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As part of the ongoing effort to defeat ISIS, the U.S. last month began arming Kurdish forces, called the YPG, which operate as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The move infuriated NATO ally Turkey, which sees the YPG as an extension of a terror group it has fought on and off since the 1980s.
Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson speaks with Ranj Alaaldin (@RanjAlaaldin), visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Doha, and Nicholas Heras (@NicholasAHeras), a fellow in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
On why the U.S. is arming Kurdish forces
Nicholas Heras: "The U.S. has a narrowly focused mission, which is to conduct the counter-ISIS campaign. And in order to facilitate the capture of ISIS' capital of Raqqa, the U.S military has determined that it has the ability to maintain a limited supply of armaments to particular units within the Kurdish majority People's Protection Units [YPG], which is within the larger Syrian Democratic Forces coalition. And this is a focused mission — it's not about providing a blank check or an open inventory of weapons for Syrian Kurds. It is about empowering certain elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition that will be in the tip of the spear of the campaign to conquer Raqqa."
On the potential for the move to backfire on the U.S.
Ranj Alaaldin: "I think Nicholas said the word that I've been thinking of, which is 'narrowly focused' mission. The problem here is not so much what the U.S. does. I think everybody agrees the YPG is the most effective, Western friendly force capable of confronting ISIS, capable of liberating Raqqa. The problem is what the U.S. isn't doing. And that's adding a political component to its strategy, its engagement. You need to have an ally that is willing to engage with other actors, that is inclusive, that engages with the principles of good governance, of the rule of law. Because if that does not happen, then that actor will become a liability in the future. There will be multiple conflicts, challenges and problems to deal with once Raqqa is liberated."
"Historically the Kurds have generally been Western friendly, Western-aligned actors. They've generally looked to the U.S. as a superpower that can give them that legitimacy."Ranj Alaaldin
On whether Kurdish forces could turn their weapons against the U.S. in the future
RA: "Well I think with the Syrian Kurds in general — whether that's the YPG or the other multiple Kurdish actors — the U.S. will have no problems there, because historically the Kurds have generally been Western friendly, Western-aligned actors. They've generally looked to the U.S. as a superpower that can give them that legitimacy. The YPG is a secular force at the same time as well. Its ideology isn't orientated around attacking the U.S. or attacking Western targets. Unlike, for example, some of the Islamist groups you have in Syria, the YPG certainly doesn't fit into that category of anti-Western, anti-American ideals."
NH: "I agree that the YPG is an unlikely force to turn its weapons against the United States. The U.S. has a real opportunity here to try to promote an authentically pluralistic governance in an area of Syria that has historically been repressed. There is a real need for the Trump administration to define what it wants to do with territory that's been conquered from ISIS. And how, if it wants to continue to maintain a residual U.S. force in eastern Syria, how it plans to prevent communal conflict in this area so that there can be a stable area of Syria, and you have a local security force that represents the various different communities that have raised their hands and said, 'Yes, we want to fight with the U.S. against ISIS, and we look for a better future for Syria.'"
On whether countries like the U.S. can successfully outsource fighting to another group
RA: "I don't believe any American or anybody else that points towards the blood and the treasure that has been spilled in places like Iraq — there's been billions of dollars invested in Iraq, in the state, and the country has very little to show for it. But I think in this particular case, ISIS did represent an imminent threat, not just to the region but we've seen with the number of recent attacks that it is a transnational, international terrorist group that has the capacity to either direct or inspire attacks in America and so forth. So something had to be done. Hence the triggering of the U.S.-led military campaign against ISIS.
"In the case of the Kurds, you do have reliable actors that are capable of militarily defeating these groups. But as we saw in Iraq, what we really did there was contain the threat of terrorism. We never really eliminated the threat itself. We never really suppressed fully the space that allows these groups to thrive, to operate."
"The U.S. has a real opportunity here to try to promote an authentically pluralistic governance in an area of Syria that has historically been repressed."Nicholas Heras
On whether it's worth upsetting Turkey in order to arm YPG forces
NH: "The Obama administration and the Trump administration have both made the calculation that the alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition, of which the YPG is a part, is valuable for conducting the counter-ISIS campaign. If the U.S. objective in Syria is to defeat ISIS, however it defines that, and then to walk away, then you could see an expansion of the Turkish zone of influence that has been formed in northern Syria, which in and of itself would cause conflict with the local Kurdish community, which does not want to see expansion of the Turkish zone, and also the placement of Turkish-backed militias in their areas. Or alternatively, if there is U.S. investment, and I agree, if there is U.S. investment in support of good governance and promoting local economies, in trying to create a genuinely pan-sectarian, pan-ethnic security force that is representative of the local communities over which the federal northern Syrian region is being built, that's the SDF-built region of Syria that's backed by the U.S., then you may be able to mitigate, over the long term, potential conflict between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish areas. But it's a difficult challenge, and it's a dilemma."
This article was originally published on June 29, 2017.
This segment aired on June 29, 2017.
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