Frenemies: Is the YPG-U.S. Relationship Deepening or Crumbling?

by Marcel Cartier   Getty Images  


As 2017 came to a conclusion and the so-called Islamic State found its self-proclaimed caliphate shattered and its forces largely decimated, a new era appeared to be on the horizon for Syria and Iraq. The two countries, the former turned into the frontline of a global proxy war in the midst of the tumult of the Arab Spring in 2011, the latter ravished by almost a decade and a half of war since the 2003 U.S. invasion, seemed to be turning the page toward the prospect of a more peaceful and stable future.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi proclaimed the defeat of ISIS on December 9, saying “Our battle was with the enemy that wanted to kill our civilization, but we have won with our unity and determination.”

There is no doubt that a great battle against darkness had been waged across the region. This variant of fascism had found its genesis in the George W. Bush’s war that brought the embryo that became the Islamic State into existence. There is also no doubt that there was unity against this enemy, of that type that found often strange bedfellows taking the same side of the battlefield. What a perplexing world was emerging in which Iranian supported forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi Army, and the United States all lined up together in the battle for Mosul, as well as the subsequent operations to mop up pockets of ISIS control.

However, beneath the veneer of ‘unity’ lay the perhaps temporarily dormant contradictions. It was bizarre to witness the United States salute the so-called ‘Shia militia’ known as Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi (the Popular Mobilization Units, or PMUs) for its success in fighting ISIS. The referendum on independence for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on September 25th shattered one veneer of a permanent union, as the PMUs would join the Iraqi Army in retaking Kirkuk from the Peshmerga. The position of the United States was that these events were essentially none of its business, and that both sides – as its ‘partners’ – should practice restraint. It appeared as if now that the Islamic State had been degraded as an entity, or proto-state, the U.S.-PMU relationship was beginning to shift from that of a temporary alliance to that of enemies, amplified by Trump’s increasingly aggressive posture toward Iran.

In Syria, the complexity of odd bedfellows, or ‘frenemies’ is perhaps even more difficult to grasp. Washington, at the start of the war, supported the most brutal, regressive, and reactionary forces in the country. Support for Sunni hardline Islamist factions in the Free Syrian Army led to the growth of al-Qaeda, and ultimately the Islamic State. Half a decade later, any semblance of support to the so-called FSA has ended, and the U.S. has now found itself essentially only supporting one force. This happens to be the most progressive and left-wing of all the country’s armed elements, the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its wider umbrella the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

This has hardly been a relationship of true ‘partners’, contrary to whatever claims have been made by U.S. Central Command. The alliance has been marked by tremendous tension, conflict and hostility (see my previous article on this topic ‘Anti-Imperialists Must Understand the Relationship Between the SDF and U.S.)

After Raqqa, the YPG Comes Closer to Russia

In the aftermath of the defeat of Daesh in Raqqa, proclaimed by the Syrian Democratic Forces on October 17, the writing appeared to be on the wall for the eventual end of the YPG-U.S. relationship. This cooperation had always been referred to as ‘tactical’ by the Kurdish leadership, so it seemed inevitable that after the threat of fascist darkness had been eliminated, the need for reliance on a western imperial power – always viewed with distrust for its ongoing attacks and coordination with Turkey against their own comrades just over the border – would cease. As the dust settled and efforts were undertaken to begin rebuilding Raqqa – unquestionably all but flattened by the horrid reality of U.S. airstrikes – it appeared as if the Trump administration was on the verge of ending its support for their Kurdish ‘comrades’.

The fact that the war looked to be concluding with a dual victory – that of the Syrian government in partnership with its Russian and Iranian allies on the one hand, and Kurdish-led forces on the other, brought forward the possibility of greater cooperation between the YPG and Russia.

Moscow, for its part, had already deepened its cooperation with the Kurdish forces over recent years, encouraging the participation of the YPG/J’s political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), in peace talks. The Russian state even drafted a proposed constitution for the country in 2017 that would see the adoption of a federative model. One of the proposals was to change the name from ‘Syrian Arab Republic’ to ‘Syrian Republic’ in an effort to craft a new, multi-ethnic governing structure that would leave the territorial integrity of the state intact while encouraging greater autonomy for the country’s non-Arab peoples. Despite the United States having the dominant role in supporting the armed forces operating in Rojava, it was Russia that has always played the far greater role in crafting a political relationship with the PYD, going back to the opening of an office for the Rojava self-administration in Moscow in 2016.

