Our Terrorist Ally in Syria

Our Terrorist Ally in Syria

Washington’s biggest problem in Syria is that its principal partner is a radical secularist terrorist group seeking power in a vast area of the predominantly Muslim Middle East.

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, the retired General Kenneth F. McKenzie, former commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) responsible for American forces in the Middle East, called on the U.S. to continue indefinitely its military presence in Iraq and Syria and its partnership with so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) operating against remnants of the Islamic State (ISIS).  

Regarding the SDF, it is unfortunate for McKenzie’s readers but understandable from the Big Washington optic that nowhere does he explain what the SDF really is. Therein lies a problem.   

In fact, the American establishment’s routine, intentional misdirection by omission—or “misinformation,” if you like—about the SDF is emblematic of Washington’s strategic shortsightedness and the destabilizing effects of its continued military presence in Syria and elsewhere. This misinformation is becoming a particularly acute problem, given the growing debate over the U.S. military presence in the wider Middle East in the run-up to the presidential and congressional elections this November. Long confined to narrow elite precincts, concern about American policy in Syria is now breaking out to the wider public as an election issue. This is occurring just as the Middle East hurtles toward a disastrous regional war in the wake of Hamas’s horrific October 7 terror attack on Israel and the subsequent catastrophic Israeli operation in Gaza.

Most of the public focus on the SDF has been operational, emphasizing the particulars of its military activities. Relatively little has been offered as to how the SDF came into being and what the implications of that process are for U.S. interests in the Middle East and further afield. 

Under the circumstances, it is a good time to clarify for American voters what some policymakers and lawmakers mean when they talk about America’s SDF “allies” in Syria. This includes presidential candidates favored by the American political establishment, and other so-called “adults in the roomwho have led the country into disastrous and nearly perpetual conflict in the Middle East and other areas throughout the 21st century.

SDF” is a euphemism. At its core is the Syrian element of a notorious, originally Marxist, U.S.-designated terrorist organization originating in Turkey called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. For 40 years, the PKK has consistently promoted a violent, totalitarian, revolutionary mentality—albeit with some superficial ideological window-dressing for Western audiences—and a cult of personality for true believers centered on its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been incarcerated in Turkey since 1999. The PKK has engaged in terrorist attacks and clashes against Turkish security forces, as well as Turkish and Kurdish civilian targets primarily in Turkey—a NATO ally and home to half if not more of the world’s more than 30 million Kurds—but also in northern Syria, the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Europe, and elsewhere. Some 40,000 people reportedly have been killed since the PKK’s first attack in 1984. 

The U.S. faced a dilemma with the rise of ISIS in in 2014 in Syria and Iraq, a consequence of the American war in Iraq, which generated a persistent power vacuum and regionwide instability, including the subsequent Syrian civil war. Unwilling to make large military commitments of its own against ISIS, Washington needed partners, preferably ones who did not insist too much, too soon on their own equities. Thus, the Obama administration settled on supporting the PKK elements operating in Syria. 

The PKK was eager to oblige. By 2011, the PKK’s armed People’s Protection Units (YPG) and political avatars were present in force in northeastern Syria—a region known among Kurds of all political stripes as Rojava, or the western Kurdish regions, in Kurdish—at the expense of more moderate and nonviolent Kurdish groups. The American partnership began in 2014 with U.S. airstrikes in support of PKK elements defending the town of Kobane (Ayn al-Arab) on the Turkish–Syrian border from ISIS. The U.S. was soon training and equipping YPG cadres. 

For its part, the PKK clearly saw a relationship with the American superpower as a golden ticket to respectability and regional dominance. The PKK had long been confounded by Washington’s strong support during and immediately after the Cold War for what was then the military-dominated, secularist authoritarian Kemalist regime in Turkey, which had ruthlessly repressed the Kurds since the Turkish Republic’s 1923 foundation. The PKK hoped that, by supporting the ISIS fight, it would gain from the international legitimacy its Syrian subordinates acquired as CENTCOM’s local partner. 

The PKK also saw the anti-ISIS effort as an opportunity to undermine the ties between Washington and Ankara, which began to fray in the late 1990s. The U.S.–Turkey bilateral relationship nearly collapsed in 2003, when a Turkish parliamentary vote to authorize the transit of U.S. troops across Turkish territory into Iraq fell short under Turkish military pressure. This angered the neoconservatives who controlled the Bush administration’s war policy. The PKK almost certainly calculated that with the ISIS threat, the erosion of the Atlanticist wing of Turkey’s secularist military during the Iraq war, and the rise of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), various parts of Washington eventually could be persuaded on a bipartisan basis to see the PKK and its fellow-travelers as partners on a range of broader security issues, including restraining Turkish regional assertiveness.

