The symbolism of American solidarity with its problematic but highly valued Kurdish allies could not have been more potent.
With American flag patches affixed to the chests of their uniforms, US military officers attended the funerals last week of Syrian Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), pivotal US allies in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.
The Kurdish fighters had been killed in airstrikes by another US ally, NATO member Turkey, which considers the YPG to be terrorists.
That wasn’t the only American flag-waving on behalf of the YPG: To deter further Turkish attacks, convoys of US armored vehicles flying the stars and stripes snaked along Syria’s northern border with Turkey, creating a human buffer to protect a local fighting force that the Pentagon has invested in for more than 2-1/2 years, despite constant Turkish complaints.
“I’ll tell you, it was like a wedding was going on,” Ivan Abu Zeid, a resident of Qamishli town, told Syria Direct website about the US arrival. “People were thrilled, clapping and waving at the American soldiers.”
With the US help, Syrian Kurds have become the only local fighters capable of knocking ISIS out of Raqqa, the capital of its self-declared caliphate, and are advancing to do so at America’s behest.
And they are not the first Kurdish force to have helped the United States achieve its military goals against ISIS in the region. In Iraq, the peshmerga were instrumental both in containing the breathtaking advance of ISIS in 2014 and, since then, in rolling them back, including the fight that has cornered ISIS in its last urban toehold in northwestern Mosul.
The fight against ISIS is just the latest instance in which the US and Kurdish fighters have joined forces. At times, US and Kurdish interests have coincided. At others, they’ve been complementary.
Yet often, from the Kurds’ perspective, these joint ventures came to be defined by betrayal. Among their most bitter memories: the 1991 Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein that the US encouraged but allowed to be crushed.
The Kurds' gamble
The Kurdish experience with America raises the question: How strong is the US-Kurdish alliance this time? What do the Syrian Kurds expect in return for their sacrifice? And, despite the optics of current US military support, do Syria’s Kurds risk being abandoned once the anti-ISIS operations are over and Turkey demands that the US choose between its allies?
“This is a big risk that the YPG and PYD have been taking,” says Noah Bonsey, a senior Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), using the acronym PYD for the Syrian Kurds’ political arm, the Democratic Union Party.
“Their gamble all along has been that working with the US will not only steadily expand their territorial holdings and gradually increase their international political legitimacy, but indeed it will deter Turkish attack,” says Mr. Bonsey.
Yet the Turkish airstrikes on April 25, which killed 20 YPG fighters in northern Syria and struck northern Iraq, were a surprise wake-up call that US and Russian influence over Ankara may be limited – and that Turkey, if it chooses, could be a spoiler to the Raqqa offensive. Already, US and YPG deployments in Syria have been altered to defend against Turkish attack instead of focusing solely on the Raqqa offensive.
Here's why the YPG is a problematic US ally: While its fighters command and lead the 50,000-strong umbrella Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which include some Arab and other units, it is also the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has conducted a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state that has flared anew since mid-2015.
The PKK is officially considered a terrorist group by the US and Europe, as well as by Turkey. And the backbone of YPG leadership are PKK cadres, often with years of fighting experience.
What the YPG wants
In its approach to Raqqa, the White House has expanded a YPG-centered plan inherited from the Obama administration. In March, President Trump added 400 US Marines to the 300 Special Operations Forces already assisting the SDF in northeast Syria. And May 8, according to NBC News, the White House authorized the transfer to the YPG of infantry arms and ammunition and engineering breaching equipment such as bulldozers.
But Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, when he meets Mr. Trump May 16, will insist again that the US stop working with the Syrian Kurds and embrace a Turkish plan to use non-Kurdish forces in the Raqqa offensive.
Wading through the confusing jumble of acronyms, US officials carefully distinguish between the PKK and their YPG allies. But Mr. Erdoğan last week again compared the YPG to ISIS and Al Qaeda, saying “they are all the same,” and that it was a "common responsibility to eradicate those terrorist organizations.”
Turkey was “seriously concerned to see US flags in a convoy that has YPG rags on it,” Erdoğan said earlier, adding he would raise the issue with Trump.
Syrian Kurds reject the terrorist label, and the YPG counted 67 Turkish attacks on its positions in April. In turn, it said it destroyed Turkish tanks and armored vehicles.
