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US betting on the wrong horse in Syria

US support of Kurdish offshoot group in Syria could backfire in the medium-term

The West, spearheaded by the US, has long tried to either find or create allies in the Syrian conflict with little or no success. Previous engagements with groups such as the Hazm Movement and the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) openly failed, and the arms provided by the US ended up in the "wrong hands". The emergence of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and the metamorphosis of the ISI in Iraq ushered in a new era of risky partnerships for the US, and the US found itself indirectly in contact with some designated terrorist organisations, such as Asaib Ahlal-Haq and the PKK.

In Syria, the IS attack on Kobane set the grounds for a new partnership between the US and the YPG - the Syrian offshoot of the PKK - and the former has provided the latter with air cover and supplies of heavy weaponry. Leaving aside the politics of abbreviations, the YPG is staffed heavily by PKK militants, under heavy influence of the mountain cadres of the PKK and shares the exact same radical ideology with the PKK. Even if one were to deal with the YPG and PKK separately for the sake of argument, the YPG is still an organisation with strong terror links, i.e. the PKK.

For instance, there is inarguably less of a difference between the PKK and YPG than there is between al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, as the overlap of militants and of leadership between the PKK and YPG constitutes a relation that exceeds the level of “affiliation”. Hence, the military support given by the US to the YPG is risky at best as the YPG and PKK are interwoven and the former further cooperates with terror groups such as Marxist-Leninist Communist Party and Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front, whom we last remember by a suicide attack on the US embassy in Ankara.

Granted, as the famous saying goes: ‘A drowning man will clutch at a straw, however, will the alliance with PKK affiliated group serve its purpose and remedy the IS epidemic in Syria proper in the medium to long run?

Most probably it won't; and the reason lies in the demographics of Syria and the nature of the PKK/YPG which should be alarming for the US et al.

To begin with, the PKK/YPG is not necessarily the most effective partner in the fight against IS as we basically have had no previous case with which to compare the YPG case. The support given to the two groups cited above, Hazm and SRF, were weapons-only and lacked the critical component of airstrikes which had enabled the YPG to recover its losses from IS.

If it were not for the coalition airstrikes, the YPG probably could not have regained Kobane. IS had captured the town rather easily, and the YPG could only get it back thanks to the coalition airstrikes and the support received from the Turkish border. Despite efforts to conjure up legendary myths about the YPG fighters, who have had the luxury of fighting solely against ISIS unlike the Syrian rebels who have been fighting on several fronts simultaneously, the YPG has yet to prove its military efficiency without coalition airstrikes.

On a related note, the YPG lacks military skills to wipe IS off the Syrian map as it lacks the skills to fight effectively in the absence of coalition airstrikes. The number of YPG fighters has been inflated by newly recruited and inexperienced militants, including many child soldiers, as reported by Humans Rights Watch, who have had no previous experience in urban warfare unlike some of the IS militants who have been engaged in urban warfare since the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. It is therefore no coincidence that IS has suffered losses in Syria mostly through the airstrikes, not at the hands of the YPG militants.

Geographically speaking, the YPG controls two disconnected and heterogeneous territories in Syria which are populated by not only Kurds but also Arabs and Turkmens who have had deep suspicions about the YPG's "separatist" agenda in Syria. The Kurds, let alone the YPG affiliated Kurds, do not have a demographic majority in either YPG or IS-controlled areas. Due to this, as eyewitnesses and several Western media outlets have reported, the YPG has been resorting to demographical engineering by pushing out the Arabs and Turkmens, or by preventing their return home after being IDPs or refugees in Turkey.

Ethnic tensions and the YPG’s authoritarian policies partly explain why the non-Kurdish residents of the YPG-controlled areas have given little support to the YPG's military operations. To overcome their demographic disadvantage, the YPG has occasionally resorted to forced conscription and has imported PKK militants and new recruits, often with Turkish passports. It is not difficult to estimate that this need for imported fighters would increase proportionately with the YPG’s expansion towards IS-controlled territories.

An even more alarming aspect of the YPG for the US should be its radical ideology and terror links, including narco-terrorism. Despite PR-friendly statements by the YPG leadership, the situation on the ground is disturbingly worrying.

The YPG is a Marxist organisation with strong totalitarian and intolerant tendencies and policies. Their belated nationalism has clashed with the non-Kurdish residents; but even the Kurds who do not share the YPG/PKK ideology could not escape from the repression.

Tens of thousands of Kurds fled to Turkey and Northern Iraq not because of the IS threat but merely because of the YPG's authoritarian policies. Suicide attacks, including the recent one by a 16 year old PKK militant in Eastern Turkey, are yet another component of this radical ideology, which sanctifies suicide bombers and legitimises civilian deaths.

Support given to the YPG is also inconsistent with US-declared policies in Syria in support of the anti-Assad rebels. It is no secret that the YPG has a working political, economic and even security relationship with the Assad regime. The former acquired the territory it now controls from the Assad regime through agreement without fighting, and recently the co-chair of the PYD Salih Muslum said they are ready to merge into Assad's army if both reach an agreement on principles.

The YPG has so far avoided fighting against the Assad regime and has even helped the regime on several occasions in its fight against the Syrian rebels. This leaves the US in an awkward position in Syria where it supports both the Syrian rebels and one of Assad’s partners in Syria, the YPG.   

The YPG’s heavy reliance on the coalition airstrikes, lack of necessary military skills, demographic disadvantage, radical ideology and terror links will turn the group into a liability in the medium to long run for the US.

Its Machiavellian pragmatism, secret and open dealings with the Syrian regime and its regional backers such as Iran, and widespread animosity among the Syrians, rebels and regime supporters alike, will render the group an inefficient partner in the war against IS. The American tax payers as well as Syrians will then have to pay the heaviest price for yet another wrong bet on/placed in Syria.

 - Ufuk Ulutas is the director of foreign policy research at SETA Foundation, a non-partisan think-tank based in Ankara with branches in Istanbul, Washington DC and Cairo. He is a columnist for Akşam Daily newspaper and currently hosting a foreign policy centred TV program at TRT-Haber. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: Fighters from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) drive a tank in the al-Zohour neighbourhood of northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh on 2 August (AFP)