By: Anthony Loyd, Kobani
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a well-worn phrase used to describe the jumble of unlikely bedfellows who share a common interest in their desire to annihilate Islamic State.
The US is about to find out what happens when the enemy of my friend is my friend too. To the anger of Turkey, the Trump administration has decided to arm the YPG, the Syrian-Kurd fighting group which is America’s ally of choice on the ground in the coming battle to capture Raqqa, Isis’s de facto capital.
Turkey regards the YPG as a terrorist group and has concerns over its power in Syria. Ankara has sent planes and artillery shells to bombard the YPG on numerous occasions, most recently last month when it bombed the YPG’s headquarters in northeastern Syria, killing key commanders in an act that outraged US officers on the ground and nearly scuppered the Raqqa operation.
“There were a couple of days after the strikes when several of our leading commanders and many of our people put on the pressure to withdraw our forces from the Raqqa front altogether and send them to protect our borders with Turkey,” Aldar Khalil, an adviser within Rojava, the Kurds’ self-administrated Syrian cantons, said. “They wanted to stop the Raqqa operation. We had to explain very carefully that this was Erdogan’s goal, and to persuade them to continue.”
From a military perspective the YPG is the natural choice of US ally. As the leading element within the 50,000-strong Syrian Democratic Forces, the YPG’s fighting units are highly motivated, well organised and battle hardened. Western special forces officers like and trust them.
By comparison the motley array of Syrian Islamic groups fielded by Turkey as its own allies in the war are feral, penetrated by Isis’s counterintelligence service and militarily inept. “Unless they get shoe-horned forward with airstrikes not much happens on an operation,” one Western official said after returning from a posting in southern Turkey.
Thousands of people have fled Raqqa as Kurdish troops advance
The US relationship with the YPG is fraught with complexity. The Syrian Kurds are a non-state actor with few regional allies. Their relationship with the Assad regime is symbiotic and prone to break down. Turkey bombs them and they are in dispute with the Iraqi Kurds across the border in northern Iraq, where both parties are embroiled in a Kurd-on-Kurd conflict over control of the area around Sinjar, resulting in a trade embargo on Rojava.
Giving the YPG weapons in the absence of any guarantee about their future status risks broadening the scope of conflict, rather than suppressing it.
Obvious conditions to the supply of US arms to the YPG should include a credible disassociation by the group from the PKK, the Kurdish separatist group fighting inside Turkey; the withdrawal of YPG fighters from northern Iraq; a cessation in the repression of rival political parties in YPG areas; and an agreement to withdraw from Raqqa, an Arab city, once it is captured.
In return for the capture of Raqqa, the US should push for the Syrian Kurds to be fairly represented in the Geneva negotiations process; encourage Iraq’s Kurdish authorities to lift their trade embargo on Rojava; support the Syrian Kurds’ wish for autonomy; finance the reconstruction of the Kurdish cantons in Syria; and prevent Turkey and its proxies from future attacks on Kurdish lands there.
So far there is little evidence of any political process behind the scenes and the regional lesson of the 2003 invasion of Iraq — that military action without political strategy produces certain disaster — appears to have been forgotten.
“What happens after Mosul and Raqqa? Are the Americans even considering this question?” a senior Kurdish adviser to the government in Iraqi Kurdistan asked. “The whole focus is led by the military, and focused entirely on defeating the Daesh [Isis] without any thought to what happens next. It’s like 2003 never happened.”
So what will happen when a friend’s enemy is also my friend?
In the absence of immediate and sophisticated political planning entrenched around clearly stated conditions, merely arming the Syrian Kurds may produce the one answer America least wants: that they all become enemies.