On May 9, 2017, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) announced President Trump’s approval of a DoD proposal to provide arms to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia that has emerged over the past two-plus years as the principal ground combat component in the military campaign against ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State) in eastern Syria. The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the Turkey-and-Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an organization designated by the United States and NATO as a terrorist group. The DoD announcement comes one week before a scheduled meeting between Presidents Trump and Erdogan in the Oval Office.
Turkey has voiced persistently strong objections to the relationship between Washington and what it considers to be a terrorist organization. Ankara has cited the presence of PKK officials in Manbij and elsewhere in Syria and has urged the United States to consider alternatives to the YPG in taking the ground battle to ISIS. The Trump administration––with the Tampa-based US Central Command (CENTCOM) playing a major policy role––resisted and then apparently killed any discussion of alternatives.
For CENTCOM, the Kurdish fighters of the YPG have proven themselves adept in the ground battle against ISIS. The relationship began during the ISIS siege of the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani in late 2014, where American combat air and YPG fighters on the ground were the major elements in lifting the siege and inflicting heavy casualties on ISIS. Ankara’s arm’s-length attitude toward the battle for Kobani deepened perceptions in some American military circles that Turkey was simply problematical: perceptions dating back to Ankara’s 2003 decision not to approve the use of Turkish territory for the opening of a northern front against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Knowing that ISIS would not be beaten by airpower alone, and working under presidential guidance to degrade and ultimately defeat the self-styled caliphate, DoD decided to make do with what was readily available in terms of a ground force: the YPG. Over time American military advisors acquired a healthy respect for YPG fighters. The Obama administration elected to downplay Turkey’s PKK-related concerns, concentrating instead on urging Ankara to improve its interdiction of ISIS adherents moving across Turkey into Syria. And DoD sought to assuage Turkish concerns by recruiting non-Kurdish eastern Syrians (mainly Arabs) into a militia formation it dubbed “Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).” Ankara, however, regarded the SDF as the YPG with Arab auxiliaries.
Initially focused on degrading and destroying ISIS in all eastern Syria, CENTCOM military planning has increasingly concentrated on the ISIS Syrian “capital,” the city of Raqqa. CENTCOM has reportedly assured Ankara that the liberation of Raqqa––an overwhelmingly Arab city––will not be a Kurdish undertaking: that Arab elements of the SDF will be in the lead. This assurance seems to have been aimed at calming the Turks on two points: that Kurds would not be able to claim credit for the accomplishment of a militarily significant mission; and that the YPG would not be able to extend to Raqqa and its environs a Syrian Kurdish autonomous zone it hopes to rule.
The Turkish reaction to the DoD announcement has been negative, but muted. The view in Ankara is that American arming of the YPG is not something that is about to commence: it has been going on for quite some time. Although the announcement will elicit broad disapproval throughout a Turkish society that has suffered considerably at the hands of the PKK, both the government and the populace recognize that the bilateral relationship with Washington is important and not unidimensional. President Erdogan––though no doubt annoyed by an announcement made by a department of the American government with which his government has had a contentious relationship––has multiple objectives connected to his forthcoming visit to Washington. He may hope to be compensated for what he sees as an American decision to use (and arm) terrorists to fight terrorists.
Had the announcement not been made, Erdogan may have tabled in the White House a proposal that the United States set aside its YPG relationship and employ Turkish ground forces––including units with some training in urban combat operations––to take Raqqa. Had he done so, no doubt his American counterpart would have emphasized his belief that time was of the essence in the Raqqa operation, and that substituting ground forces would have introduced an unacceptable delay. Might Erdogan have persuaded Trump otherwise? Apparently, we will never know. And the White House may have calculated it was doing Turkey a favor by (a) preemptively removing the issue from the agenda, and (b) relieving Erdogan of having to follow-through on a rapid and sizeable commitment of Turkish forces.
The Obama administration steadfastly resisted doing the right thing in eastern Syria: building a professional ground force coalition of the willing to defeat ISIS decisively and to liberate urban areas with military units suitably trained for the complexities of block-to-block and house-to-house fighting. The Trump administration inherited and has elected to implement a strategy that puts militiamen up-front in the battle for Raqqa.
Ideally the good luck for which America was once known will return in the liberation of Raqqa. Ideally ISIS fighters will vanish before the SDF enters the city. If they do not, ideally the SDF militiamen––accompanied by American advisors––will mimic the performance of trained professionals. Tens of thousands of civilian lives hang in the balance. Had the Turkish-American alliance kicked-in with full force sometime over the past two-plus years, the defeat of ISIS could have been accomplished in a rapid, professionally satisfactory, and life-saving manner. Now one prays for good fortune.
Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.