YPG-SAA Cooperation and Confrontation

After the liberation of Raqqa, the parallel operations by both the Syrian Arab Army and the Syrian Democratic Forces to drive the Islamic State out of Deir ez-Zor tested the ability of the two forces to cooperate. Tensions spiked on several occasions, with both sides claiming that they were attacked by the other, and worries growing that with the defeat of ISIS, a new front in the war would see the SDF and SAA engaged in a battle to the death.

However, as 2017 wound down, it appeared unclear which direction relations between the two ‘victorious’ sides in Syria’s would head in.

In late November, the PYD's Moscow representative Abd Salam Muhammad Ali appeared to be full of optimism about the ability for a political solution to be found that could ultimately result in the SDF being integrated into the Syrian Army. However, this was mistakenly taken by many to mean that the SDF was open to joining the Syrian Arab Army, in other words the existing armed forces of an unreformed and still centralized government. The PYD clarified that in fact any prospect of integration would be dependant on the granting of autonomy to Rojava.

The Syrian state, for its part, has displayed conflicting sentiments towards the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and the idea of federalism. In September, in the aftermath of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, Bashar al-Assad’s foreign minister Walid al-Moualem held out an olive branch, saying of self-rule in Rojava, “This topic is open to negotiation and discussion and when we are done eliminating Daesh, we can sit with our Kurdish sons and reach an understanding on a formula for the future.”

However, al-Moualem’s statement was met with understandable scepticism by the Rojava leadership, as just weeks earlier Assad had said in a speech that "the national identity of Syria exists but its essence is Arabism.” This followed Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad’s comments in August that the idea of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria was a ‘joke’.  

It’s clear from many of the statements issued by the Syrian government that the major point of contention with the Kurdish forces at the moment is the presence of the United States in the north of the country.

According to international law, the only powers who have the legal basis to operate in Syria are those who have been invited by the sovereign government of the country. In this case, that would mean that the Damascus central government. The involvement in the war of Iran and Russia on the side of the Syrian state, therefore, might be possible to attempt to discredit using political arguments, but it cannot be undermined by legal standards.

The self-administration in Rojava, of course, would also posit that it has the agency and authority to act as a representative of a major part of the country amidst the chaos of war, and that it therefore has the right to also cooperate with whatever foreign powers it deems necessary (in spite of the fact that it doesn’t advocate separatism or the fracturing of the state, but a federal system) This position, contrary to that of the Syrian state, cannot be argued for according to the rulebook of international law, unless one of course recognizes the Democratic Federation as a sovereign entity. However, considering that this kind of proto-state recognition flies even in the face of the wishes of Kurdish leadership, this is far removed from the realm of probability.

The dialectic at play currently between the Syrian government and PYD can be seen in the following terms: the more the Damascus government feels emboldened to defy any prospect of negotiating federalism or de-centralization of power, the more the Rojava administration looks toward using the U.S. presence in the country as that of a guarantor to facilitate its objectives at the negotiating table – or even being given a seat at that table to begin with. However, the more the YPG/J appear willing to maintain a relationship with Washington for this purpose, the more it pushes the Syrian government to adopt a more hostile position toward the Kurdish forces.

Why Is the U.S. Still in Syria?

The Rojava administration has consistently put forward the position that with the defeat of ISIS, there should no longer exist the basis for any foreign powers to exist on Syrian soil.

In an interview published on the official website of the YPG on November 22nd, Nesrin Abdullah, the spokesperson for the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) said, “Once ISIS completely defeated there are no reasons left for international powers to stay in Syria. They have to play their role for dialogue between sides if they don’t want to step aside.”  

Two months later, the United States remains in Syria, however. In fact, in recent days Russia, Iran and Turkey have all been united in rage in the aftermath of the news that Washington would assist in equipping a 30,000 strong ‘border force’ in northern Syria that would consist of roughly 15,000 members of the YPG.

