American analyst and author Aliza Marcus believes that US will continue its military support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as it is well aware of the Syrian Kurd’s capability to defeat Islamic State (IS). She said during an interview that Russia has not betrayed Kurds in Syria “because it hasn’t really given the Kurds anything”; but the US on the other hand, was very supportive to Rojava.
Marcus, who recently visited Kurdistan Region of Iraq, believes that President Barzani will certainly stand with the Syrian Kurds if there is a threat from Bashar al-Assad’s regime agains Rojava, just like he helped them to defend Kobani by sending the Peshmerga and heavy arms back in 2014. Marcus discusses more subjects in the following interview:
US and YPG relations were close until Turkey started the ‘Euphrates Shield’ operation. Why Turkey’s incursion into Syria affects the tie between YPG and Washington?
It seems Turkey got concerned. The YPG had taken Manbij, and then was moving north towards Jarablus. The YPG, of course, saw this as an opportunity to link up its cantons to the east with Afrin. This also could have given the YPG control along the whole of Turkey’s border with Syria. Turkey simply didn’t want this. The YPG is linked to the PKK, which is fighting Turkey. Turkey doesn’t want the YPG on its border for that reason. More broadly, Turkey has always been opposed to Kurdish rule, whether it’s in Syria, in Turkey, or even in Iraq. For years Turkey opposed the idea of an Iraqi Kurdish federation. Now, of course, the KRG and Turkey have excellent relations. So things can change on the ground. However, Turkey’s decision to enter Cerablus hasn’t weakened, or broken the US relationship with and support for the YPG. That remains as strong as ever. And it’s a very strong relationship.
Pentagon officials say YPG is one of the best allies for the US; and Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy to anti-IS coalition recently visited Rojava to prove that the relations are fine. Do you thing their cooperation continues?
The military relationship between the US and the YPG will certainly continue. There are a number of reasons for this. One, the Kurdish force is committed to destroying ISIS. The US recognizes this commitment and knows that Kurds are the one, absolutely reliable ally when it comes to fighting ISIS. Two, the YPG has proven itself capable of beating back ISIS. The YPG has been fighting in Rojava against Islamic jihadists,and in particular ISIS, for more than two years. In this period, the YPG has managed to win back control of a huge amount of territory from ISIS. At the same time, the PKK, has given support to the Kurdistan region in Iraq, helping fight around Makhmur last year and providing essential defense for the Yezidis in Sinjar. The PKK has also contributed around Kirkuk. So you have a group that is doing eveyrthing it can to fight ISIS. And the YPG – and its affiliate group, the PKK – are doing this despite the fact that they are also taking heavy losses. It’s unclear how many fighters exactly have died, but from the number of funeral announcements we do see, we know that a lot of fighters have been killed. Yet, this doesn’t stop the YPG. Kurds in general understand that ISIS is a total threat – there can’t be accommodation – and the YPG has put this into action. Of course, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the peshmerga have also fought very bravely. And the US, as we know, is a big supporter of the peshmerga.
So the US will continue its support for the YPG because the YPG is needed in the fight against ISIS. Also, over the past year, international support and sympathy for the Kurds of Syria has really grown. Young men, and some women, from the US, England, Canada and other countries have gone to join the YPG. The willingness of these people to join the YPG has helped raise awareness in these countries of the YPG’s fight. In turn, this increases local admiration for the YPG, which in turn help building public support.
However, the support is only military support. The US so far hasn’t extended the same political support or recognition to the Rojava Kurdish administration. Long term, to stabilize the relationship between the US, and also to help stabilize Rojava, it’s important that the US get more involved politically in Rojava. Both to encourage the PYD to establish a truly democratic system, and also because it will send a clear message that the US is a trusted ally and the YPG’s fight is an important one.
Is it possible for US to find another ally that can replace YPG and fight IS on the ground? Would Turkey take this role? We know that without effective fighters on the ground, airstrikes may not succeed, so is it correct to say Turkey, or Turkey-backed forces, are attempting to take YPG’s role in the region?
First of all, the US isn’t looking for a force to replace the YPG and what it’s accomplished. That’s impossible. The YPG, and the political party PYD, control large amounts of territory east of the Euphrates. There’s no way that the YPG is going to allow itself to be pushed out of that territory. So even if Turkey now plays a role in the fight against ISIS, this doesn’t mean it’s replacing the YPG.
