The Trump administration was unusually subdued this week after the Turkish air force launched a bombing campaign against facilities of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria. The State Department said it “asked” Turkey to stop killing US allies in the fight against ISIL (ISIS, or the Islamic State). The Pentagon complained that Turkey not only hit its allies but failed to coordinate with the US Air Force, which is flying in the area. In essence, Turkey acted as a hostile power against the US war effort. In the aftermath, a fierce firefight has broken out at the Syrian-Turkish border between YPG forces and Turkish army units operating in northern Syria.
The YPG personnel are close allies of the United States in the fight against ISIL in northeast Syria. On coming to power, President Trump increased the number of US troops embedded among them to some 500. Just this week he gave the Defense Department under Jim Mattis the authority to make further determinations about needed troop levels in Syria and Iraq.
Where did the YPG come from? In 2003, during a brief political opening some called the “Damascus Spring,” President Bashar al-Assad allowed the formation of some political parties and seated them in the otherwise tightly controlled Baath-dominated Parliament. One was the leftist Democratic Union Party (PYD), representing many of the some 10 percent of Syrians who are Kurdish. The new party, however, quickly fell out with Damascus and was suppressed. After the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, the PYD’s paramilitary, the YPG, emerged as a significant fighting force, warding off fundamentalist Sunni Arab militias and establishing a semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, which locals call Rojava.
When ISIL attacked Kobane, a Kurdish town on the border with Turkey, in September 2014, the YPG swung into action and ultimately secured US air support, allowing the militia to lift the siege and begin pushing back ISIL, which has committed several major massacres of Kurds. In the aftermath, then–Secretary of Defense Ash Carter decided that the YPG was the only ground force willing and able to take on the minions of faux “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his capital of Raqqa, immediately to the south of the Kurdish region. Because it looked bad for the United States to be helping leftist Kurds sweeping into a conservative Sunni Arab town like Raqqa, Carter tried to find Arab allies for the YPG, which led to the formation of the Syrian Democratic Forces. It appears, however, that the number of Arab fighters in the SDF has been inflated, and its core is the Kurdish YPG.
Carter’s YPG strategy ran smack into a regional complication. Turkey declared the People’s Protection Units a fellow traveler of the far-left Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which had launched a separatist guerrilla insurgency in Turkey’s southeast in the 1980s. Ankara and Washington agree that the PKK is a terrorist organization, but the Obama and Trump administrations have insisted that the YPG is not.