“We will not give in to Turkey’s attempts to drag us into conflict because our goal is to fight terrorist organizations … and liberate the areas that [ISIS] control,” SDF spokesman Talal Silo told the AraNews website, saying the group expected that the US presence would prevent Turkish attacks.
The result is a careful balancing act for the White House, as it prioritizes forcing ISIS out of Raqqa over ties with a strategic ally. But it also raises questions about what Washington can deliver in return to the Kurds.
“You are hitting Raqqa, not because Raqqa is a Kurdish town – it isn’t – but because the US is asking you to do it. They are going to shed blood in the expectation of something,” says Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
The YPG expectation will be for support for a de facto autonomous zone, he says, similar to that set up for Iraqi Kurds in 1991 in northern Iraq. Such a zone was included in one unofficial paper circulated last week by Russia during Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. But the final agreement – signed by Russia, Iran and Turkey on Thursday – to set up four areas it called “de-escalation” zones made no provision for the Kurdish region of northeast Syria.
For Turkey, an unacceptable threat
Turkey has refused such an outcome, stating that a Kurdish entity along its southern border would present an unacceptable opening for the PKK to launch attacks. But that is not the prism through which much of the anti-ISIS coalition is looking, which complicates Turkey’s argument to drop the YPG.
“The entire world, for better or for worse from the Turkish point of view, is seeing [the YPG] as fighters, men and women, fighting against guys who are cutting people's heads off and making women sex slaves. The entire world is going to cheer when Raqqa falls,” says Mr. Aliriza.
“So Turkey’s ability to stop this process, and stop the support given to the YPG from across the board – not just the US, not just Russia – is going to be difficult,” he says.
While that may suit the Pentagon, by not delaying the Raqqa offensive, the risks for Turkey extend beyond Syria. Its battle with the PKK in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq has escalated for two years, and included high profile Kurdish bombings that have targeted Turkish security forces all the way to Ankara and Istanbul.
“If Turkey carries out more attacks into Syria, we will definitely see a rise in attacks in Turkey by the PKK against the Turkish Army … and we see for the first time the YPG responding to Turkish attacks,” says Güney Yildiz, a specialist on Turkey and Kurds, who has advised the British Parliament.
“The dichotomy is that if the US has to choose between Turkey and the YPG, they will definitely choose Turkey. But the question is whether they have to,” says Mr. Yildiz. “That’s a dichotomy pushed by Turkey or the Kurds, but what the Americans have been doing since autumn 2014 onwards is using both, and using both as leverage against each other.”
But how sustainable can that be, with the current trajectory of tension? Turkey’s noisy opposition to Kurdish gains in northern Syria first spilled over last August with Operation Euphrates Shield, a cross-border incursion that ostensibly sought to push ISIS back from Turkey’s border – but also aimed to prevent Kurdish forces from connecting individual cantons under their control into contiguous territory.
What happens when ISIS falls?
As the Raqqa offensive has neared, with US-backed Syrian Kurds ready to claim the prize, so have Turkey’s rhetoric and actions increased.
“It’s a very dangerous situation,” says Bonsey of ICG. But the longer-term problem for the YPG may be what happens in post-ISIS Syria, if the US moves its focus elsewhere.
While the YPG has proven to have “some very impressive tactical proficiency,” it may have also overestimated long-term US commitment, he says. “The YPG just does not seem to have a strategic answer for what to do, if and when that US role declines.”
Which leaves many wondering if Syria’s Kurds are being set up for the kind of betrayal that ethnic Kurds have been stung by repeatedly, for decades. Analysts note cases infamous among Kurds, such as the US selling them out to Iraq in 1975, when they believed the US guaranteed them aid from then-ally Iran.
They felt betrayed again by US military support for Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s, when the Iraqi dictator carried out a genocidal campaign against Kurds. And when President George H. W. Bush encouraged Kurds to rise up in 1991 – as Iraq’s Kurds remember it – the US allowed Mr. Hussein to crush the rebellion by not intervening to stop his helicopters and tanks.
“Kurdish history is littered with promises that were made to them,” says Aliriza from CSIS. But he doesn’t think it will necessarily happen again this time.
“I would argue that the level of engagement with the Syrian Kurds, because of its breadth and content, as well as its openness, is extraordinary,” says Aliriza. “This level of US military engagement is unprecedented.”