The Kurdish freedom fighters of the YPG (People’s Protection Units) have been fighting and dying in their war against ISIS in Syria. They’ve put up a noble fight to the utmost of their ability. They are competent on the battlefield and are seeking to establish a democratic state in Rojava. But as easy as it would be to look at their mission through rose-colored lenses, I have to be honest in my assessment of how their war will end. Based on my visit to Rojava, speaking with many of the fighters, visiting hospitals and training facilities, I have arrived at a grim conclusion: As things stand today, the YPG will eventually lose Rojava to the ISIS hordes.
After two years of fighting, the YPG has ground through large numbers of seasoned fighters. It is impossible to know how many casualties they have sustained, but I think a figure of 4,000 friendly KIA is a reasonable figure. The YPG is running out of soldiers and is now sending inexperienced teenagers to fight on the front lines.
The YPG is also in desperate need of arms. Sources of weapons are drying up, and I suspect that they are scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to resupplying their front-line troops. Ammunition for some weapons, such as the .50 caliber sniper rifle and AK-47, are manufactured locally, but the YPG is in dire need of heavy machine guns, mortars, sniper rifles, and other war material.
In short, the YPG is running out of fighters and guns.
Meanwhile, ISIS is funded by wealthy Arabs in the Gulf States, and is also being resupplied with arms from the Turkish government. What other third-party donors are secretly funding ISIS is impossible to determine with any certainty, but what is clear is that the enemy does not appear to be running out of fighters or guns. At some point, determination and the will to fight will give way to superior resources. Currently, the YPG appears to be fighting a losing battle in Kobani.
The Kurds I spoke to expressed frustration when the topic of U.S. airstrikes was mentioned. They told me that the airstrikes are almost completely ineffective, and that the only reason America is dropping a few bombs is so that it can look like the Obama administration is doing something to combat ISIS while actually doing nothing.
How To Win This War
If the YPG is defeated in Rojava, the United States is left without a viable ally in the region. ISIS will have secured northern Syria, and this will free them up to pursue other campaigns. Without having to expend resources in northern Syria, they may very well swing around to Baghdad or push back up against Assad’s forces in Damascus. With the Kurdish resistance out of the way in Syria, the war will explode into new fronts.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The United States can step in, and I believe with minimal effort, deal ISIS a death blow in Syria.
This is how America can help the Kurds beat ISIS in Rojava – a plan I would put into place immediately:
1. Send several CIA liaisons to YPG headquarters in Rojava to meet with Kurdish leaders and begin paving the way for direct American involvement in the conflict. The CIA would establish lines of communication with the YPG, assess their forces, and determine how America can best help their war effort.
2. With the CIA reaching an agreement with YPG leadership, a U.S. Special Forces company would be deployed to Rojava. This mission is the bread and butter of American Special Forces teams. They would infiltrate into Rojava, make contact with the YPG, and prepare to conduct unconventional warfare against ISIS. They would work by, with, and through the YPG to train, advise, and assist them in their fight against ISIS.
Special Forces teams are composed of 12 soldiers and are called ODAs or Operational Detachment Alpha. Each Special Forces company of six ODAs also has an ODB—Operation Detachment Bravo. The ODB would set up an operations center alongside YPG headquarters to help coordinate Kurdish and American military and intelligence activities. The six ODAs would be deployed to the field and immediately begin training new YPG fighters destined for the front lines. They would also go up to the front themselves to make combat assessments and help the YPG in mission planning.
Attached to these ODAs would also be Air Force Special Operations personnel called JTACs—Joint Terminal Attack Controllers. These are the experts who call in close air support and other types of airstrikes. An ODA working in tandem with JTACs and their YPG host-nation partners can do a tremendous amount of damage to the enemy.
Rarely have U.S. Special Forces been let off the leash and allowed to operate at their full potential. But it happened in 2001 in Afghanistan, and it can be done again today. All they need is the green light and the operational freedom the address the terrain and the enemy in the manner they see fit.
3. Based on assessments from CIA paramilitary personnel and U.S. Special Forces, the CIA would begin arming the YPG. Currently, the YPG needs a resupply of heavy machine guns and the ammunition for them. This would likely be predominately the Russian DShK machine gun and 12.7mm ammunition. The YPG is also hurting for anti-tank and indirect-fire weapons. I would recommend the employment of 120mm mortar systems.
While 60mm and 82mm mortars are certainly helpful, the 120mm mortar can do some serious damage to urban areas where ISIS has strong-pointed themselves in. Thermobaric weapons would also help the YPG flush ISIS out of these urban centers. Thermobaric means heat+pressure. When a thermobaric rocket explodes inside a structure, the sudden outpouring of heat and pressure causes it to collapse. With most of the fighting happening in built-up urban areas, 120mm mortars and thermobarics could be a game changer.
The YPG also needs hand grenades and other anti-tank weapons like the 84mm Carl Gustav.
