The Pentagon-run train-and-equip (T&E) program had intended to take Syrian rebels, stop them from being rebels by preventing them from fighting the Assad regime, and repurpose them into an American-directed strike force against the Islamic State (ISIS). Unsurprisingly, there were few takers and the program ended in disaster and humiliation. In the wake of this failure, President Barack Obama has turned away from the Arab rebels and looked to the Syrian Kurds to fight ISIS. This is a strategy that is not only doomed to fail — since Sunni Arabs taking responsibility for their local security is the only way to sustainably defeat ISIS — but would, if implemented, make the ISIS problem worse. A report from Amnesty International this week documenting crimes, including ethnic cleansing, by the armed Kurdish forces against Arabs and Turkmens in northern Syria also provides an occasion to look more closely at a force with a history of regime collaboration, political extremism, and terrorism.
America first started providing weapons to Syrian rebels in late 2013, after the Ghouta chemical weapons attack, via clandestine channels run by the Central Intelligence Agency, and the CIA has concurrently trained about 10,000 rebels. CIA weapons and training were used by the rebels against both of their enemies — the Assad regime and ISIS. Virtually none of the CIA-supplied weaponry has gone astray. More than 550 TOW anti-tank missiles have been supplied and only four ended up in the hands of extremists. The TOWs, even supplied at this low level, have made a real difference on the ground not only in repelling regime offensives but in strengthening the moderate, Free Syrian Army-branded rebels against more Salafi-inclined insurgents.
The overt, CENTCOM-run T&E program originated in a speech by President Obama at West Point in May 2014. This program, however, was intended only against ISIS, and rebels were even asked to sign a pledge not to use US-supplied equipment against the Assad regime. Between the nature of the program and the lack of urgency with which it was executed — by November 2014 the program was still being "prepared" by the Department of Defence — it is little surprise that less than 200 men had even entered the program by June 2015. When the first batch of 54 fighters from the T&E program entered Syria in July, they were attacked by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda. When the second batch of 70 entered Syria in late September, the commander of the unit — about whom the US had been warned by the rebels — promptly handed over one-quarter of the US-provided military equipment and defected. On 9 October the Obama administration abandoned the T&E program.
In drawing lessons from this experience, Obama acknowledged in a 60 Minutes interview that "as long as Assad remains in power, it is very difficult to get [the rebels] to focus their attention on [ISIS]," but said that this showed the futility of ever having tried to support a moderate opposition to both Assad and ISIS. Indeed, in Obama's telling, the calamitous end to the T&E program was an indictment of his critics, and called for less help to the Syrian opposition. For those who suspect that the T&E program was a work of public-relations intended to placate Arab allies and domestic critics, Obama's statement that the US had to "try different things" because of various "partners" looks like vindication.
After Russia began direct intervention in Syria with airstrikes on 30 September, targeting CIA-supported moderate rebels — not ISIS or Al-Qaeda — Obama ruled out even helping America's allies to defend themselves with the provision of anti-aircraft weaponry, let alone providing direct protection in the form of a no-fly zone, and America's focus shifted entirely away from the rebels and western Syria to eastern Syria and the Kurdish armed units known as the People's Protection Forces (YPG).
The $500 million that Obama requested from Congress for the T&E program will now be channelled into supporting the "Syrian Arab Coalition" (SAC), a group that came from nowhere in mid-September, supposedly comprised of small rebel units to a total of between 3,000 and 5,000 men. In theory, this would be the first time the US will be overtly arming Syrian rebels, but the SAC is wholly dependent on the YPG, which by some estimates has 50,000 fighters. Rather than helping the rebels resist the dual Assad-Iran-Russia and ISIS offensives in Aleppo, the US will now help the YPG-SAC "advance toward" Raqqa, but not try to seize it, The New York Times reports. "Rather, the aim is to isolate Raqqa and cut it off from travel and supply lines northeast and northwest of the city."
On 12 October, the US dropped 50 tons of small arms and ammunition into Hasakeh Province, ostensibly to the SAC. It seemed incredibly unlikely that the YPG did not profit from this airdrop. Never mind the balance of power: the SAC had attached itself politically to the YPG with the announcement of a new joint banner, "The Syrian Democratic Forces," the previous day. And sure enough, Bloomberg reported from US and Kurdish officials that the airdrop "largely ended up arming" the YPG. One US official confirmed what has been obvious since SAC emerged: "the Syrian Arab Coalition [is] a 'ploy' to arm the Kurds." (A Syrian opposition activist was more blunt, saying the SAC was "invented from whole cloth.") The SAC is political cover for the US arming the YPG, both with the Syrian opposition and especially Turkey since, when it comes right down to it, Turkey is less fearful of ISIS on its borders than a Kurdish statelet.