Under the U.S. aegis, the PKK/SDF has expanded and consolidated its power and presence in vast swaths of northeastern Syria, despite several successful large-scale Turkish operations against it. Along the way, the U.S.–PKK relationship proved resilient. It endured the defeat of ISIS during the Trump administration. It also survived President Trump’s effort to withdraw American forces from Syria, which ran aground in the face of resistance particularly from establishment Republicans. The GOP hawks’ intense anger at him following Erdogan’s October 2019 anti-PKK operation in Syria heightened Trump’s potential vulnerability to the Democrat-orchestrated impeachment process that was just getting under way. By 2020, according to some estimates, the SDF had as many as 40–60,000 fighters, with 10–12,000 security service members and 30,000 police in areas under its control, working with what is reportedly a 900-man U.S. military contingent.

That this policy was implemented is remarkable given that Washington formally recognized the PKK as a terrorist group in the 1990s, a designation that persists to this day. How this happened provides a window into the way Washington typically works. It also reflects many of the policy pathologies—limited attention to ground truth in the area under consideration, and preference for immediate and sometimes dubious fixes over strategic considerations, often regardless of the impact on core American interests—that have characterized the U.S. foreign and security policy process, particularly since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Washington thought the PKK’s armed cadres, hardened by decades of conflict with Turkey, offered a clever and relatively inexpensive means both to combat ISIS and to restore a pro-U.S. order across a vast area of the Middle East that Washington itself had destabilized. The obstacles to this policy were the PKK’s terrorist status, and the fact that Turkey, which by 2014 was developing into a regional power under Erdogan, viewed the PKK as its principal security threat. What was needed was an explanation sufficient to minimize the contradictions of this approach to the American public, which, since the beginning of the 21st century, had been told by Washington that the U.S. was in a global war on terror to preserve the values of the democratic, rules-based international order. The key point would be, simply, to deny that our partners in Syria were part of an international, U.S.-designated terrorist operation.

This policy subterfuge regarding the PKK was abetted by the corporate mass media’s sustained treatment of the issue, which with some rare exceptions tended to downplay or ignore the PKK reality behind YPG, the SDF, and their political operations. Broadly supporting permanent Washington’s foreign policies, the media continues to help limit potential blowback and complications that could arise from a clearer public understanding of the situation. They preferred instead to refer to the PKK organization and its various, associated political and administrative elements as the principal representatives of “the Kurds” in Syria as a group—bequeathing to a regional terrorist organization a nationalist legitimacy and a monopoly over the Kurds that it does not in fact have. 

The media also tend to portray Turkish concerns about the SDF/PKK/YPG as a dismissible view or assertion emanating from Ankara, rather than an unassailable hard fact that could raise public awareness and demands for a more consistent standard by which to conduct counterterrorism policy. This attitude has persisted over the years, notwithstanding that in 2016 Ashton Carter, who served as secretary of defense under Obama, grudgingly admitted publicly to PKK–YPG “links,” and that in 2018, Trump’s Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats publicly stated forthrightly to Congress that the YPG is the “PKK’s Syrian militia.” To this day, the U.S. and its key Western allies have not designated the YPG as a terrorist group.  

This effort to deny reality was essential, but more was needed to maintain public credibility. In 2015 the U.S. military literally rebranded the group as the SDF, adding some Arab tribesmen to the apparatus in part to provide political cover. Despite the name change, the SDF continues to be led by a senior PKK official ultimately beholden to the PKK high command, which oversees PKK operations from its headquarters in the remote natural fortress of the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq. 

It is important to keep in mind that the target of this sleight-of-hand was and is the mass public—that is to say, the voters, who probably would not have been so supportive of U.S. counterterrorism policy in Syria if it were fully understood that the SDF itself was at heart a terrorist outfit rather than a band of democratic freedom fighters. The goal of the policymakers and implementers was, as always, to maintain absolute freedom to maneuver without the constraints that republican governance and public opinion could impose. The idea, then, was to keep the public in the dark—not to inform them as befits a country promoting “democracy” and the “rules-based order,” but to circumvent those notions, as has been the case in other areas, in ways that have become routine in Washington.

