“People have causes, but nations have interests,” my PKK host told me as we drove through Qandil in the mountains of Kurdistan. “We can be friends with people but not with states.” His point wasn’t that the PKK and Kurdistan can’t have relationships with other states, they know that they have to, but they realize that these relationships will always be based on realpolitik rather than friendship.
Two offshoots of the PKK, the YPG and YPJ, have been fighting a ruthless war against ISIS in northern Syria, a region they call Rojava. That war does not take place in a vacuum, but involves players as diverse as Turkey, Russia, the United States, the Assad regime, and the numerous rebel factions vying for control of Syria. The United States and some coalition partners have offered limited support to the YPG and YPJ. While in Sulaymaniyah, I spoke to a Kurdish officer who personally oversaw the airdrop of supplies to the YPG by American military aircraft. U.S. airstrikes and some close air support has made a big difference in helping the Kurds in Rojava capture territory from ISIS.
However, everyone on the ground has always known that the defeat of ISIS is not the end game. After ISIS is wiped out, the Kurds in Rojava will have to continue to fight for their autonomy, politically if not militarily. The escalation of Russian military involvement in the Syrian conflict brings a new urgency to this task. Allied with the Assad regime, the Russians have reportedly been bombing ISIS and FSA targets in Syria over the last week.
The United States has offered support to Rojava, but has also hedged its bets. Nations have strategic interests, and America has greater interests in maintaining influence in Turkey than in Rojava. The Turkish government’s longstanding war with the PKK ensures that the United States is forced to accommodate the Erdogan government as a strategic partner, putting the YPG/YPJ war against ISIS on the back burner, so to speak.
SOFREP sources report that the YPG and YPJ are already preparing for the eventuality that they may have to fight against a joint Russian/Syrian military campaign to invade Rojava. Meanwhile, the political party that currently governs Rojava, the PYD, is also hedging their bets by sending strong signals that they are willing to ally with Russia or the United States.
The leader of the PYD, Saleh Muslim, told Sky News on the 31st of September, “We would welcome the coalition to operate from Rojava and we would welcome the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to train there, too.” This statement is a clear signal that the PYD is willing to work with the United States military as well as help with the current U.S. Special Forces and CIA operation to train rebel forces. This is also an effort by the PYD to pull America away from Turkey, where Green Berets under the auspices of the CIA are currently training rebels, and into Rojava.
The United States has five programs underway to train what has been dubbed “New Syrian Forces” in Turkey. Green Berets are meeting with former Assad military personnel in Turkey, attempting to put together a new and improved rebel movement. Sources report to SOFREP that the entire program is a failure and that those involved expect it to be shut down at any moment. [Update: as this article was being written, these programs do appear to have been shut down.] Rather than have these forces recruited, trained, and deployed from Turkey, it appears that the PYD would like to partner with the United States and have these programs run out of Rojava.
American hesitation due to the strategic partnership with Turkey makes this offer tempting, but problematic. The Kurds again have to hedge their bets. “Russia says it wants to work with us,” a senior PYD member named Ilham Ehmed said in a interview on the 8th of October. Rojava has to choose a strategic partner, Russia or the United States, in order to guarantee their survival as an autonomous Kurdish region.
U.S. Special Forces soldiers deployed to Turkey are being told that the PYD, and their armed wings, the YPG and YPJ, are communists at heart and will betray America to ally with the Russians because of this ideology. The reality is much more complicated. These PKK-affiliated organizations still bear some vestigial resemblance to their Marxist roots, which can be seen in their songs, formations, and iconography (such as their red star flags), however, the organization has shifted their ideology away from Marxism.
They realized that the world has changed, and they knew that their organization had to change with it. Today, they follow a political model called democratic confederalism, a form of grassroots democracy. To think that the PYD would ally with Moscow over some form of communist nostalgia is patently absurd. That said, the PYD is under pressure and it is clear that they will soon have to choose a partner whether they like it or not.
In my own conversations with those in the YPG, YPJ, and PKK, I have found that they are completely open to working with the United States. Furthermore, they are open to partnering with the United States in economic relationships after the war is over. “Would you be willing to sell oil to us?” I asked at one point. Rojava is one of those parts of the world where oil naturally gushes up out of the ground and hundreds of oil wells are spread out across the plains of northern Syria. “Yes, of course,” the PKK member answered. “We have to do something with it. As long as we can decide how to spend the money internally, we are fine with this.”
Kurdish forces in Rojava have proven themselves to be a secular and effective fighting force that is defeating ISIS on a daily basis. Fully committed to democracy, they would be the perfect partner force for the United States. Actions have consequences, but so does inaction. The time is quickly coming in which the PYD is going to have to choose their strategic partner. If America chooses Turkey over the Kurds, then the Kurds will be forced to choose Russia over the United States.
The clock is ticking.
(Featured image courtesy of kuow.org)