The YPG was formed as a result of an agreement signed in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, in mid-2012 that was to provide for cooperation between the Kurdish National Council, an umbrella group of moderate Kurdish groups, and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the militant Marxist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a separatist war against Turkey since 1984 that has killed 40,000 people. The PKK is registered as a terrorist organization by the US, Britain, France, the EU and NATO. In July 2012 the Assad regime pulled out of the Kurdish-majority areas of northeastern Syria and the PYD quickly took control, including monopolizing the YPG. Several hundred KNC-aligned Kurdish fighters trained in Iraqi Kurdistan were prevented from returning to Syria and the PYD has entrenched its control ever since.
The US alliance with the PYD came about by accident when the ISIS siege of the Kurdish city of Kobani in northern Syria became a political-media sensation in September 2014. ISIS's siege of the city was broken in January 2015 after 75% of the US airstrikes in Syria were targeted at the city. After the debacle in July with the first T&E batch, the US began to look more seriously at deputizing the YPG/PYD as its sole proxy in Syria. Now, the PYD is the only force on the ground in Syria that can call in US airstrikes and PYD commanders directly liaise with American counterparts.
The US's support for the PYD is sustained by a legal fiction — that the PYD is a separate entity from the PKK. It is not: the PYD is subordinate to the PKK command structure. As one fighter put it, "Sometimes I'm a PKK, sometimes I'm a PJAK [the Iranian branch of the PKK], sometimes I'm a YPG. It doesn't really matter. They are all members of the PKK." Understandable, then, that the US arming the PYD upsets Turkey. But the PYD's history means that the US supporting it upsets many Syrians.
The PKK was a Syrian state asset from the late 1980s, with its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, sheltered in Syria itself and under Assad's protection in Syrian-occupied Lebanon. Damascus expelled Ocalan in 1998 after the signing of the Adana Agreement under threat of Turkish invasion, which declared the PKK a terrorist organization. In a March 2012 report for the Henry Jackson Society, Omar Hossino and Ilhan Tanir wrote: "[…] in recent months, it is clear that some sort of understanding between the Assad regime and the PKK through its Syrian affiliate the PYD, has been reached." That the PYD was effectively an extension of the regime was the common perception at this time, among both Syrians and analysts.
When the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 with street demonstrations, the PYD was known as the "Shabiha of the Kurds," in reference to the regime's plain-clothes thugs who attacked demonstrators with some of the worst violence in Arab areas. Not just Kurdish anti-regime but Kurdish anti-PKK demonstrations were attacked by the PYD. When the popular Kurdish activist, Mishal Tammo, leader of the liberal Kurdish Future Movement, was assassinated in October 2011, it was near-unanimously believed that this was a regime-ordered hit carried out by the PYD. After the PYD conquered the Syrian Kurdish areas ("Rojava" as it calls them) in the summer of 2012, it offered no challenge to the regime. As late as March 2015, the British government said it was "very difficult to provide any support to the PYD while they maintain links to the Assad regime."
It could be argued that the Kurdish de facto military alliance with Assad was — not unlike the Druze — simply a product of necessity; a way to keep the regime fighter jets away from their areas while securing facts-on-the-ground for a later autonomy bid. There is undoubtedly some truth to this, and it does seem that at a certain point the PYD started to go its own way — early this year the PYD clashed with regime outposts in the Kurdish areas and this continued over the summer. But this would not explain things like the PYD's leader, Saleh Muslim Muhammad, blaming the rebels for the Ghouta attack, a reproduction of regime propaganda that served no Kurdish interest. Moreover, the PYD is now openly soliciting Russian support, something the PYD must know is only available on condition that it cooperate with Moscow's client regime in Damascus.
The Kurdish quest for autonomy, despite decades of horrific discrimination against Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria, and genocidal repression in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, never seemed to catch on in the West. Now all of a sudden it has, with even the most dovish voices calling for the Syrian Kurds — by which they mean the PYD — to be armed. The reason for this is that the PYD has had considerable success in fighting ISIS. The PYD's stern secularism — including female-only military Women's Defence Units (YPJ) — allows the idealists to join with realists in calling for support to the PYD. But when examined this simple picture starts to look more complicated.
