Syria: Will US arming of Kurdish-led Northeast Rebels Provoke Turkey?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The intrepid Anne Barnard and Karim Shoumali at the NYT have a piece on how Saudi-supplied TOW anti-tank weapons to rebels in Hama and Idlib are creating a US-Russian proxy struggle in northwest Syria (the CIA is actually the source of the weapons, with Saudi intelligence acting as the pass-through agency).

But there is another development in the past couple of days, this time in the northeast. A new coalition of Arab and Kurdish fighters has been formed there, including the YPG or People’s Protection Units. Since the YPG is technically an affiliate of the PKK or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey and the US consider a terrorist organization, Turkey is very nervous about the de facto US alliance with it. That alliance just got stronger.

The Syrian Arab Coalition is some 3200 Arab fighters in the northeast. They have joined together with the Kurdish YPG as the Democratic Forces of Syria.

But let’s face it, this way of putting the matter (common in the news reports) obscures an important reality: the YPG is the important, large and effective element in this Democratic Forces of Syria. The 3200 Arab fighters are junior partners, and though more than window dressing, couldn’t dream of taking on Raqqa themselves. It was the YPG that pushed back Daesh this summer, and came within 40 miles of the capital of the phony caliphate. The YPG and its smaller Arab allies are being rebranded as the DFS because an Arab conquest of Raqqa looks more acceptable than a leftist Kurdish such victory.

The announcement comes as Amnesty International charged the YPG with demolishing homes of Arab and Turkmen families in villages reconquered from Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), whom they accused of having been collaborators.

The Syrian Arab Coalition say they have been promised substantial arms supplies by the United States, which obviously will also go to their YPG colleagues. The arms and ammunition is intended to enable a major assault on Raqqa, the capital in Syria of Daesh.

On Monday, the US airdropped 45 tons of weapons and ammunition in the northeast for the new Syrian Arab Coalition.

When the Turkish Air Force entered the fray in Syria and Iraq this summer, promising the US they would at last try to curb Daesh, instead they mostly bombed PKK positions over the border in Iraq. The Syrian Kurds alleged that they also bombarded the YPG— i.e. they struck at de facto US allies.

Ibrahim Karagol at the Turkish daily Yeni Safak complained recently [via BBC Monitoring]:

“US State Department Spokesperson John Kirby said that the YPG [People’s Defence Units] is a “friend” and “partner” of the United States. When we add to this reported comments by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to the effect that “Turkey must stop its air operations…”

Karagol went on to allege,

“Ankara should never forget that the YPG is a Trojan Horse for both the West and Russia and Iran that is used against Turkey and the region. If you look carefully, you can see that Turkey is being attacked directly through the PKK/YPG. Again, it is this terrorist organization that is the most important partner of the Russian-Iranian intervention in Syria. In this aspect, the threat has reached our doorsteps. Then we need to seek ways to push this threat beyond our borders.”

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and CIA director John Brennan know about this sort of paranoid discourse on the Muslim and nationalist right in Turkey, and they have decided to risk the confrontation. Ankara’s uselessness in the struggle against Daesh may have made Washington rethink its moment of distancing from the YPG.

So not only is US supply of TOWs and other weapons to rebels (many allied with al-Qaeda) in the northwest in danger of fueling a proxy war with the Russian Federation, but Washington’s supply of weaponry to the Democratic Forces of Syria (which includes the YPG Kurds) sets up a proxy struggle with its own NATO ally, Turkey.


Related video:

Wochit World: “US Shifts Syrian Strategy, Drops Ammunition”

16 Responses

  1. There is another possibility: that the USA airdrops all those lovely weapons to the YPG, who then turn around and throw their lot in with Russia and the SAA.

    Why not? It’s not as if the Kurds owe Obama anything…

      • Which, I suppose, shows just how crazy this world can be.

        After all, it appears to be a world in which a rebel organization can show much more common-sense – and a much better grasp of the concept of realpolitik – than does the leadership of the most powerful nation on the planet.

        Russia: Join with us and together we can prevail!
        YPG: Yep, OK, sounds good to me.
        USA: No, never! Not now, not ever!.

        • Compare the Kurdish armed groups in Syria:

          (A) PKK is Marxist in orientation as designated by the U.S. (but not Russia) as a terror organization – it has long been believed of having KGB connections;

          (B) YPG (People’s Protection Units) is leftist/socialist and has fought ISIS extensively in the northern regions of Syria and has been alleged – as the above article suggests – to have conducted home demolitions of Arab families suspected of collusion with ISIS;

          (C) Peshmerga – Iraqi Kurds have fought in small numbers within Syria attempting to combat ISIS.

          The Kurds have also been noted by Amnesty International to have used child soldiers in combat operations.

          The Kurds within Syria have had little aversion to the Assad regime – which has traditionally granted Syrian Kurds generous autonomy.