Remember, the US has long wanted Turkey to be more active against ISIS. Turkish territory, for too long, was an easy transit point for ISIS supporters. Over the past year, ISIS turned on Turkey. ISIS attacks were largely aimed at Kurds in Turkey, that’s true, but any attack on Turkish soil is an attack against Turkey. And Turkey, as a country suffered, regardless of the ethnic identity of those killed. Turkey’s decision to enter Syria is obviously not only to block ISIS from its border. Turkey wants to block Kurds from connecting its cantons as well. So Turkey also isn’t interested in playing the same role that the YPG did. Turkey has its own aims, which are as much about stopping ISIS from setting up along its border, as it is about stopping the Syrian Kurds from taking control of the whole border area. So for the US, the YPG and the YPG-led SDF remain the main force fighting against ISIS in Syria.
However, things inside Turkey are certainly complicating the US relationship with the YPG and also Turkey’s plans. The PKK’s war against turkey has gotten out of control again. The Turkish security forces destroyed huge parts of about four cities last year after the PKK took control of city centers and blocked Turkish forces from entering. Now, the PKK is using roadside bombs to attack Turkish forces. Over the past year, close to 2,000 people have been killed, according to the International Crisis Group. This includes more than 600 members of the security forces and more than 700 PKK members. Turkey’s been unable to halt PKK attacks inside its own borders – this certainly plays a role in its decision to take action against the YPG, which is linked to the PKK. The best way to stabilize northern Syria, and stop Turkey and the YPG from fighting, is for the PKK and the Turkish government to return to the peace process in Turkey.
When the relation between Turkey and Russia was mended again, PYD’s ties with Moscow and Washington was affected. The YPG also crossed Euphrates river afterwards. Is it correct to say Moscow and Washington may stop supporting PYD for their improved ties with each other and with Turkey?
The PYD’s relationship with Moscow was always overstated. The PYD opened an office in Moscow in February 2016. Lots of groups have offices in Moscow, I’m sure. Certainly, every country has an embassy there. So the fact that the PYD opened an office in Moscow really didn’t mean that much. For sure, it did have a certain symbolic importance. It showed that Moscow recognized the PYD -- at least enough to allow it to open an office. But on practical grounds, what did the PYD really get from that? So I wouldn’t say that Turkey’s new closeness to Russia led to a change in Russia-PYD relations. But Turkey’s new relationship with Moscow did make it easier for Turkey to operate inside Syria, which is important.
Kurdish public opinion somehow believe that Russia and the US betrayed kurds. Is there a betrayal? Is US and Russia have another partner now?
Let’s start with Russia. Russia hasn’t betrayed the Kurds because Russia hasn’t really given the Kurds anything. There’s nothing to betray. The US, of course, has done a lot for the YPG. The US has provided enormous support to the YPG over the past year and half, to the point of giving military training and weapons, placing special forces on the ground. Right now, I don’t see the relationship changing. The YPG remains very important to the US and to the fight against ISIS. The US hasn’t promised the Kurds anything either beyond military support right now. There’s been no promise of support for Rojava as a political entity. In fact, over the same period, the US didn’t back allowing the PYD to join the Geneva talks. Salih Muslim can’t get a visa to the US – although other people from the Rojava administration have visited the US over the past year.
Overall, the US gave military support, and withheld political support for the PYD. The US didn’t offer any practical support – like medical aid, or food – for the areas the PYD controls. Political support – official talks, US involvement – is needed in order to stabilize Rojava and in order to make clear to the Syrian Kurds that their fight against ISIS is a fight that the US really values.
PYD is being criticized for violating human rights in the areas under its control, can it overshadow the Russia and US attitudes towards PYD?
Certainly, there are a lot of critics of the PYD and how it runs Rojava. There are legitimate claims of non-PYD politicians being harassed and being forcibly expelled. I met Ibrahim Biro two days after he was kicked out of Rojava by the PYD. He was detained in Qamishla, taken to the border, and sent to Iraqi Kurdistan and warned that he better not return. He said he was basically threatened with being cut up into pieces if he did try to return. This type of political intolerance is unacceptable. There are other criticisms as well.
Right now, Rojava is in a state of war. Its borders are closed. There’s little economic activity. None of this is an excuse for any human rights abuses, but it’s also hard to develop a stable system under that pressure. This is all the more reason why it’s important for the US and other groups to try and get more politically involved. To help Rojava develop a democratic and stable system. However, let me be clear. I don’t see any break between the US and the YPG right now. I also don’t see any change in general, internationally, with how Rojava is viewed or supported. In general, I would say support for the Rojava administration is much higher than support for the other, non-PYD affiliated groups. Turkey’s decision to go fight in Syria hasn’t changed this.
