Despite the defeat of the Islamic State, Washington justifies weaponizing and safeguarding the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which are the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Washington officials do this because they think that the Kurdish-dominated YPG would be an effective tool to roll back the Iranian influence in the Middle East. This is the wrong approach on many levels.
Although the YPG has proven to be a valuable asset in the fight against the Islamic State, the YPG upper echelon has expressed an unwillingness to mount a fight against Iran or its proxies. Bassam Ishak, the Washington representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, a political umbrella organization to which YPG belongs, acknowledged that an all-out war with Iran will wreak havoc on Syrians. Nicholas Heras, the Center for a New American Security fellow who talked to SDF members in Syria said, “There is a deep concern within the SDF over the extent to which the United States is looking to use SDF forces as a counter to Iran in Syria.”
There is good reason for why the YPG is concerned. From the military standpoint, despite the training and vast supply of weaponry it has received from the United States, the YPG’s chances of a military victory against a regular army is rather low. The YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), were established in 2012 by the veterans of the PKK. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the relative success of the PKK in its attacks within Turkey was attributed to its mastery of guerilla warfare in the impassable mountains of southeast Turkey. However, having been picked by the United States to combat a nonstate actor-Islamic-State, the PKK abandoned rural guerilla warfare and adopted regular army tactics exposing its members in the Syrian flatland. It was after this change of tactic that the Turkish military began to decisively crush the PKK. In Turkey’s urban southeast in 2016 and Syria’s Afrin Province in 2018, the strategy of area “denial” cost the PKK dearly. In the same manner, Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, are likely to inflict considerable damage to the YPG without America’s air cover involved. However, bombing Hezbollah would unleash a full-scale confrontation between America and Iran, which the United States clearly looks to avoid.
Second, the PKK/PYD’s unwillingness to take on Tehran also stems from a confluence of long-term interests. In the past, both Iran and the PKK have collaborated due to their aligned regional goals. Iran, which has historically pursued hostile policies against Turkey, provided the PKK with a safe haven. Likewise, the PKK and Tehran have joined forces against their mutual adversary, the Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the strongest faction in Iraqi Kurdistan. Therefore, given its long-term strategic goals, the PKK would want to exert extreme caution to not permanently damage its relations with Tehran by allowing the United States to use its Syrian branch YPG as foot soldiers against Iran’s proxies. Although Turkey and Iran now appear to share the same regional politics in the light of a potential U.S. military attack, Tehran still shows restraint to Ankara’s request for cooperation to destroy PKK’s main training camps in the Qandil Mountains, which are on the Iran-Iraq border. One must keep in mind that at the end of the day, the United States, not Iran, is the foreigner in the Middle East. The PKK’s top leaders are aware that the group’s alliance with the United States may be temporal. They are aware that if the political wind in Washington begins to blow against them, which it almost did earlier this year, then they will surely turn to Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran. In fact, the first thing YPG commanders did after Trump’s initial decision to withdraw from Syria, was to fly to Moscow and seek negotiations with Bashar al-Assad.
The PKK’s Syrian branch will likely prove ineffective for the United States in countering Iran and likely be a short-lived project given the demographic and geopolitical realities on the ground. The Kurds in Syria made up of less than 10 percent of the population before the war. Now, the YPG controls more than 30 percent of the Syrian territory, which is predominantly Arab.
The YPG is sometimes unpopular among the local Arab, Turkoman and Kurdish entities. For instance, in Menbic, an Arab town under YPG control, the locals frequently take to the streets to protest YPG’s torture and killing of civilians. The Kurdification of the once Arab dominant areas is well documented. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated in its Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic that “Entire communities have been displaced by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) or Syrian Democratic (SDF) forces.” Furthermore, the YPG’s political wing, known as the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD), has a reputation of excluding and oppressing those Kurds who don’t share their neo-Maoist worldview. Ibrahim Biro, the head of Syria’s Kurdish National Council, accused PYD of being dictatorial. The World Council of Arameans (WCA) has repeatedly condemned YPG for closing their schools, kidnapping and conscripting Aramean Christian teenagers against their wills.
The Middle East is the one place where revanchism is the norm and blood feuds last for centuries. The area that PYD/YPG is currently controlling in Syria is landlocked and is surrounded by the Turks, the Arabs, the Iraqi Kurds, all wanting a piece of PYD/YPG. Thus, using PYD/YPG to counter Iran is simply not feasible. It’s strange that Washington chooses to favor a Marxist movement, which it recognizes as a terrorist organization, over its NATO ally, Turkey, and continues to agitate local sociopolitical differences in Syria. The PYD/YPG appears to be on a similar suicide mission, too. History shows that the United States is able to win wars but fails to implement successful nation-building plans. Thus, it tends to lose the battles that exist in the aftermath. Syria, it seems, will be no exception.
Ali Demirdas, Ph.D. in political science from the University of South Carolina, Fulbright scholar, professor of international affairs at the College of Charleston(2011–2018). You can follow him on Twitter @demirdasPhD.