In the latest escalation in the battle over Kobani – an effort to push back Islamic State (ISIS) from the strategic border town – the U.S. military has deployed weapons and intelligence support to Kurdish fighters in the town. One of the main beneficiaries has been the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG in its local language acronym.
In the more than three years since the Syrian uprising began, the YGP has gained prominence in the heavily Kurdish areas of northeastern Syria. With the battle for Kobani, it has emerged as the predominant military player in the fight against ISIS in Syria.
While the U.S. has begun to engage the YPG as a partner, its ally, Turkey, has kept a public distance. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he opposed a U.S. arms transfer to Kurdish fighters in Kobani, calling them “equal to the PKK,” a reference to the Kurdish militant group in Turkey that has long fought for greater autonomy.
Mutlu Civiroglu, an analyst specializing in Syria and Turkey, spoke to us about the strategic dimension of the Kurdish fight, the rise of the YPG, and the complex role for Turkey in mix.
Syria Deeply:What are the implications of the U.S. decision to airdrop weapons to Kurdish groups in Kobani?
Civiroglu: It’s showing that the administration is responding to the pressure to get more involved. The weapons that the YPG desperately needed, as well as ammunition and medical supplies, have now arrived.
It’s also important to note that with this move, the YPG has gotten acknowledgement by the international community for its resistance in Kobani against ISIS. Many people predicted that Kobani would fall in a week, but YPG has held out for 39 days and have gained momentum in the past few days.
Last Friday, U.S. General Lloyd Austin praised the YPG for holding down the fight against ISIS. The coalition has used coordinates given to them by the YPG for airstrikes and they have a joint command center with the Kurds.
This airdrop is taking this existing relationship one step further. It shows that Washington and the international community take the YPG seriously.
Syria Deeply:Turkey has opposed the arming of Kurdish groups in the fight against ISIS. How will they respond to the news of U.S. airdrops of weapons to Kurdish groups in Kobani?
Civiroglu: Despite Turkey’s strong rhetoric labeling the YPG as an organization that has “terrorist” links, this move shows that the U.S. is not interpreting it in this way. This move makes Turkey’s arguments sound less credible. Turkey has been idle [in the fight against ISIS] despite the disapproval and objections of the international community. Turkey has tried to prevent Kurdish volunteers and weapons from flowing from Western countries to Kurdish fighters in Kobani.
Turkey has been very outspoken in saying that Kobani would fall in a day, creating the environment that there isn’t a need to do anything in response. Ankara is not happy that the U.S. airdropped these supplies and is talking to the YPG.
Last week, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, Daniel Rubinstein, met with Saleh Muslim, the PYD leader, which is another direct example of Washington’s engagement with the Syrian Kurds, not only the YPG, but also politically with the PYD as well.
This is now a question of the international community proceeding forward with what it feels is best, despite Turkish objections.
Syria Deeply:The YPG confirmed Sunday it was fighting alongside other rebel forces against ISIS in Kobani and other Kurdish areas. To what extent can we expect to see further collaboration?
Civiroglu: This is accurate. On September 10, the Kurdish YPG, Jabhat al-Akrrad [the Kurdish Front], and numerous Free Syrian Army-affiliated parties declared the formation of the Euphrates Volcano, a joint operation room in northern Aleppo and Raqqa provinces. It is a significant rebel-YPG coordination. They called for support from the international community in the fight against ISIS.
These are groups of Arab rebels that have run away from ISIS and sought refuge in YPG-controlled areas. This has been ongoing and is in an important development for the Syrian opposition. Syrian fighters [have been] marginalized by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups, so the collaboration and joint operation between the FSA and YPG can be a good starting point and can attract more people to join. It’s the third year of the conflict and many people are losing motivation.
The YPG controls a large area of territory and is relatively stable, more peaceful, so fighters can be trained there and can be a moral boost to the rebels. According to recent YPG statements, they are fighting in coordination with the factions of the FSA in the northern countryside of Aleppo, Afrin, Kobani and Jazia. It’s important for U.S. and Western countries looking to find groups in Syria they can trust.
Syria Deeply:Salih Muslim, head of PYD, says he is ready to expand the ground fight in northern Syria beyond Kobani. What is the likelihood of this happening?
Civiroglu: It is already happening. The fight against ISIS is happening in Ya’robia, Jezza – these are on the Syrian-Iraq border. The YPG was fighting against ISIS in Hassakah last month. There is fighting going on east of Kobani, west of Qamishli, and close to Serekaniye which is called Ras al-Ayn in Arabic. There has always been fighting on several fronts, not only in Kobani. Kobani is a point of intensity where the city is besieged, but the YPG has been fighting against ISIS for two years, and before that it fought Jabhat-al Nusra. I don’t know what Mr. Muslim said exactly, but the fight against jihadist groups have been around in several Syrian regions for a long time. There were very fierce fights last year north of Aleppo between the YPG and ISIS. The front extends from the city of Afrin close to the Mediterranean sea all the way to the Syria/Iraq border.
Syria Deeply:To what extent will the fight against ISIS spur Kurdish groups to align together?
Civiroglu: A joint fight against ISIS is on track right now. In Syria, the only [Kurdish] military force is the YPG. But generally speaking, recent ISIS attacks against Yazidi Kurds in Sinjar and other Iraqi Kurdish cities and towns have brought Kurds together: PKK, KDP, PUK, YPG and some Iranian-Kurdish parties to defend Kurdish cities.
Joint Kurdish fighters prevented the fall of Makhmour in Iraq to ISIS forces. There are now reports that ISIS attacked Yazidi Kurds again on Mount Sinjar again.
There is a common agreement that this is a threat against Kurds, regardless of political party. This has created awareness about a joint fight against ISIS. That’s why the Iraqi Kurds sent the YPG weapons, and why you are seeing claims about the Iraqi pershmerga joining the fight.
Kurds believe they need to fight against the ISIS threat, no matter where it is – Iraqi or Syrian Kurdistan. Many YPG fighters that lost their lives in Kobani are Kurds from Turkey. Many Kurds from Turkey are trying to send volunteers to Kobani. The mass protest in Turkey last week showed that Turkish Kurds see Kobani as a issue of their own.
Syria Deeply: There is a growing sense that the Kurds are the only force capable of taking on ISIS. What is your take?
Civiroglu:The Kurds are the main power fighting ISIS, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Iranian border. Kurds are paying a heavy price for this fight. They paid a huge price on Mount Sinjar, in Kirkuk, Mosul, Erbil and in Rojava [Syria’s Kurdish region]. Iraqi Kurds recently acknowledged this effort by sending weapons. They also got acknowledgement from the international community and the coalition against ISIS. Syrian Kurds are becoming an important player both militarily and politically, not only in Syria but on the international stage as well.