          The Syrian Arab Army has had only two major garrisons of troops within Syrian Kurdish areas in the north.

          I will doubt that there will be very many reports of Russia bombing the Kurds – they consider them allies in the war.

      • Fascinating report at McClatchy:
        “U.S. officials hope the YPG will now turn its attention to Raqqa, the Syrian city that is the defacto capital of the Islamic State”….

        OK, that’s what the USA “hopes” the Kurds will do.
        But what do the Kurds think if that idea?

        …” ‘Our prime and most important goal is to liberate Jarablus and to connect Kobani with Afrin,’ Can told McClatchy. Capturing Raqqa, a mostly Arab city, is ‘not really’ a PYD objective, he said. ‘Not for now,’ he said.”

        The PYD does appear to have stopped listening to the purveyors of The Audacity Of Hope.

  2. It seems that finally Mr. Obama has realized the futility of seeing Turkey as an “ally”, whose presence both in EU and NATO has been more detrimental than beneficial: dumping the refugees on other countries’ doorsteps, supporting Daesh, and hindering NATO moves are just a few of their shenanigans. The game is certainly not worth the candle.

  3. Say the words Syrian Kurdistan 3 times to Erdogan and he will have a heart attack. He knows now how short sided he was waving his finger to Assad and yelling ” either go or go, I will be praying at Al-Umayyad mosque.” Well all it took is for Obama to say I really need moderate fighters this time, and it doesn’t matter if they are found guilty by Amnesty international, or if they are a minority as long as they align themselves with some moderate Arab Syrians. Not a day later and voila, we have the DFS, Democratic forces of Syria, the Kurds YPG and some “Syrian Arabs”. They also through in some Assyrians. (the tiniest Christian minority).
    They have the word democracy in the name, it can’t get anymore moderate than that.
    Reuters- from YPG spokesman
    “The sensitive stage our country Syria is going through and rapid developments on the military and political front … require that there be a united national military force for all Syrians. Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and other groups,”.
    With Obama arming YPG, Saudi Arabia shoveling its weak feet back and forth to get and lean on more missiles for both Yemen and Syria, the EU pissed he keeps exporting refugees and economic migrants from all over the world, open invitation through his east and north borders directing them to the see, it seems he only has Israel left. Not that he’s not uncomfortable With Kurds selling oil to it. Hey you can’t rally the world to pump terrorists to Syria and sleep tight at night. Syrian Kurdistan sounds more likely Mr. No one can do anything without me. To keep it nice I only mentioned Syrian Kurdistan 2 times not 3.

  4. The US providing weaponry to the Democratic Forces of Syria inclusive of YPG Kurds appears counterproductive, given the fluidity of proxy alliances on the ground. However, on the anti-Assad state sponsorship spectrum, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are currently the most intransigent in Russia’s attempts in restablising Syria. The US has implicitly acquiesced to Russia’s policy and is working to bring-to-heel Turkey’s inflexiblity via Kurd proxies.

  5. “…demolishing homes of Arab and Turkmen families in villages reconquered from Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), whom they accused of having been collaborators.”

    To strengthen their opponents’ will to fight, presumably. Good move. Standard strategery in the region, yes indeed.

  6. How reliable are air drops? Do these ever drift astray or land where unintended parties can intercept?

    • Air drops can be very, very unreliable even when the aircraft comes close to crashing because it is so low. But even if the “cargo” is picked up by the intended group, there is no reason to expect that the “cargo” will stay with that group for more than a few minutes. Humans have been selling weapons for fun and profit for thousands of years.

      • Sigh. And when has giving insurgencies massive amounts of weapons ever turned out well? It’s like our own homegrown budding insurgency… our rightwing militias with all their hardware will eventually be able to make our lives miserable, but they’ll never have the popular support or strategic capacity to “topple the United States”.

  7. And it is time to divide or make a federation of Iraq between Kurds, Sunny and Shia. Kurds will eventually become Kurdistan perhaps before Palestine becomes a Nation. Am I wrong?

  8. Your link to the amnesty story is broken. It should be:
    link to

    Can you point to sources that confirm your claim that “the YPG is technically an affiliate of the PKK or Kurdistan Workers Pary”?

  9. Thanks for the information. Even with such guidance, it is getting too hard for the average guy like me to keep up with the players. I’ll just have to rely on my leaders to do the right thing.

  10. So Mark Koroi, what’s your argument? That those Kurds groups then should be enemies of the USA because Assad is their friend? Did we not during US independence wars against England use children? So what if they are Marxists or Socialists? USSR was not Marxist, was Totaliarism, Exterminating Dictatorship. Pinochet, your right wing Dictator was utterly worse than an Elected Marxist Socialist (as called by the CIA). And we are about ready to elect a SOCIALIST here in the USA. I SAY GO BERNIE!

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