Playing the Long Game
When America provides military experts and weapons, it should not come without strings attached. What makes the war in Syria and Iraq so complicated is that it isn’t just one conflict against ISIS. The Kurds have past issues with Turkey and Assad. The government of Iraq also has to deal with Sunni versus Shia sectarian violence. Iran has stepped in to help Shias in Iraq. The Free Syrian Army seems to flip sides every other battle. Al-Nusra is out there somewhere, too. While media attention has focused on ISIS and their extremist Islamic ideology, there is another way to look at this conflict.
All of the belligerents in this war are, in the end, rational actors seeking to maximize the amount of power they have in the region. The YPG is sending teenagers up to the front lines to die for their dreams of a Kurdish state. ISIS is sending drug-crazed lunatics into the fray in order to secure territory for their phony Islamic State. Right now, everyone is fighting, but also holding back a bit—waiting to see what America will do.
If the United States steps in and deals a death blow to ISIS, then all other actors in the region will quickly move to consolidate power and expand territory.
With this in mind, the United States should not simply flood the region with arms. Rather, we must use our Special Forces teams and weapon resupplies to effect strategic ends in the region. American assistance to the YPG should come with a caveat that the Kurds do their utmost to secure peace with longstanding enemies. This is a tough sell, of course, and an expectation of a peace treaty between the PKK and Turkey is unrealistic. However, the influence and leverage gained with American assistance should come with the caveat that both parties enter into serious negotiations.
Whatever the outcome of the war after ISIS is gone, it is going to be very messy. The United States should seek to mitigate that mess before, during, and after the conflict. Rather than enter the war with overwhelming American military power, which would include infantry, tanks, air support, ect., the United States should work with local partner forces to win the war at a moderate pace, which would allow our allies to shape the environment and consolidate their state so they don’t fall apart right after the war is over.
New Battles, Same War
U.S. assistance to the YPG in Rojava should not be a stand-alone project, but rather part of a larger package designed to actually defeat ISIS wherever they are. Other Special Forces teams should be deployed alongside the Kurdish Pershmerga fighting in northern Iraq. America should act as an arbiter between the Kurds and the government of Iraq to coordinate military actions, utilizing a hammer-and-anvil strategy in places like Kirkuk. Other Special Forces teams would have to augment Iraqi Special Operations Forces and Iraqi SWAT teams in the south.
Meanwhile, there is the issue of Sinjar and the displaced Yezidi people. When ISIS raped, murdered, and pillaged their way through Sinjar, the Yezidi religious minority group was turned into refugees who fled north to Kurdistan. This is another opportunity to let Special Forces do what they do best: stir up the Yezidi revolution.
Currently the YPG and the Peshmerga each have separate plans to arm the Yezidi and help them recapture their homes. U.S. Special Forces should step in, assess the situation, and incorporate the best parts of both plans into a larger military campaign designed to take Sinjar back from ISIS.
Special Forces personnel would arm and train the Yezidi people while simultaneously conducting mission planning. The timing for the invasion of Sinjar should be carefully weighed, and designed to take advantage of ISIS when they are weak. The best bet is to wait for ISIS to get bogged down fighting the YPG in Rojava and Peshmerga/ISOF in Iraq before striking.
End Game for ISIS
With the YPG clearing ISIS out of Rojava, they can push south to Tal Hamish which is currently the enemy headquarters in northern Syria. It will be a mess to clear the place out because ISIS has it loaded full of IEDs, but perhaps we should just flatten it with airstrikes. From there, the road leads south to Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Islamic State.
The United States can help regional allies defeat ISIS, and it won’t take Gulf-War-level military forces to do it. In the end, ISIS is a paper tiger. The problem is, what comes after the war? All of the actors involved in this conflict know that after this war is over, another two or three wars will be fought between the various surviving factions.
It isn’t hard to see this conflict in Syria and Iraq going on for another 20 years. Whatever Syria was before 2011 is gone and will never return the way it was. Whatever the government of Iraq was, it has now been proven to be a facade that can’t even stand up against a few hundred barbarians invading Mosul. GOI has no legitimacy, and Iraq is not really a state. The only thing propping them up right now is help from the Kurds and Iran.
No matter how carefully America attempts to manage the conflict, it will still be a mess. However, we will also have to face the consequences of inaction. One way to view this war is that it would never have happened if we had not removed Saddam from power in 2003. With a strong Iraq, ISIS could never gain traction there.
But another way to look at it is that this war happened due to our failure to intervene in Syria in 2011, when we could have nipped ISIS off at the bud. We chose not to commit to any faction in Syria wholeheartedly and, as a result, the moderates defected to well-funded Islamist groups.
Today we have a viable ally and partner in Rojava, but if we don’t act soon, the Kurds, Muslims, Christians, and Yezidi living peacefully in Rojava could be wiped out. As we stand on the sidelines watching this massacre, it leaves America with even fewer foreign-policy options in the region.
(Featured Image Courtesy: NBC News)
This article was originally posted December 2014