Western elite audiences, of course, understood the subterfuge at least insofar as it was necessary to support Washington’s policy. After all, in 2017, U.S. Army General Raymond Thomas, the head of Special Operations Command, proudly recounted the SDF rebranding story openly at the Aspen Security Forum, in what amounted to the kind of self-congratulatory event that is all too common among elites seeking to solidify their status as skillful policy players. All told, the gambit gave license to compliant or ignorant mainstream media to step quickly past the reality that the U.S. was working closely with yet another terrorist group. “I thought it was a stroke of brilliance to put democracy in there somewhere,” said General Thomas, adding that the move “gave them a little bit of credibility.”

The PKK, recast as an organization fighting for “democracy” in Syria, subsequently has had an easy time cultivating the vast network of Western media, NGOs, activists, think-tanks, and governments in portraying its Syrian operations as reflecting the latest fashion in democratic Western values. It also benefited from American “stabilization” programs in the region, and Washington’s de facto support for PKK administration in the area, to develop legal representation in Washington behind the SDF fig leaf. In doing so, the PKK nurtured the Western goodwill that gave it latitude to perpetuate its dominance in areas under its control by crushing local Kurdish oppositionists, pursue expansionist aims in other Kurdish regions, and limit Turkey’s ability to do them harm. All in all, the PKK’s success in burrowing into the Washington ecosystem is a textbook case for any outlaw organization seeking influence in the imperial capital. 

Given the generally conservative nature of Kurdish society, a particularly rich irony is that a host of Western NGOs and interests support the SDF and its administrative expressions, including the “Syrian Democratic Council (SDC),” in part on the basis of its supposed commitment to religious freedom even as the PKK maintained its abiding commitment to revolutionary, ideological struggle. This approach appears designed to curry favor with U.S. conservatives who otherwise would be dismayed to find themselves partnered with a Marxist personality cult, much as Ocalan’s professed embrace in prison of “democratic confederalism” appeals to elite liberal, environmentalist, and other leftist constituencies. 

Another great irony of U.S. support for the PKK in Syria is that Washington is perpetuating instability through its de facto abetting of the PKK’s impositions and secularist-revolutionary objectives in a region of more traditionally-minded people. It probably sustains rather than eliminates the threat of a militant reaction from local Muslims, such that the stated U.S. goal of achieving the “enduring defeat” of ISIS becomes a rationale for continuing the present course in a region that is still poorly understood in Washington despite decades of involvement. Moreover, it is nurturing what is in effect a PKK statelet in northeastern Syria, threatening the security of the neighboring Kurdistan region of Iraq and Turkey. 

In fact, the PKK routinely threatens and suppresses Syrians and other Kurds who reject the PKK’s secularist ideology and power interests, and creates tensions with local Arabs. It also engages in kidnappings and forcible compulsion of Kurdish children into the PKK ranks. Moreover, it suppresses the ancient Sufi orders, which had pervasive influence among the Kurds in Syria and elsewhere and had been a bulwark against the ideological inroads not only of the PKK, but of ISIS and other militant “jihadist” groups. 

The PKK’s expansionism threatens the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq—another key US partner in the region, seeing it as its principal challenger for the hearts and minds of the Kurds. As Nechirvan Barzani, the President of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, recently noted, the PKK poses a threat to neighboring countries. The PKK has long sought to undermine and overthrow the traditional social, Sufi and Sunni religious, and political structures that, key to Kurdish identity, are the root of the KRG’s stability, political authority, and legitimacy. A widespread view in Erbil, the KRG capital, is that KRG warnings of the dangers to the region posed by the PKK, bolstered by its power in Syria and partnership with the U.S. there, have largely fallen on deaf Western ears.

The PKK’s expansionist aims and suppression of legitimate alternatives to its dominance in Syria probably encourages some locals to turn to more radical militant organizations, whether ISIS or others. In this context it is worth keeping in mind that the KRG’s successful efforts to combat the spread of the ISIS ideology when it appeared to be on the rise in the 2014–2015 period owed a great deal to the Kurds’ traditional religiosity, and the KRG leadership’s own religious and social credentials. From the PKK perspective, such attributes and institutions are reactionary obstacles to progress to be eliminated. In this light, the American association with a movement with Marxist origins and a long history of hostility to Islam is, at the very least, likely to create suspicions among Kurds and others about Washington’s ultimate goals in the region, particularly given the growing perception in the wider Middle East that the U.S. is complicit in a war in Gaza meant to destroy a Muslim people.

