On Monday, May 8, US President Donald Trump approved a plan to arm the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed branch of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), seen by many as the Syrian affiliate of the PKK. The YPG has been an issue of major contention in the US-Turkish relationship since long before Trump took office. Shortly before the approval was announced by the Pentagon on May 9, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters that the intent of the US was to “work with the Turks, alongside one another, to take Raqqa down.” In a statement from the Pentagon that same day, Pentagon spokesperson Dana White stated that the US is “keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey” and that “the US is committed to preventing additional security risks and protecting our NATO ally.” Despite the reassurances offered by White and Mattis, it is unclear if the US will be able to convince Turkey to stand by as this latest development unfolds.
In late April, Turkey conducted airstrikes against PKK and YPG positions in Iraq and Syria respectively. US forces were seen patrolling the Turkish-Syrian border shortly after those airstrikes and clashes between Turkish and Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces and YPG forces along the Syrian-Turkish border in Tel Abyad, Dasarbiyah, and other areas. While US officials declined to say if those forces had been deployed to deter further clashes, their presence has been widely interpreted to do so. US forces had already been deployed to the city of Manbij to avert clashes between the same groups in an effort that the Pentagon called “reassure and deter.” Those clashes in late April and early May are not the first time that Turkey and the YPG have clashed in Syria, but they are almost certainly the most intense clashes to date.
The debate regarding the role of the YPG is not only limited to Turkish concerns. There is a “sense of urgency” to retake Raqqa from ISIS in order to disrupt any terror plots being formulated in the city. (Raqqa is considered the main planning and coordination hub for ISIS efforts in Europe and the US.) On the other hand, numerous Syria watchers and foreign policy experts have warned against rushing the operation in order to ensure that it does not derail the overall anti-ISIS effort. Some have called for the US to slow down its efforts to retake Raqqa and take some time to ensure that NATO ally Turkey and the YPG do not further clash.
Other experts have raised concerns that the predominantly YPG Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will not be able to take and hold Raqqa. While the US maintains that the SDF has a growing Arab contingent that will be crucial to holding Raqqa, reports suggest that the force still consists predominantly of YPG fighters. A recent report on the issue highlighted that “efforts by the YPG…to achieve Arab buy-in to its project have been partial and haphazard.” These reports have raised genuine concerns about the long-term ability of the the YPG-led SDF to take, hold, and stabilize historically Arab cities like Raqqa.
Without proper planning and involvement of local Arab forces, the operation to retake Raqqa risks allowing room for ISIS to maintain its presence in Raqqa and other areas by returning to an insurgent-style campaign, similar to al-Qaeda in Iraq during and after the 2007 surge. Despite these concerns, the latest decision by the US to directly arm the YPG suggests that it is more concerned with addressing its immediate concerns about Raqqa than with the long term results.
This decision also comes only a week before a scheduled meeting between President Trump and Turkish President Erdogan and shortly after a Turkish delegation visited Washington. It was reported that Turkey would present a plan to retake Raqqa not with the PYD-backed SDF, but with Turkish-backed and trained FSA forces. How this decision will affect the meeting between the two presidents is still unclear, but it is clear that Turkey is displeased with the decision by the Trump administration. Turkey has already called on the US to reverse its decision on the YPG, and Erdogan is likely to press the case when he meets Trump on the May 16.
Turkey has repeatedly expressed concerns over the expansion of the PYD during the Syrian conflict and called on the US to curtail its support for the group. The Trump administration appears to be continuing the lead of the Obama administration, attempting to maintain its tactical partnership with the PYD in northern Syria while trying to assuage the concerns of its strategic ally Turkey. However, it seems increasingly unlikely that Turkey will continue to go along with this policy given its security concerns. As has been noted previously on this blog, the reliance on the PYD/SDF carries serious risks for the overall US strategy in Syria. Finding a resolution to these tensions is not an issue of minor concern, but is a strategic imperative to maintain a strong offensive against ISIS in Syria.