PYD has been cooperating with Damascus, Moscow and Washington despite their different politics. Can we say that policy may no longer work for the PYD?
The PYD – or YPG, however we want to call it – is in a difficult position right now. It’s facing potentially new attacks from Turkey. Its access to Afrin is blocked. The hope of connecting the Kurdish controlled cantons seems unlikely to be realized. For now that is. Not everything has to be decided right now. I’d switch this around and look at the gains that the PYD-YPG has made. The group basically controls the whole of Kurdish populated territory east of the Euphrates. It has relations with the US and with Europe. It's actually running its own administration. There’s criticism, of course, but these are important and impressive gains for the Kurds in Syria. Even if the YPG just keeps the territory it has, it’s done very well for Kurds and for the fight against ISIS.
The new US – Washington agreement in Syria doesn’t mean the US is abandoning the Kurds. The US and Turkey have a decades long relationship. Turkey is an important ally for the US – it always has been. US support for Turkey is taken for granted. What’s important is that over the past two years, despite enormous Turkish opposition, the US built a relationship with the Syrian Kurds.
US wanted YPG not to cross into western bank of Euphrates river and avoid fighting Turkey, what would happen if YPG Denied?
There are certain demands the YPG – PYD can’t ignore. For example, the US made clear that YPG forces have to withdraw east of the Euphrates. They had to and they have. Because the YPG can’t fight successfully without US air support. So the YPG can’t ignore US requests, at least not if it wants to move further against ISIS. It’s also smart for the YPG not to enter into any firefights with Turkey in Syria. But it’s smart for Turkey as well to avoid opening up a new battleground against Kurds in Syria. So again, the latest changes on the ground in Cerablus don’t have to be either about Turkey or about the YPG. This is about a situation in which both sides have a lot to lose if they get into a direct battle. And both sides have a lot to gain if they can keep the situation calm.
If we could say US has left PYD alone while its relations with Turkey and Kurdistan Region have already been experiencing difficulties, then maybe PYD thinks of building a new tie with Damascus. How do you see this option? If Turkey or Syrian regime decide to attack YPG, how the US is expected to react?
It’s hard to say what the US might or might not allow very far in the future. For now, it seems Assad doesn’t have the military capability to make it to Rojava and crush the YPG. Assad still hasn’t been able to take back control over his major cities. But certainly there’s always a risk that Assad might join together with other forces to attack the Kurds. Although right now, ISIS controlled territory is in the way. This is all very far in the future. And so it’s hard to comment on what options the YPG would or wouldn’t have. For sure, the US would be under a lot of pressure to stand by and defend the Kurds were this to happen. But it wouldn’t just be the US that would be under pressure to help. Massoud Barzani also wouldn’t want to allow the Kurds of Syria to be crushed by Assad. Both the KDP and the PUK helped the Kurds of Kobane defend themselves against ISIS attacks. They sent peshmerga to help late in 2014 and also heavy weapons. Should it ever come to a situation where the Kurds of Syria faced being annihilated by any force, from ISIS to Assad’s tanks, I believe that the KRG would seek to get involved to help protect the Kurds of Syria.
The situation in Rojava is incredibly tense. Turkish involvement has complicated relations among all the parties. Ultimately, the only way to settle Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish self rule and control in Syria is to settle the root of the problem, which is the war between Turkey and the PKK. Peace talks were abandoned in 2015. It’s time that they were restarted. For sure, it’s difficult to imagine new peace talks under the current situation in turkey. The fighting is incredibly fierce. 11 soldiers were just killed in PKK attacks starting Friday. The PKK’s war has gone on now for 30 years and it can continue another thirty years. A ceasefire is desperately needed to calm things and give both sides the chance to figure out how to restart talks. Only when there’s peace in Turkey will Rojava be truly secure.
Aliza Marcus is a writer and analyst on the Kurdish issue. She’s author of a book on the PKK, Kan ve Inanc, which was published in English and later translated into Turkish and published by Iletisim Yayinlari. She lived and worked as a journalist in Turkey for many years. She currently lives in Washington DC. Aliza Marcus often travels to the region and was recently in Iraqi Kurdistan for research for a new project to update her book on the PKK.
[This interview was originally published on Bas Habar]