Most significantly, the American relationship with the PKK in Syria has enormous implications for Washington’s relationship with Ankara, because it is understood in Turkey as a reflection of outright strategic hostility. Moreover, the launch of the U.S.–PKK relationship upended Erdogan’s years-long, delicate and risky effort to reorient Ankara away from its traditional Kemalist animus against the Kurds in favor of rapprochement with Kurds at home and abroad. It did so by emboldening the PKK and its supporters in Turkey to reject compromise and pursue maximalist aspirations. It also underscored Turkey’s conviction that the U.S. has been the principal source of instability in their region and the wider Middle East since the dawn of the 21st century. As a result, it has had a profound effect on Ankara’s security calculus across the board, spurring it toward an increasingly independent course including limited cooperation with Russia and a more assertive presence in NATO, the Aegean, and the eastern Mediterranean. 

Ten years on, Washington’s repeated assurances to Ankara that its partnership with the PKK groups is “temporary, transactional, and tactical” appear increasingly ludicrous and even insulting in Turkish eyes. Erdogan’s conviction that the U.S. is engaging with the PKK to put pressure directly on Ankara is exacerbated by the fact—never forgotten by the Turks—that, as a presidential candidate before the 2020 elections, Joe Biden stated publicly that he would work with the Turkish opposition to topple Erdogan. Although Biden lamely added that he would do so “not by a coup,” he merely confirmed plausible Turkish suspicions of American meddling in internal Turkish affairs. In any case, such rhetorical distinctions are meaningless to Erdogan and other civilians, who have long experience with military coups featuring covert, extra-constitutional and illegal maneuvers to manipulate the electoral process.

The PKK’s prominence in Syria and its presence in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, to the chagrin of the KRG, also spurs Ankara to intervene militarily and sustain a Turkish presence there. In Syria, this raises the prospect of an inadvertent, accidental clash between U.S. forces and Turkish soldiers operating against the local PKK, which has so far been avoided.

Having made yet another strategic blunder in the Middle East first by partnering with the PKK and then perpetuating the policy even after the fall of ISIS’ so-called “caliphate,” Washington will find it difficult to disengage from Syria without some disruption and damage to its reputation. Any effort to disengage almost certainly will revive bipartisan accusations of “betrayal” of our putative allies, who will be characterized simply as “the Kurds,” rather than the terrorist PKK. The “adults in the room” undoubtedly also will once again rail against perceived weakness of our leaders in the face of dire threats. If so, they will demonstrate a profound cynicism, a total and cartoonish ignorance of actual Kurdish society and history, or both, thereby helping to illustrate precisely why the US’ broader policy in the Middle East in the 21st century has been a near-total failure.

In this, the American PKK policy in Syria is not unlike its former policy in Afghanistan, albeit to a lesser degree—perpetuated by inertia and bureaucratic self-interest, with no clear exit strategy. So far, however, it has not ended with an epically inept pullout. 

In his article, McKenzie noted the problem of the ISIS prisoners and prison facilities now being managed by the SDF. The issue of what to do with them if the U.S. changes its policy in Syria is significant, and there are enough examples of attempted and successful prison-breaks, even under current circumstances, to warrant attention and funding. But this is all the more reason to step up efforts to develop and implement serious alternative arrangements, and to enlist more participation from—and provide financial assistance to—regional countries that have no interest in seeing a revival of ISIS. It is a daunting task and would require a much-needed overhaul of U.S. regional diplomacy. 

That disengagement presents difficulties for U.S. policymakers is not an excuse for perpetuating a counterproductive status quo. As a result of our partnership, the PKK organization is now more lethal, sophisticated, and capable than ever. Continuing to foster PKK power by maintaining the relationship as the available tool by which the U.S. demonstrates relevance in Syria is self-defeating, not least because it aligns Washington with a set of interests and an ideology that are anathema to American interests, important state actors including Turkey, and the peoples of the region. The longer it is continued, the more deeply the already romanticized and clientelist relationship with the SDF and its components settles in among the U.S. military, political, bureaucratic, and media machinery, the more ingrained the perception in the region that the US seeks to impose a hostile and alien ideology in the service of revolutionary social and political change. 

A final irony here is that regional hostility to the U.S.–PKK relationship will be seen in some Washington circles as reason to perpetuate it. In this, our support for the SDF in Syria becomes the very model of the kind of self-licking ice cream cone that has symbolized U.S. security policy for far too long. 

It is long past time to end it.

The post Our Terrorist Ally in Syria appeared first on The American Conservative.

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