fending off other rebel factions in Syria, as well as the lack of interference by Damascus, soon saw the Kurds become the dominant political faction in northern Syria. As the YPG continued to keep jihadists out of northern Syria, they began to consolidate power, much to the chagrin of non-Kurdish civilians (the majority in many ‘Kurdish’ cities) as well as rival Kurdish factions. Militias belonging to these marginalized groups were allowed to continue operations alongside the Kurds, but the YPG would be the unchallenged leader of these coalitions.
The situation was exacerbated in 2015 when the U.S. began backing the YPG with air support and encouraged the group to go on the offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS). The new U.S.-backed YPG expansion began in June 2015 with the attack on Tal Abyad, where the YPG worked to retake the city from ISIS, bringing them just 50 miles north of ISIS’ self-declared capital of Raqqa, and further into non-Kurdish areas.
It wasn’t long until the YPG’s new expansion came to be an issue for both the Syrian government and U.S.-allied Turkey. While Damascus took issue with the U.S. openly backing an insurgency, Turkey’s objections ran deeper, despite Washington’s best efforts to force some sort of dialogue between Ankara and Rojava (the Kurdish “capital” in Syria).
Turkey’s conflict with the YPG predates the Syrian war, extending back to the group’s founding, and deriving from the fact that much of the YPG leadership is comprised of members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is considered a terrorist group, not only by Turkey but also by all of Ankara’s western allies, including the United States.
Turkey’s disdain for the PKK, as well their sordid history, isn’t a factor unknown to Washington and has been openly admitted by top Pentagon officials. Barack Obama’s Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter revealed YPG and PKK ties during congressional testimony responding to questions by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham, himself a notorious neoconservative hawk, is by no means a friend to the Syrian government; yet even he conceded that he agreed with Ankara, saying: “They think [U.S. collaboration with PKK elements] is the dumbest idea in the world and I agree with them.”
While Turkey was a member of the U.S. coalition to defeat ISIS, there were concerns echoed by many in the media and defense circles that Ankara was primarily targeting Kurdish forces. Turkey’s relationship within the coalition is incredibly complex (even more so when evidence of Turkish support for ISIS is factored in) — but the Turks main concern remained to deny the PKK (operating as the YPG) from establishing a base of operations on their southern border.
It is important to remember that the U.S. designates the PKK a terrorist organization, despite this – in late 2015 the YPG and subservient local militias came under the umbrella of the newly created, and U.S. backed, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). U.S. generals, such as the head of Special Operations Command, Army General Raymond Thomas, recounted a conversation to reporters in which the U.S. told the YPG, “You have got to change your brand. What do you want to call yourselves besides the YPG?” Thomas went on to laud the fact that the YPG made the changes so quickly, saying:
With about a day’s notice, they [the YPG] declared that they are the Syrian Democratic Forces.”
Soon the new offensive policy of the SDF was unleashed on several areas in Syria, namely Manbij and al-Bab. Yet one operation stood above the rest when it came to showing the true nature of the SDF and its Western allies: the battle of Raqqa.
The Occupation of Raqqa and Hypocrisy of Afrin
The offensive on Raqqa revealed to the world precisely what Western ambitions in Syria were.
Raqqa had been under ISIS occupation from January of 2014 until the beginning of the Battle of Raqqa in late 2016. Both of these events triggered the massive outflow of both internally displaced refugees in Raqqa and of the local majority non-Kurdish population.
It was during this period that Donald Trump, now president, would propose a U.S.-led initiative for safe zones in Syria (a Clinton proposal during her presidential campaign) administered by Western observers and allies on the ground. The move was seen by Syria and Russia as a blatant attempt by Washington to inject its influence where it didn’t belong. Rather than implementing the U.S. plan, Russia, Iran, and Turkey began leading their own deconfliction and peace initiatives.
U.S. ‘stealth-partition’ initiatives soon failed, yet this didn’t stop the SDF from moving on Raqqa from the north while the Syrian Army fought in the south around Deir Ezzor. During this period the Kurdish-led SDF tore through northern Syria and, according to the BBC, coordinated with the U.S. to arrange safe passage for ISIS fighters out of Raqqa — providing them a pathway into other countries, including Turkey (now a target for ISIS). The SDF also used U.S. muscle to block the Syrian government from reclaiming its own territory in the region, effectively assuring Raqqa would be liberated by Kurdish forces only. Raqqa was soon declared liberated, but Damascus didn’t share this view. The Syrian Foreign and Expatriates Ministry told Syrian state media that, under the control of the SDF and U.S., Raqqa was still an occupied city.
The Syrian minister also pointed to the fact that the U.S. coalition was requesting aid to “rebuild Raqqa,” likely ensuring a lengthy U.S. presence in the city, despite the fact that most of the damage done to the city (now 90 percent leveled) was done by coalition itself. The Minister went on to question the integrity of the SDF, claiming the group had seized “humanitarian aid meant to save the lives of Raqqa locals,” and “that these Forces also confiscate locals’ IDs and documents and subject them to brutal torture and detainment.”
Raqqa may be a good distance from Afrin, but the circumstances surrounding both are similar. During the Turkish bombing of Afrin, Turkey allegedly struck Menagh Air Base, the main facility used to funnel U.S. weapons to the SDF, indicating that Western support for the Kurds stretches across the full expanse of northern Syria.
Top Photo | A Kurdish demonstrator wears pendants showing jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan and a party symbol, during a protest against the operation by the Turkish army aimed at ousting the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia from the area of Afrin, Syria in Beirut, Lebanon, Jan. 22, 2018. (AP/Hussein Malla)
James Carey is journalist and editor at Geopolitics Alert. He specializes in Middle East and Asian affairs.