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At an April 27 hearing at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on policy options in Syria titled “After the Missile Strikes,” Charles Lister, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, cautioned the dais on the need to “not rush Raqqa.” On May 9, the Pentagon announced that indeed U.S. President Donald Trump intends to do just that.
It appears that the U.S. looks to arm Syria’s Kurds, more specifically the YPG (the People’s Protection Unit of the PYD/Democratic Union Party), who make up the majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The rationale, as Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said in a statement on Tuesday, is that Syrian Democratic Forces, “partnered with enabling support from U.S. and coalition forces, are the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future." Operationally, this is probably true. However, the dangerous over-reliance on Kurdish forces is not sustainable—neither for Syria nor for America’s long-term interests—as this over-reliance is, as Lister aptly put it in his April 27 testimony, “poisonous.”
In Washington, many suffer from the “romance of secularism” offered by the YPG/PYD among the thicket of rainbow-flavored armed opposition groups and militias in Syria, be they vetted, jihadist, sectarian, or otherwise illiberal Islamists. Many commentators and policymakers alike fail to recognize how the YPG’s aims do not involve a pluralistic, democratic Syria. Rather, it is the establishment of a Kurdish state south of Turkey’s border that the group seeks, and it has often worked hand-in-hand with the Assad regime to meet its ends. The Trump administration has essentially given a vote of confidence to the YPG; this is who the US is choosing as its key partner on the ground, and this will not be ignored by Syrians, as well as by our allies in the region. Furthermore, embracing the YPG sends a message, similar to the one presented by the Obama administration, that the US will continue to haphazardly carry on an ISIS-centric Syria strategy and we will work with actors who do not share our interests or values, Syria be damned. America’s enemies, including Russia, Assad, and Iran, have registered this short-sightedness, and seized the moment to establish themselves as key partners against extremism.
The YPG-dominated SDF may be able to take Raqqa. Holding Raqqa is an entirely different endeavor. The YPG has been accused of ethnic cleansing of Sunni Arab areas in pursuit of the Kurdistan project. In 2014, Human Rights Watch documented numerous human rights abuses in YPG-run enclaves in Syria. The YPG’s role in the siege of Aleppo in the latter half of 2016 has further soured relations between the Kurds and pro-opposition groups and civilians. Many Syrians accuse the YPG of aiding and abetting the siege in Aleppo. And while the marble rye of the map of Syria’s frontlines and alliances cannot provide a black-and-white assessment, and while other armed opposition groups faced blame too, the YPG did not play a positive role in Aleppo, which is the Syrian opposition’s greatest loss in the six-year civil war. Moreover, the YPG crackdown on other Syrian Kurdish political parties and civil society activity, as well as other armed Kurdish groups, is well-documented. Indeed, just yesterday, the YPG arrested a member of a Kurdish opposition party in Qamishli.
In short, for many Syrians—Arab, Kurdish, and otherwise—the YPG is not a group of liberators. Its ability to and interest in providing security for Syrian Arab populations is dubious at best. The Washington Post reports that senior administration officials have made verbal assurances that the Kurds will not be “part of the force that enters Raqqa and will not dominate the establishment of a new local government.” Without the establishment of a well-endowed Sunni Arab force, and short of deploying Coalition forces to occupy the city, how, then, does Trump plan on holding, deescalating, and policing Raqqa? Without a studied vision for exerting influence on our Kurdish bedfellows--to bring an end to the YPG’s acts of ethnic cleansing and abuse of human rights, as well as to force the YPG to adopt a Syria-centric, rather than Kurdish-centric, military and political purpose--this strategy is doomed to failed, and will surely reduce our leverage on the ground in Syria, as well as with our key allies in the region.
The YPG is the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is designated by the United States as a terrorist organization for the acts of political violence it has been responsible for against NATO ally Turkey for decades. President Trump’s decision is another about-face in US-Turkish relations, which have been in a disastrous, avoidable downward spiral but which seemed to be thawing after Trump called President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following Erdogan’s success in the April 16 constitutional referendum. Many commentators have decried that phone call as a big step backwards for democracy—another nominal American interest in the region.
President Trump has cast doubt on whether he will take the NATO partnership seriously, but the US cannot ignore Turkey’s security interests, of which the PKK is top of the list. Simply put, Turkey’s partnership in the future deescalation of violence, stabilization, counterterrorism, and development in northern Syria is absolutely indispensable.
Could the President be in need of a win after an objectively disastrous first 100 days in office? Could it be that the lack of staffing at the Departments of State and Defense or the lack of a clear chain of communication and command on in the president’s national security team has produced, surprisingly, poor decisionmaking? Could the strength of the Kurdish Kool-aid in Washington be that strong? One thing is clear: observers of American foreign policy should not confuse Trump’s decision with cruise control of Barack Obama’s directionless Syria policy. Rather, Trump, be it for the appearance of a win or for Ivanka Trump’s genuine concern for Syrian children, is prone to knee-jerk decisions that leave observers of foreign policy and those affected by it with more questions than answers.
The potential cuts to the Departments of State and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) will stifle a viable budget for investments in Syrian civil society and policing, all essential for stability and civilian protection objectives, which again are other nominal US interests. This too leaves questions as to what happens after Raqqa is “liberated” from ISIS. The White House must address how the Coalition will actually hold Raqqa with the PYD as the key local partner on the ground, one whose objectives for a post-ISIS northern Syria differ with our other Syrian partners, large swaths of Syrian society both pro- and anti- Assad, as well as our regional allies.