Despite a commitment of about half a billion dollars from Washington, the “New Syrian Force” being trained by the U.S. to fight ISIS doesn’t really exist. This was evident even before five of the 60 fighters in the group were captured by al-Qaida last week. There were supposed to be 15,000 of them.
As Nancy Youssef of the Daily Beast reports, the Pentagon may still be putting on a brave face, but the Obama administration is increasingly shifting its attention away from the NSF and toward supporting an existing force: the 50,000-strong Popular Protection Units, better known by their Kurdish initials YPG. The Syrian Kurdish militia has been “the most effective fighting force in Syria,” according to one U.S. official, wrestling almost a dozen towns out of ISIS’s hands, including the hard-fought victory at Kobani last year. That victory was made possible by U.S. air support, and the partnership has only deepened since then. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the U.S. military and the YPG are coordinating “air and ground operations through a joint command center in northern Iraq. And in two new centers in Syria’s Kobani and Jazeera regions, YPG commanders are in direct contact with U.S. commanders.”
It makes sense that the U.S. would want to support an established, effective, non-Islamist fighting force on the ground in Syria, but the YPG partnership is still an odd one. For one thing, the U.S. government sort of considers them terrorists. The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, the Marxist-nationalist guerilla group that has been fighting the Turkish government for decades and has been on the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list since 1997 for its attacks in Turkey and on Turkish interests abroad, including kidnappings and suicide bombings. (The YPG claims to operate independently, but at the very least it shares the PKK’s ideology and reveres its imprisoned founder Abdullah Ocalan.)
The PKK and its Syrian offshoot have evolved quite a bit in recent years, both in tactics and ideology. Their pro-Western stance and the prominent role of the YPG’s female fighters in the battle against the horrifically misogynist ISIS have inspired sympathy in the U.S., with some calling for the PKK to be delisted and the YPG to be provided directly with arms. It wouldn’t be the first ex-Marxist terrorist group to reinvent itself in Washington.) Unfortunately, as the International Crisis Group notes in a new analysis, the advantages to supporting the YPG may start to diminish as it moves from recapturing Kurdish towns to Arab-majority areas where it’s viewed more suspiciously.
Things are made more complicated by the fact that the U.S. is getting behind the YPG at the same time that it’s forging a new partnership against ISIS with the PKK’s arch-enemy, Turkey. A ceasefire and promising peace talks between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and the PKK collapsed in July with PKK-linked attacks that killed 18 Turkish soldiers and police prompting Turkish airstrikes against the group in Turkey and Iraq and the arrest of hundreds of its alleged supporters.
Under the terms of a recent agreement, the U.S. has begun sending jets and personnel to a Turkish base for airstrikes within Syria, and the two wary allies are working on plans to establish a non-ISIS buffer zone. But as I noted last week, the prospects for that partnership are a little unclear as long as Turkey is at war with America’s main on-the-ground ally, preventing the Kurds from being the effective force needed to turn the tide in the war.
Erdogan has accused the U.S. of supporting “terrorists” in Syria, which, to be fair, is true according to the State Department’s own definitions. It’s an indication of just how well the war against ISIS is going that right now, this nonsensical arrangement is probably America’s best available strategy.