Discussion with Aaron Stein on the Decision to Arm the YPG

Listen to Rafik Hariri Center’s Senior Resident Fellow on Turkey, Aaron Stein‘s commentary on the decision by the Trump administration to arm the YPG and how it could affect US-Turkey relations and the military campaign in Syria. 

If you are unable to listen to the audio, please read the transcript below: 

Hello, my name is Hossam Abouzhar, and I’m the editor in chief at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. Today we’re going to talk to Aaron Stein about President Trump’s recent approval to directly arm the YPG (People’s Protection Units), the Kurdish forces in Syria. The Pentagon has been advocating for this for a long time to speed up the battle to take back Raqqa. But it’s likely to have consequences beyond that immediate battle. Aaron, can you tell us a little bit about this bill specifically and about section 1209 and why it’s relevant?

Within the context of the funding for the vetted Syrian Opposition this stems from authorities congress granted from 2015 and to 2016, and embedded within that was a large fiscal authorization bill for the US military. Section 2019, and its “twelve-O-nine authorities” is basically the legal framework that the US military has been operating under to directly arm, train, and equip elements of what they called the “vetted” Syrian opposition. But, what the US has been doing if you listen to their statements is they always used to say “We give arms to the Arabs that fight with the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces.” And there was a reason for that, it’s because within those authorities, there’s language that refer to terrorism groups and because the YPG has links to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which is a US-designated terrorist group, it was technically illegal for the Pentagon to direcly arm them. Now within the authorities, the twelve-O-nine authorities, the president just has to issue, basically, a waiver, to notify the relevant congressional committees of the intent to lift that provision for that one specific group. In this case, it’s the YPG. So they had to do this, they felt that had to do this, I’m told, because the amount of materiel and weapons needed to assault a city is far greater than the amount of materiel that the US could provide through the Syrian Air Coalition (SAC) that fights alongside the YPG.

So Turkey will obviously object to this in fear that weapons may be transferred to the PKK, which both the US and Turkey consider a terrorist group, and then used against the Turkish state. How will this affect US relations with Turkey and is anything being done to mitigate Turkish concerns?

I mean I think obviously, Turkey is adamantly against the expansion of any weapons or training for the YPG. They were even against the arming of the SAC to fight alongside the YPG. And I would say that this issue has near unanimity in Turkish domestic politics beyond that of the current government of the AKP led by President Erdogan. Probably just outside of voters that are naturally sympathetic to the Kurdish cause inside of Turkey, which is only somewhere between ten and fifteen percent.

This is going to reverberate across party lines in Turkey, and across Turkish domestic politics and will feed anti-Americanism. This is well-known here in Washington, and was used by opponents within the bureaucratic process to try and kill this, and to try to come up with different ways to take Raqqa. But ultimately it was decided to push forward with this. The idea is to try and manage relations with Turkey and to try and assuage them of concerns. It’s going to be an extremely difficult process. It probably won’t work, but the way that they’re trying to frame it is that they won’t give more weapons than needed to take Raqqa. That seems a little fuzzy to me and probably not really accurate, as if they’ll keep accurate accounting of these weapons. I think they’ll try. But, you know, history tells us that these weapons usually get out and get thrown around these different conflict zones. So again, I think they’ll try, but not necessarily succeed.

In terms of tangible things that they’ll try and give Turkey, is, I think they’ll try and increase intelligence support for Turkish efforts to control their own borders, particularly to control their own borders against PKK infiltration. And so it sets up this sort of, rather odd thing where the US is going to try and deepen its support of Turkish efforts to attack the PKK, or at least protect themselves from PKK infiltration, while at the same time, giving weapons across the border to Syria for the Syrian affiliates of the PKK, the PYD or the YPG. Those two points are not irreconcilable, you can work around them, I think the US will do that. Obviously, that’s something the Turks will shove in the United States’ face when they object. I think what also goes on, that largely gets unnoticed, is that there are efforts to try and use the PYD to put pressure on the PKK to slow down or stop the attacks inside of Turkey. I think this is where the United States has to go; it has to play a more prominent role in the PKK conflict, but that is a huge, heavy bureaucratic and political lift here in the United States. I’m not sure Turkey would be receptive and it would be hard to implement. Nevertheless, I think it’s what we have to do.

So moving back to Syria, what are the immediate implications now that the Pentagon is allowed to directly arm the YPG? How does this affect the schedule for the battle to retake Raqqa?

Well, it certainly means the battle, the proper battle to assault the city will begin probably this summer. It takes thirty days for the twelve-O-nine authorities to be lifted, just by process as articulated in the legislation, then you have to move stuff in so you ‘re looking at a timeline probably in July for the actual battle to start, not just shaving operations around it. Once that begins, I mean, I think if you use Mosul as a good, sort of equivalent, it’s going to be really nasty, and I think it’ll take a long time for the city to fall. I think Americans should brace themselves for at least six to twelve months of fighting, perhaps not more. But if you begin to think of the timeline for the American presence in Syria, and the American war in Syria, you’re looking in years, not in months or weeks. I think, longer term, the goal will not be to stop at Raqqa. Everybody keeps saying that ISIS has largely moved out of Raqqa and just left behind a couple thousand guys to defend the city. So where are they going? They’re moving down the river into a place called Mayadin, and I think the US is going to be relentless in going after the Islamic State (ISIS) after Raqqa falls. So I think it will be a push down the river after Raqqa, probably with the same sort of elements of forces to try and really keep up momentum against the Islamic State.

Finally, what are the implications for reconstruction in Syria if the US is now directly arming the Kurdish forces?

I actually think this is the more salient point, I mean, the more poignant point. The fighting will be really nasty, it’ll take a long time, the YPG and the Arabs that fight with them, which is not inconsequential, there are a lot of them; they’re going to lose a lot of people. The outcome is not really in doubt. The United States has escalation dominance over the Islamic State, and if it bogs down, we can always put in more of our own troops and take the city. But after the city falls, then what do you do? There is a council set up, it is Arab, and it’s nominally different from the PYD, but anyone who studies the PYD knows that there is connective tissue that between the Arabs to the PYD, the PYD to the PKK. So there is a link, and so if we go by the playbook, the Department of Defense is supposed to hand this off to the Department of State, who is supposed to oversee reconstruction.

This becomes a policy issue for Department of State about, “how deep do we want to go with PYD?” This I think is a question that has not been resolved and is a potential point where Turkey could try and exploit if they really wanted to get some deliverables from the Erdogan-Trump meeting in May, this hesitation is seen as facilitating, through reconstruction, what will essentially be a PYD statelet in northeastern Syria, and try to demand from the US some sort of political guarantees and be built around the reconstruction process. This issue, civilian reconstruction in areas where you will have a heavy PYD/PKK presence, I think, is one that will prevent making up, essentially, with Turkey for the decision the Trump administration made last night (Monday, May 8, 2017).

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Image: Photo: Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) stand near a U.S military vehicle in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said