President Obama's counter-terrorism strategy has come under fire lately as the situation in Iraq grows more serious. His newest proposal may work better than the Bush era style of direct military intervention though, but the key would be reliable foreign partner troops on the ground to do the real fighting. The President insists that United States will deploy minimal troops in Syria and Iraq, and the US will therefore need to rely heavily on allies and partners.
Those who proved their effectiveness in the battle against Islamic State (IS) militants, the Kurds in Syria, are unlikely to receive US support. This is a major policy problem, as these forces represent the US’s most feasible and practical ally.
United States’ likeliest partners are the Peshmerge, the Iraqi Army, and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but none of them can or are willing to fight the way US is hoping to . In the case of the Peshmerge, they are willing to defeat IS only in the places they consider as part of their homeland. It is a defensive battle for these forces. The Iraqi Army, on the other hand, is fighting what it considers a losing battle, as they are generally demoralized and incapable of facing IS militants in the Sunni provinces. Indeed, the reason IS has not been able to control Baghdad so far is largely because of Iranian funded Shiite Militias rather than the Iraqi Army .
Ultimately though, both Peshmerge and Iraqi Army will be received as invaders or outsiders by Sunnis who choose to live under IS rule. This is the most important reality on the ground in Iraq, and unless Sunnis turn against IS, the northwest provinces of Iraq will remain an IS safe haven for a long time.
The situation with the FSA is perhaps even more complicated. The FSA has no reliable military capacity and most of the military elements of FSA have been hijacked by either Al-Nusra Front or IS. FSA leadership has no territory in which to reside in Syria . The anti-Assad fight has been conducted by Al-Nusra Front and IS, and both forces filled the vacuum in the areas where Bashar Al Assad's forces were defeated. Indeed, FSA has no force truly capable of fighting IS at this time.
The only force who fought IS militants in Syria, other than Assad Regime, is the Kurdish force of People's Protection Units (YPG). The YPG has been fighting IS and Al-Nusra for two years without losing ground. The YPG has even helped Iraqi Kurds in the Mount Sinjar crisis to rescue the Yizidis who were trapped in August by IS militants.
Why Should US team up with YPG?
The YPG has a stronger military status than the FSA. It is part of a self-proclaimed autonomous administration, founded by the Kurds, but does not claim separation from Syria. It is an inclusive, multi-ethnic force, with units of Christians, Yizidis, and Arabs who have enlisted in YPG divisions. Also, unlike many other insurgent groups, the YPG and the Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq are not Islamic radicals. This is an essential consideration for the US when choosing its allies to train, arm, and support. In addition, the YPG’s civil administration has been dealing with international organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Surprisingly, the United States’ strategy to destroy IS in Syria currently does not include YPG as part of local force on the ground to defeat IS militant, despite their effectiveness. United States has not been supporting YPG in Syria for two reasons. First, United States tries to push the Syrian Kurds to join FSA and broader Syrian opposition coalitions. Second the US believes YPG is under the hegemony PKK affiliated group, which the US has designated a terrorist organization.
The YPG fighters have experience in counterinsurgency operations as they have been fighting IS and Al-Nusra Front for two years. Now is the time for the United States to turn to Syrian Kurds and consider them as a strategic ally in Syria. The United States’ support for Kurds in Syria will be a game changer and create a necessary, secure region for religious and ethnic minorities inside Syria. The United States should also collaborate with YPG to deliver humanitarian aid to displaced Syrians minorities who might take refuge in the Kurdish Region in Syria as it is the only area to have a relative stability for the past two years.
The US strategy of excluding YPG as reliable ground force, as Turkey is also doing, is a waste of time and resources.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Kurdish Policy Foundation.