Last weekend, the U.S. announced it had dropped 50 tons of ammunition to rebel groups in northern Syria. Despite it’s public announcements proclaiming the contrary, most, if not all, of the ammunition ended up in the hands of the Syrian Kurds fighting under the banner of the Peoples’ Protection Forces, or YPG.
Sensitive of their Free Syrian Army and Turkish allies’ negative disposition towards the Syrian Kurds, the U.S. declared loud and clear that the support was meant for a number of Arab rebel groups in the Raqqa province who had organized themselves under the umbrella of the newly established Syrian Democratic Forces.
Regardless of the public discourse, there is little doubt that the U.S. intended for the ammunition to end up in Kurdish hands from the start.
The YPG has been one of the U.S.’s closest allies in the fight against the so-called Islamic State group, and supported by coalition air strikes they have dealt a number of significant blows to the jihadist organization. However, Turkish reservations about the organization due to its close links with the PKK – which has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state for the last thirty years – forced the U.S. to keep its support to a minimum. Until now.
Not long ago, I wrote an article suggesting that, by chosing Turkey over the Syrian Kurds, the U.S. had betrayed where its true intentions lay in the fight against the Islamic State group: maintaining its influence in the region rather than defeating the jihadists. The sudden change of U.S. tactics, now that it has decided to provide material support to the YPG, doesn’t undermine, but rather confirms this theory.
The relation between the U.S. and Turkey has largely remained the same, but the appearance of Russia as a new party to the Syrian conflict has forced the U.S. to make its regional politics submissive to its global aspirations.
Russia began its airstrikes in Syria on Sept. 30. Having already supported the Assad regime politically, financially and materially for many decades, its physical intervention in the conflict came not as a big suprise – despite the fact that many had hoped it would never happen.
Russian air strikes have targeted all parties the regime views as terrorists, meaning basically everyone who carries a gun without being part of the Syrian Armed Forces – notable exception being the YPG, who are neither in coalition nor in direct confrontation with the regime.
In the context of the Syrian war, the only thing the U.S. and Russia seem to agree on is their attitude towards the Kurds, whom both parties perceive as a potentially key ally on the ground, to the great horror of Turkey who perceives both the YPG and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as terrorist organizations and has warned that arms distributed to these parties could eventually be used against the Turkish state.
Prior to the latest air drops one could hear increasingly critical sounds coming from the Kurds regarding their cooperation with the U.S. The coalition air strikes have played a crucial role in the advancements of Kurdish forces against Islamic State group, but the White House’s neglect to speak up against Turkey, when the latter was waging a war on its Kurdish citizens in an attempt to crush support for the PKK, made the YPG and its political wing, the PYD realize that western support would only go so far.
When the PYD co-leader Salih Muslim was asked in a recent interview about the Kurdish response to Russia’s military intervention in Syria, he replied: “We will fight alongside whoever fights Daesh. We will stand alongside whoever battles the Daesh mentality,” using the Arab acronym for the Islamic State group. This statement underlines the PYD’s main priority – fighting IS – and its willingness to accept aid from whoever is prepared to give it.
The Kurds and the U.S. are only allies when it comes to fighting the Islamic Stategroup. Facing hostile forces on all sides – regimes forces and jihadists in the west and the south, Turkey in the north and the Kurdistan Regional Government in the west – they are not exactly spoiled for choices when it comes to chosing who to align themselves with. But since ideologically, the PYD and the YPG are as far removed from the U.S. as they are from Russia, there is a very real chance of them turning to the latter when their American “ally” fails to deliver.
Although the extent to which the PYD and the YPG support the Russian involvement in Syria remains unclear – one YPG commander proclaimed publicly that they had requested arms from Russia, while another statement denied earlier reports that claimed YPG support for Russia’s operations – Putin’s mentioning of the Kurds as an important force in battling Islamic State group during his speech at the U.N.’s 70th General Assembly stirred fears among the Americans for a Russian-Kurdish alliance. Out of fear to lose one of its key allies on the ground in Syria to its main opponent in the global political arena, the U.S. was left with little choice but to step up support to the YPG.
So, does this mean that the Syrian Kurds can rest assured now that the main global powers are vying for its attention? Unfortunately not.
Both Russia and the U.S. remain wary of stepping on Turkey’s toes. Russia knows that Turkey has the backing of NATO, and although a lot will have to go down before a full scale escalation becomes a realistic threat, NATO’s patience reserves have been drained significantly already during the Ukraine crisis. For the U.S., Turkey continues to be perceived as in indispensible regional ally despite its covert support for many of the very same radical organizations the U.S.-led coalition is bombing right now.
From a Turkish perspective, the Kurds – both at home and abroad – pose a bigger threat to its national security than the Islamic State group or any other jihadist organization. As such, it will do its utmost to prevent any actions that might strengthen the Syrian Kurdish forces. Turkey’s plans for a buffer zone inside Syria might be off the table now that the integrity of Syria’s borders is guaranteed by Russia, but it still has some leverage due to its control over the gates to Europe, as proven by the recent deals made with the EU regarding the refugee crisis.
At the end of the day, the Kurdish forces in Syria continue their very lonely struggle to wipe northern Syria clean of the Islamic State group and other jihadist organizations. Russian intervention might have provided it with some limited opportunities to expand their support base at the international level, but getting caught in between a U.S.-Russia power struggle for regional dominance is not a particularly enviable position to find oneself in.
Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist with an MSc in Political Economy, and editor for ROAR Magazine. He tweets at @Le_Frique.
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