Syria’s Kurdish militia is growing frustrated with its patron, the United States, and is pressing it to do more to stop Turkey’s assault on a key stronghold in Syria.
The issue reflects a deeper concern among the Kurds over their alliance with the Americans, which proved vital to defeating the Islamic State group in Syria. The Kurds fear that ultimately they and their dream of self-rule will be the losers in the big powers’ play over influence in Syria. Already the US is in a tough spot, juggling between the interests of the Kurds, its only ally in war-torn Syria, and its relations with Turkey, a key NATO ally.
The Kurdish militia views defending the Kurdish enclave of Afrin as an existential fight to preserve their territory. Afrin has major significance — it’s one of the first Kurdish areas to rise up against President Bashar Assad and back self-rule, a base for senior fighters who pioneered the alliance with the Americans and a key link in their efforts to form a contiguous entity along Turkey’s border. The offensive, which began Jan. 20, has so far killed more than 60 civilians and dozens of fighters on both sides, and displaced thousands.
“How can they stand by and watch?” Aldar Khalil, a senior Kurdish politician said of the US-led coalition against IS. “They should meet their obligations toward this force that participated with them (in the fight against terrorism.) We consider their unclear and indecisive positions as a source of concern.”
Khalil, one of the architects of the Kurds’ self-administration, and three other senior Kurdish officials told The Associated Press that they have conveyed their frustration over what they consider a lack of decisive action to stop the Afrin assault to US and other Western officials. They said US officials have made confusing statements in public. One of the officials who agreed to discuss private meetings on condition of anonymity said some US comments even amounted to tacit support for the assault.
The fight for Afrin puts Washington in a bind with few good options. The Americans have little leverage and no troops in Afrin, which is located in a pocket of Kurdish control at the western edge of Syria’s border with Turkey and is cut off from the rest of Kurdish-held territory by a Turkish-held enclave. The area is also crowded with other players. Russian troops were based there to prevent friction with Turkey until they withdrew ahead of the offensive, and the area — home to more than 300,000 civilians — is surrounded by territory held by Syrian government forces or al-Qaida-linked militants.
The Americans’ priority for the YPG — the main Kurdish militia that forms the backbone of forces allied to the US — is for them to govern the large swath of territory wrested from the Islamic State group in northern and eastern Syria, including the city of Raqqa. Washington wants to prevent IS from resurging and keep Damascus’ ally, Iran, out of the area.
Afrin is not central to those American goals and US officials say it will distract from the war on IS.
The US-led coalition has distanced itself from the Kurdish forces in Afrin, saying they have not received American training and were not part of the war against the Islamic State group in eastern Syria. But it also implicitly criticized the Turkish assault as unhelpful.
“Increased violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area of Syria. Furthermore, it distracts from efforts to ensure the lasting defeat of Daesh and could be exploited by Daesh for resupply and safe haven,” the coalition said in an emailed statement to the AP, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
For its part, Turkey views the YPG as an extension of its own Kurdish insurgent groups and has vowed to “purge” them from its borders.
While the US may distance itself from the fighting in Afrin, it can’t sit by silently if Turkey goes ahead with its threat to expand the fight to Manbij, a Syrian town to the east where American troops are deployed alongside Kurdish forces that took the town from IS in 2016.
One option is a proposal by the Kurds to persuade Assad to deploy his troops as a buffer between the Kurds and Turks in Afrin. Nobohar Mustafa, a Kurdish envoy to Washington, said the Americans appear open to that proposal. However, so far Assad’s government has refused; they want full control of the area.
Another option could be to seek a compromise with Turkey by withdrawing US and Kurdish forces from Manbij, said Elizabeth Teoman, a Turkey specialist with the Institute for the Study of War.
“The Turks may accept that as an intermediate step, but the US will consistently face threats of escalation from Turkey as long as we maintain our partnership with the Syrian Kurdish YPG,” Teoman said.
US officials have reportedly said recently that they have no intention of pulling out of Manbij.
Kurdish officials say they don’t expect the Americans to go to war with Turkey or send troops to fight with them in Afrin.
But “this doesn’t mean the US doesn’t have a role in stopping the war on Afrin,” said Mustafa, the Kurdish envoy to Washington. She said Kurdish officials weren’t surprised the Americans have distanced themselves from the Afrin dispute “but we didn’t expect their stance to be that low.”
She and Khalil have lobbied Washington and Europe for a more aggressive stance against Turkey’s advances. Other than the proposal to allow Syrian border guards to deploy, they have suggested international observers along a narrow buffer zone. Mustafa said the US could argue that the YPG presence in northwestern Syria, where al-Qaida-linked militants have their stronghold, is necessary to fight terrorism. Khalil said he has pressed other NATO members to urge Turkey to stop airstrikes.
Meanwhile, a heated media campaign has been launched to “Save Afrin,” while Kurdish supporters in Europe have staged regular protests and a senior YPG official wrote an op-ed for the New York Times.
In Washington, US officials rejected the notion that the United States hasn’t tried hard enough to rein in Turkey. In addition to publicly urging Turkey to limit its operation and avoid expanding further east, they noted that President Donald Trump spoke about it directly with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The White House said that Trump used that call to urge Turkey to “deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced persons and refugees.”
They say that since Turkey has proceeded, the US has been left with only bad options.
Although the US doesn’t want to see Assad’s government return to the area between Afrin and Turkey, it may be the “least worst situation,” said a US official involved in Syria policy.
The United States has less ability to influence negotiations about how to secure the border than Russia, whose forces have long had a strong presence in the area, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private diplomatic discussions.
The Trump administration has also quietly acknowledged that ultimately, the Kurds may be disappointed if they are expecting loyalty even on matters where US and Kurdish interests diverge. Turkey, after all, is a NATO ally. Asked recently if Washington had a moral obligation to stick with the Kurds, senior Trump administration officials said Trump’s “America first” doctrine dictated that the US must always prioritize its own interests.
From the Kurdish perspective, “the Americans are missing the whole point. If Erdogan is not stopped at Afrin, he will turn eastward and will not stop until he has destroyed the entire edifice” built by the Kurds in eastern Syria, said Nicholas Heras, of the Center for a New American Security.
“The challenge for the YPG is that it has power only so long as it continues to act as the key, local proxy for the US mission in Syria,” Heras said.