Syria’s Kurds—specifically the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—have been the most successful group to fight the Islamic State in Syria. They have also done the most to save and rescue the Yezidis after that religious minority was largely abandoned by Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani’s peshmerga.
The Turkish government, however, hates the YPG and considers them a terrorist group different in philosophy than the Islamic State but not different in quality. While Secretary of State John Kerry’s State Department performed intellectual somersaults to argue that the YPG were not affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), this is disingenuous. Any visitor to Rojava—the federal region which Syrian Kurds have established after driving out the Nusra Front and Islamic State—will see clearly the links between the YPG and PKK, especially when it comes to respect for and fealty to imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
The policy of the United States under both President Obama and now Trump appears to be ambiguity and indecision. The Pentagon continues to work with and supply the YPG through various cutouts but at the same time seeks to bolster cooperation with Turkey.
Maintaining such ambiguity and contradictory policies is not sophisticated; rather, it is backfiring. It’s time for Trump, Defense Secretary Mattis, and Secretary of State Tillerson to make and voice a clear decision to stick with the YPG.
I first visited the YPG three years ago while they were still ostracized by US diplomats. What they had achieved was remarkable. CENTCOM commander Joseph Votel and now Sen. John McCain have subsequently visited Syrian Kurdistan and have apparently come to the same conclusion.
To declare US partnership with the YPG may anger Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader may bluster, threaten, and foam, but history suggests he’ll get over it.
Consider the history of Turkey’s relations with Iraqi Kurdistan. When I first visited northern Iraq in 2000, Turkey considered the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—the two main Iraqi Kurdish groups—to be not much more than bandits and terrorists. Turkey maintained some covert relations with both groups (as Ankara does with the YPG) but both the Turkish government and Turkish military preferred to coerce the Iraqi Kurds with force and sanctions rather than treat them as equal. Fast forward 15 years and Erdogan receives Barzani with a red carpet and a Kurdish flag and, on a personal level, strikes multibillion dollar oil deals.
Erdogan blusters but, after fanning the flames of Islamist radicalism in Syria, is facilitating the flow of foreign fighters to the Islamic State, and with Wikileaks showing his own family profiting off of Islamic State oil smuggling, Erdogan should not be in a position to dictate. Rather, if the goal is to defeat the Islamic State, it’s time to embrace the YPG openly and augment the U.S. relationship with Syria’s Kurds. Ultimately, Turkey will come around to reality when it realizes it risks being left behind. In contrast, an absence of clarity will only worsen bilateral US-Turkey relations as Erdogan will continue his shrill focus on the YPG on the assumption that he can achieve a US abandonment of the group.
Terrorism Iran Diplomacy with rogue regimes The Kurds Turkey Arab Politics Iraq Afghanistan & Pakistan
Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.