Protecting the YPG Should not be a Goal of the US Withdrawal

Some argue that the U.S. should not abandon their allies on the ground and leave them to their fate, which would amount to a “betrayal of the Kurds.” This line of thinking makes a couple of flawed assumptions starting with equating the PKK’s Syrian affiliate the YPG with Syrian Kurds in general.

Protecting the YPG Should not be a Goal of the
The portrait Ocalan can be seen in a car mirror, sewn on the uniform of a Syrian fighter in Dayrik / Syria. Getty Images

The debate on the U.S. withdrawal from Syria suffers from a couple of frequently repeated arguments that do not reflect the realities of the conflict, especially in northern Syria. Some argue that the U.S. should not abandon their allies on the ground and leave them to their fate, which would amount to a “betrayal of the Kurds.” This line of thinking makes a couple of flawed assumptions starting with equating the PKK’s Syrian affiliate the YPG with Syrian Kurds in general. The reality is that the YPG does not represent even the majority of the Kurds in Syria, nor are they reliable partners as they have been promoted. Since the beginning of the conflict, they refused to fight the Assad regime, maintained connections with Russia, and prolonged the anti-Daesh fight as much as possible to ensure the U.S. remained in Syria as their protectors.

The U.S. military has openly promoted the “accomplishments” of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a rebranding of the YPG, despite the fact that U.S. intelligence community as well as high-level officials have repeatedly admitted on the record that the YPG is the “Syrian militia” of the PKK. The U.S. military officials, especially those at CENTCOM, have expressed displeasure about Turkey as they have perceived Turkish efforts in northern Syria as hindering their anti-Daesh mission despite the fact that Turkey has been part of the anti-Daesh coalition from the beginning. Turkey’s reservations and repeated warnings against allying with the YPG seem to have been received by the U.S. military more as an annoyance than legitimate national security concerns of a NATO ally.

Some argue that the U.S. should not abandon their allies on the ground and leave them to their fate, which would amount to a “betrayal of the Kurds.” This line of thinking makes a couple of flawed assumptions starting with equating the PKK’s Syrian affiliate the YPG with Syrian Kurds in general.

The disconnect between the U.S. and Turkey on the YPG issue has widened and deepened in recent years. As both the Obama and Trump administrations adopted a policy of “by, with, and through” local partners to fight Daesh, Turkish concerns have been ignored until very recently. President Trump’s withdrawal decision created an opening for repairing the long-simmering tensions between the two countries contingent on a rethinking of the U.S. partnership with the YPG. In the early days of the decision, I commented that the withdrawal might not translate to an immediate halt to the U.S. support for the YPG. Today, all indications are that the U.S. policy planners are trying to convince Turkey to forego any potential military operations against the YPG once the U.S. leaves. However, Turkey’s refusal to commit to not fighting the Syrian branch of the PKK should surprise no one. While the “betrayal of the Kurds” argument might have some currency among at least some policymakers, reassuring a NATO ally should take priority.

Turkey has not only supported the U.S. withdrawal decision but also offered ways to make it an orderly and successful process by leaving no room for a political vacuum. Turkey’s insistence on establishing a safe zone along the border with Syria in the north aims to achieve two main goals, which would ensure its national security and allow for stability in the region. First, the YPG would no longer control the border, which would reassure Turkish security concerns about arms transfers into Turkey and the PKK control in the region. Second, significant numbers of refugees would be settled in northern Syria to relieve Turkey of some of the political burden of hosting more than 3.6 million refugees. From the American perspective, however, the safe zone appears to be a demarcation zone where Turkey and the YPG would be separated from each other so that the U.S. forces would not leave the YPG at the “mercy” of Turkey. Just as the two NATO allies’ approaches to the YPG has diverged, their conceptions of the function of the potential safe zone are not aligned. Once again, their basic disagreement about the YPG spells potential for disaster in bilateral relations.

By establishing a safe zone along the border with Syria in the north, Turkey aims to achieve two main goals: First, the YPG would no longer control the border, which would reassure Turkish security concerns about arms transfers into Turkey and the PKK control in the region. Second, significant numbers of refugees would be settled in northern Syria to relieve Turkey of some of the political burden of hosting more than 3.6 million refugees. 

It is time for a truly honest and in-depth strategic conversation between the two allies about the U.S. relationship with the YPG. Characterizing it as a tactical and temporary alliance will not suffice as the withdrawal discussions show that the U.S. feels it owes the YPG as if it is actually a strategic partner for the long haul. Turkey needs reassurance that this is not the case and the reassurance cannot be in words only. The U.S. policy planners need to make it clear to Turkey that they are not looking for ways to protect the YPG as part of their withdrawal plan.