First, the criterion "against ISIS" has allowed a number of very bad, very extreme actors to sell themselves in various ways as "moderate" and "pragmatic." Such is the case of the major Shiite militias that make up the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which are run by Iran and have killed more than 1,000 US soldiers in Iraq, yet which received US air support "against ISIS" in Tikrit, and Al-Qaeda has rebranded itself using ISIS as a foil. If both Shiite and Sunni jihadists can claim to be against ISIS, clearly a better argument is needed before support is extended. The PYD protecting the Syrian Kurds is also not good enough as a standalone argument: the PMF is protecting Shiites from ISIS and ISIS is protecting Sunnis from the PMF, but it doesn't make either worthy of Western support, and it tends to ignore the fact that both groups are using the other to side-line dissent in their own communities. The PYD is taking advantage of the ISIS crisis in a similar way.
Second, the PYD's success against ISIS — which has led some, including, it seems, the US administration, to conclude that the PYD is the only effective ground force against ISIS — is somewhat misleading. PYD success has come with very heavy support from the American-led coalition: any force given that much firepower would do well against ISIS. To see the PYD's anti-ISIS success as unique is also to ignore how successful the Syrian rebellion was — without US support — in driving ISIS from its strongholds in early 2014, some of which ISIS remains absent from to this day (though Russia might be about to allow ISIS back in). In contrast, ISIS re-entered Kobani within months. This isn't surprising because ISIS operates in the Sunni Arab areas and the rebels are local Sunni Arabs who drove ISIS out and took over local security in a sustainable way.
Even if the PYD expelled ISIS from Sunni Arab areas, the PYD has no interest in remaining in permanent occupation of the territory — and the West should not want it to since if the PYD tried it would lead to the Sunni Arabs looking to ISIS to resist what they would see as a foreign and sectarian occupation. ISIS's central propaganda selling point is that it is the vanguard for Sunni Arab interests and security, resisting a giant foreign conspiracy against Sunnis that includes the US and Iran. The Iranian nuclear deal releasing funds to the theocracy, the US air support to Iran's proxies, the coalition bombing Syrian rebel groups, and the obvious Western concern for minorities — which included intervention to save the Yazidis — while doing nothing about the slaughter of Syria's Sunni majority has reinforced ISIS's narrative that the West is at best indifferent, and probably consciously conspiring against, Sunnis. Supporting a Kurdish occupation of Arab zones would feed this, and this is especially true because of the PYD's conduct, which is the final point:
The PYD's political program and method of war-making should worry the West.
This week, Amnesty International released a report that documented war crimes, notably ethnic cleansing, committed by the PYD since February, mostly against Arabs and Turkmens. In the Arab village of Husseiniya, near Tell Hamis, the PYD displaced the residents and demolished more than 90% of its 225 buildings so they could not return. After the PYD swept through northern Raqqa Province in June — a much-celebrated operation in the West because it drove ISIS from Tel Abyad and cut off a crucial resupply route through Turkey — the residents of village of Asaylem were ordered to leave and 100 out of 103 homes were then levelled by the PYD. In several cases, this demographic change has been facilitated by the PYD threatening to call in US airstrikes against people who would not leave their towns and villages. This has already "convinced many Arabs that living under the control of Kurdish forces was a worse fate than supporting ISIS."
The PYD-run areas are undoubtedly orderly and relatively free by comparison with the rest of Syria, where chaos, tyranny, or some combination therein, reigns. But once the PYD does not have to divert resources to war and can concentrate on governance, it will not be liberal democracy it fastens on the Syrian Kurds. The PYD's ideology remains authoritarian, as does its practice when faced with dissent, from shooting demonstrators and arresting political opponents to shutting down troublesome journalists.
Supporting the PYD per se is not defensible, but the situation in Syria has descended so far that supporting the PYD to protect the Kurdish areas and to fight ISIS is. Supporting the PYD, however, should be done without illusion as a trade-off and should be accompanied by efforts to build institutions in the Syrian Kurdish areas that can operate independently of the party. Supporting the PYD should not be seen as a solution to the ISIS problem in Arab areas, i.e. should not be done instead of support to the Syrian rebellion. Supporting the PYD splits the anti-ISIS coalition inside Syria and internationally, but this can be mitigated by not solely supporting the PYD inside Syria.
In short, we are where we have always been: local Sunni Arabs need to be given the ability to take control of their areas from ISIS to sustainably defeat the ‘caliphate.’ The reliance so far on Kurdish and Shiite forces in countering ISIS is more than futile: it's actively counterproductive.
Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst. He tweets @KyleWOrton.