Ali Hussein Bakeer
Last Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump authorized his Defense Department to directly arm (PYD/YPG) in Syria. For many, this decision was expected. The Pentagon has invested a lot of time and efforts in its plan to support the Kurdish militia since the previous administration, and it would be naive to expect that they would simply scrap this plan.
Unfortunately, this decision will be just another step in the wrong direction, adding to the long list of catastrophic mistakes committed by successive U.S. administrations in the Middle East in the last 15 years because it ultimately contradicts everything the U.S. claims to stand for in its relationship with Turkey, fighting terrorism and the future of Syria.
Due to such wrong decisions, anti-Americanism has been growing in the region.
Apparently, the decision makers in the U.S. have been badly suffering from strategic blindness when it comes to devising long-term plans for the region. In an effort to eradicate a very complicated and multi-faceted issue, what they tend to do is work on a merely tactical level very limited in scope, dealing only with one side of the problem, seemingly unaware of the devastating implications of their decisions, particularly of those taking a terrible toll on their regional allies.
Western officials and media tend to downplay the PYD threat by drawing an imaginary distinction between the PYD/YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, there are unquestionable facts about the PYD being a terrorist organization and a Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which is officially considered a terrorist group by the U.S., the EU, NATO and Turkey.
More than a year ago, during his testimony before a Senate panel at the U.S. Congress, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was asked if the PYD was allied with or had substantial ties to the PKK -- designated by the U.S., Europe, and Turkey as a terrorist group -- he answered “Yes”.
The PKK has been fighting a war against Turkey, a NATO-member state, for more than three decades, which has resulted in tens of thousands of Turkish civilian casualties. This war has flared anew since 2015, when the U.S. gave assurance to the PYD that it would support them in Syria, a step which not only emboldened the PKK against the Turkish government, but also allowed the PYD to launch attacks across the border and to send suicide bombers.
To the political and military establishment in the country, the PYD/PKK issue is a direct, strategic and long-term security threat. It is a matter of national security which threatens its territorial integrity. That’s why Ankara always expects solidarity from its partners and allies in and out of NATO.
Recruiting tool for terrorists
During the last six years, those who usually tend to see the U.S. as a reliable ally/partner and think that good relations with it are important and essential have had a hard time explaining this to the public. The U.S. decision to support the PYD has just made such explanations more difficult.
Many in the U.S. think that at the end of the day, Turkey will have to accept the U.S. decision to support the PYD. They think “Turks are going to have to swallow it” and after protesting for a while, Ankara will not do much to hinder that decision because it will need the U.S. in the long-term and have no other options.
Yes, theoretically speaking, this is a possibility, but given the many and repeated disappointments and frustrations Turkey has suffered because of the U.S., its strategic ally, would the U.S. be able to afford it if the Turkish government were to take an unexpected course and defend its own national security and interests in the neighboring Syria?
In other words, if the U.S. administration continues to pay no heed to the interests and national security of a NATO ally, Ankara might be obliged to play the spoiler role. In fact, there are already those who think this is the only way to get what you want from the U.S.: unless you play dirty with Washington, make it pay greater costs, and spoil its plans, it will never take you seriously. If it really turns out that this is the only way for Ankara to get what it wants, then all hell may break loose for Trump.
Broadly speaking, the White House’s decision to support a terrorist group (PYD) in the name of fighting another one (Deash) not only further strips the U.S. of its credibility in the eyes of its allies and the people in the region, but it also serves as a great recruiting tool for radicals and terrorists in the long run.
Acutely aware of how the U.S. and the international community have condoned the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) running an army of foreign Shia fighters to support Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in return for the nuclear deal, the Sunni-Arab majority of the region will look on this “very selective” U.S. war on terrorism as yet another “tool in the box” to target them. This view has been getting stronger and stronger since 2003 and the decision to support the Kurdish militia will only strengthen it.
Indeed, the PYD is practically run by a group of well-known senior PKK leaders, not to mention that a lot of its members are foreigners, be they PKK members originally from Turkey or Iraq, or western fighters who joined the militia without any protest from their native countries. Despite this fact, these Kurdish fighters as well as the pro-Iranian Shia ones are not dealt with as “foreign terrorist fighters”, in sharp contrast with what the U.S. and the international community have so far advocated when it comes to countering foreign terrorists in Syria. In this sense, the White House’s decision to support the PYD ultimately contradicts its own goal of defeating Deash and al-Qaeda.
In Syria, this decision will have devastating repercussions on the future of the country. PYD leaders do not hide their separatist plans to seize the whole of northern Syria in order to establish their claimed state. Such a move requires them to occupy the lands between the far east and far west of northern Syria down to the Mediterranean and force the original Arabs living there out of it even though they form the majority alongside minorities such as Turkmens and Christians.
During the last two years, with the effective political commitment and unprecedented military support from the Obama and Trump administrations, the PYD was able to occupy greater swathes of land and reshape the demography of northern Syria on the way to making its occupation sustainable, thus getting closer and closer to achieving its ultimate goal of establishing a state.
This means the U.S. is not only contributing to help change the demography of the Arab majority in the occupied territories in northern Syria in favor of the terrorist Kurdish organization -- something which is also done by Iran and its militia throughout several regions in Syria -- but also paving the way for the disintegration of the country despite repeatedly paying lip service to the unity and territorial integrity of Syria.
The military support will practically lead to the formation of a small Kurdish army in Syria. PYD fighters will not pull out or hand over any of the lands they have occupied, and no other single group will be able to force them to do that as they will be the most powerful, highly trained and equipped force in the region. There will be a de-facto PYD Kurdish state in northern Syria and no one will be able to persuade the Kurdish militia to let a freely elected democratic parliament in Syria decide on the type of governance there.
This might encourage other minorities with relatively suitable conditions to follow the PYD example. If this proves to be the case and the U.S. then decides to withdraw its support from PYD in order to please Turkey or put pressure on the Kurdish militia, many players will jump in, including Russia and Iran, to use the PYD for different purposes .
Another issue is that when the U.S. supports PYD, it is practically helping the Assad regime one way or another. Like Iran, the Assad regime has a long history of using terrorist organizations as a political tool. Indeed, Assad - the father- harbored, supported and used the PKK and its leader Abdullah Ocalan for a very long time against Turkey.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Bashar al-Assad has used the PYD. Fully aware of the hostility of the PYD, as an affiliate of the PKK, towards Turkey, the Syrian regime literally handed over many cities in northern Syria to the Kurdish militia in the early stages of the Syrian revolution. The goal was simply to create a buffer zone between Turkey and the Assad regime before indirectly manipulating it against Turkey.
Wherever the PYD fails to hold the territories it has occupied, it will invite the Assad regime to come in in order to prevent the Turkish-supported Syrian rebels from taking it. The city of Manbij in northern Syria is a living example of what might befall other cities where the U.S. continues helping the PYD to stretch its territorial control.
This will also signal that the U.S. is not committed to the ouster of Assad’s murderous regime, and no one knows how helping the PYD could possibly help resolve the Assad problem, which is the main reason why we have Deash in Syria in the first place. This demonstrates how the U.S. administrations have been very short-sighted and kept the brutal vicious circle turning.
(AA) Ali Hussein Bakeer is an international relations analyst and political adviser
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