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Expert View: U.S. Decision to Arm Syrian Kurds Will Boost Fight Against ISIS

Experts say the U.S. decision to arm Kurdish forces in Syria will strengthen U.S.-backed forces fighting ISIS and result in possible tacit agreements between the U.S. and unlikely partners.

Written by Kim Bode, Alessandria Masi Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A member of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) walks with a Kalashnikov assault rifle slung behind his back. AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN

BEIRUT – The U.S. decision to directly arm Kurdish forces in Syria is a meaningful step forward in the fight against the so-called Islamic State, experts told Syria Deeply.

The decision gives the Pentagon clearance to arm the entire Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, a U.S.-backed coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters dominated by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), making gains against ISIS in northern Syria. After a month of fighting, on Thursday the SDF pushed ISIS out of the strategically significant town of Tabqa, positioning themselves to begin the assault on the militants’ Syrian stronghold Raqqa.

Syria Deeply asked four experts about the implications of this decision on the ground. In the first installment of this series, Nicholas A. Heras, Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security; Robert Lowe, deputy director of the LSE Middle East Center; Gokhan Bacik, associate professor of International Relations at Ipek University, and Eva Savelsberg, president of the European Center for Kurdish Studies, share their viewpoints on how the U.S. decision will impact Kurdish factions fighting ISIS and relations with other powers currently fighting the militant group.

Syria Deeply: The Pentagon said it has clearance “to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS in Raqqa.” Keeping in mind that Syrian Kurds make up the majority of the SDF, which the U.S. was already training and arming, how will this new decision affect the Kurds’ military capabilities on the ground and the SDF’s involvement in the anti-ISIS fight?

Nicholas Heras: There has always been a tension between the U.S. military’s insistence that only Arab groups within the SDF received weapons and the reality that the YPG maintains majority within the SDF. This is why the moniker Syrian Arab Coalition was created by the U.S. military in the first place, to create a constant rhetorical and sometimes real distinction between the Arabs receiving U.S. weapons and ammunition and the Kurds, that Turkey is fearful that the U.S. is empowering.

Is this order a game changer? Not necessarily. None of the weapons that would potentially be given to the Kurds, except for antitank missiles, would be a direct threat to the Turkish military. And even antitank weapons, which ISIS has used so effectively against the Turkish military in and around al-Bab, can be seized by the Kurds in battle from ISIS.

This order needs to be assessed in the context that for the better part of two-and-a-half years, U.S. Special Forces have been networking with, training and fighting beside Kurdish SDF in the field. The SDF was nurtured and mentored by the U.S. military. The prohibition against providing direct military assistance to Kurdish groups in the SDF, which are a large component of the SDF, was preventing the full actualization of the SDF to take Raqqa. This order changes that, and in so doing, broadens and deepens the relationship of the U.S. military with the SDF in a way that cuts Turkey out of the battle for Raqqa, and subsequent battles to come against ISIS throughout eastern Syria.

Robert Lowe: The Kurdish forces have been relatively successful in the war but have lacked heavy weaponry and are currently struggling to make progress into ISIS-held Raqqa. The U.S. decision to provide heavier weapons among its supplies to the Kurds could therefore be significant in tipping the balance in their favor. The U.S. has apparently imposed conditions on the use of the weapons but the supply clearly strengthens the YPG.

Gökhan Bacık: In the region, the Kurds are the most experienced military manpower against the ISIS. They have experience, manpower and they know the region and the ground conditions very well. Sending U.S. weapons will indeed put more pressure on them to get more engaged in the anti-ISIS fight. For the Kurds, it’s about international legitimacy as well, thus they will pace up their efforts against ISIS.

Eva Savelsberg: Most probably they will become more effective – however, costs will be high, particularly for Turkey, Syrian Kurds critical of the YPG or [their political wing] the PYD, and for the population in Raqqa (if the Kurds stay and control the region.)

Syria Deeply: The U.S. decision comes just days after Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem said that the Kurds fight against ISIS is “legitimate.” Is this a sign of a tacit agreement between the U.S. and Syria when it comes to fighting ISIS, and where does that leave Turkey, a NATO member that was once an important U.S. ally in Syria?

Heras: The U.S. government is not overly concerned that Assad’s government would accept this arrangement between the U.S. military and the Kurds. The Trump administration is more concerned with providing support for the most effective, local partners it has against ISIS. The most effective U.S. partnership in Syria is with the SDF, bar none. The SDF is the U.S. military’s stepchild – it raised it and is educating it in the ways of war.

This order also sends a loud statement to Turkey that the U.S. military is all in with the SDF for the Raqqa battle. Turkey can either get on board or be left behind.

Lowe: I don’t know if there is a tacit agreement between the U.S. and Syria but defeating ISIS is clearly the current priority for both. The complicated set of alliances and enmities leaves Turkey in an uncomfortable position. Its relationship with the U.S. has deteriorated because of this and other reasons, and it has been unsuccessful in stopping the U.S. steadily increasing its support for the Kurds.

Bacık: There is a “hidden” dynamic emerging between the Syrian regime and the Kurds. The Kurds’ goal is to elevate their status in Syria, which is likely only possible through recognition from Damascus. But ideology is critical. For the Kurds, the best scenario would be a secular regime in Damascus.

For Turkey, the Syrian problem is now a mess. Turkey recognizes YPG/PYD as terrorists, and it’s Ankara’s top priority in Syria to curb the Kurdish movement. However, Ankara realizes that it cannot offend the U.S. This is a “policy of desperation”; Ankara is very angry but I am not sure if they have a lot of power to challenge the U.S.

Savelsberg: Yes, it surely is a sign of a tacit agreement. There have been many of these tacit agreements, beginning in 2012, when the YPG took Kurdish regions from the regime with minimal struggle, followed by the YPG suppression of antiregime demonstrations in 2012 and 2013, and their co-operation with the regime in securing the city of Qamishli. President Bashar al-Assad and other high-ranking Syrian regime figures, have, in the past, stated that the YPG is “part of the Syrian army.”

I believe that once ISIS is defeated in Syria, the U.S. will stop or reduce their cooperation with the Kurds and the U.S. and Turkey may become closer again. U.S. cooperation with this group is not based on their “democratic qualities.” The U.S. selected the Kurds as allies on the ground because they are well organized with many fighters and the U.S. felt it had few options after failing to build up a Syrian armed force. The problem is that, until then, weapons delivered to the Kurds in Syria may well be used against the Turkish army in Turkey, or against Kurds or others in Syria who are critical of them.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

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