For Russia, Iran, and Turkey, there is great cause for concern at such a force. Turkey’s vehement opposition to the idea is perhaps rather obvious. President Erdogan, on the verge of launching an attack on the Afrin canton of Rojava, is furious at the collaboration between the its NATO ally and what Ankara sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Iran, shaken by the recent wave of protests at home which included active participation from the Kurdish population and the PKK/PYD allied PJAK (Party for a Free Life), is hardly keen to see any security force in Syria that helps embolden Kurdish aspirations at home. Russia, despite its cooperation with the PYD and SDF in Syria, is opposed to the setting up of parallel security structures before a political solution is reached.

For the YPG, the ‘border force’ appears to be a question of life and death in some regards. The contradictions of the fight against fascism and for survival has led the revolutionary Kurdish movement to ally with the same enemy that for 30 years had been assisting Turkey in attempting to destroy it. The Kurdish Freedom Movement no doubt is well aware of the inherent dangers in doing such a dance with a ‘frenemy’. 

However, it would now appear as if those dangers are more pronounced than at any other time. Ideological purity, of course, goes out of the window during intense conflict. The necessity of survival overrides all other considerations. At the same time, it would also seem that such a ‘border force’ inherently flies in the face of the Kurdish movement’s ideology, which calls for a ‘non-state’ solution and fluidity of borders. This stage of the Syrian war is a test for the Rojava leadership in terms of how much it is willing to compromise in order to maintain its existence. To the extent that this means the possible liberalizing of principles in order to craft a better relationship with imperialism is of course cause for great concern.

The Rojava experiment, as perhaps one of the most progressive social revolutions currently being played out anywhere in the world, deserves our solidarity at all crucial junctures. This is precisely one of those stages, with Erdogan threatening Afrin with attack – not only via Islamist proxies, but with the occupying Turkish army.

At the same time, it behoves those on the left who may support the Rojava Revolution ideologically but are wary of the role of the United States, to express solidarity that doesn’t uncritically follow every decision taken by the Democratic Federation. We need to no doubt understand why such decisions are made. but this doesn’t necessarily mean that we shouldn’t continue to push for positions that will ultimately rid the region of Washington and contribute to the sovereignty of Syria post-war. After all, true friends don’t just reaffirm the flawed positions and behaviour of their comrades when they have made detrimental decisions. Therefore, it’s important for us to maintain a critical, yet comradely, spirit through the ebbs and flows of the revolution and war.

Will Afrin Change the Equation?

The true nature of the United States has been borne out in recent days in light of Turkey’s threats on Afrin. One might expect that given the apparent deepening of the SDF-U.S. relationship in light of the new ‘border force’ project, Washington would express its opposition to Erdogan’s plans. However, as Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led coalition, told Turkey’s official news agency Anadolu, "We are not operating in Afrin. We are supporting our partners in defeating remaining ISIS pockets along the Middle Euphrates River Valley, specifically in areas north of Abu Kamal, on the eastern side of the Euphrates River.”

The position of the United States here appears to be that it will not intervene to prevent a Turkish attack on Afrin that could result in another gruesome chapter in the long history of genocidal attacks by Ankara against Kurdish lands.  YPJ spokesperson Abdullah already said back in November: “Both Russia and coalition forces will be responsible for new massacres in Afrin if they keep being silent about attacks by Turkey.”

Also in recent days, Sipan Hemo, commander general of the YPG, said “if the Turkish state dares to conduct such an invasion aggression on Afrin, this will mean that everyone has responsibility in it. Should Iran, Russia, Syria and even the U.S. not approve this in one way or another, Turkey cannot carry out such an attack because international law will not allow it as states have many laws that prevent this. Should Turkey engage in such an attack, it means Russia, Iran, Syria and the U.S. connive at it. We do not have concrete information at the moment and we are speaking in consideration of situations that may develop. Should the mentioned states fail to manifest a serious attitude in such a case, the Kurdish people will hold all of them responsible.”

The status of Afrin, therefore, is crucial in the nearly six-year Syrian war. It could very well determine if the war winds down further, or accelerates yet again in 2018. In particular, the positions that Russia and the U.S adopt toward a possible Turkish assault on the YPG and YPJ will go a long way in determining the future of the relationship between the Kurdish forces and both of those powers.