US envoy in Syria to prop up Kurdish-Arab alliance

Friday 12/02/2016
Brett McGurk, US envoy to coalition against Islamic State

OTTAWA - A US delegation visited the northern Syrian town of Kobane on Jan­uary 30th to meet lead­ers of the newly found­ed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-Arab alliance fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).

The two-day visit, led by Presi­dent Barack Obama’s special envoy to the US-led international coali­tion against ISIS, Brett McGurk, uncovered a solidified partnership with the SDF fighters, as the rebel alliance appears to be planning a major attack on the ISIS strong­holds of Raqqa and Manbij.

His visit was the first by a senior Obama administration official to Syria since the US-led air campaign against ISIS began in August 2014.

“ISIL terrorists do not stand a chance in the face of the resilient people of Kobane, Tikrit, Ramadi, & soon … Raqqa and Mosul,” McGurk posted on Twitter after the visit us­ing an alternative acronym for ISIS.

Mustafa Ebdi, a Syrian-Kurd­ish journalist from Kobane, said McGurk was accompanied by French and British military of­ficials. The delegation attended a closed-door meeting with the Kurdish self-rule authority.

“A visit from a high-level delega­tion to the Kurdish areas is a mes­sage to the Kurdish people that they would be an essential part of Syria’s future,” Ebdi said. “It is ex­pected that steps related to fund­ing, arming and training would fol­low [the visit] … and to rely on SDF fighters [in the fight against ISIS].”

The SDF alliance emerged from a US-backed formation of rebels in October 2015 as the ground force to counter ISIS in northern and north-eastern Syria. The US-led international coalition has backed the alliance with air support during battles against ISIS.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said on February 2nd that the Pentagon plans to increase spending on the fight against ISIS and is considering sending more US troops to Iraq and Syria.

Carter noted that this new strat­egy would focus on enabling local forces to take back the main ISIS strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.

As the US-led coalition intensi­fied air strikes on Raqqa and its sur­roundings, Ebdi said the US-led co­alition plans to rely on the SDF for a potential attack against ISIS on Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in Syria, and Manbij, another Syr­ian town under ISIS control, 30km west of the Euphrates.

Days after the emergence of the US-backed SDF, Obama authorised the Pentagon to deploy up to 50 special operations forces to Syria. They are stationed in territory con­trolled by Kurdish People’s Protec­tion Units (YPG) which forms the backbone of the SDF.

The SDF alliance includes Arab Sunni forces; however, the domi­nant contingent of the SDF is Kurd­ish, led by YPG. The Kurdish forces have demonstrated ability in fight­ing ISIS and efficiency in receiving weaponry, aid and maintaining ter­ritory.

“US foreign policy in terms of assistance to the SDF is certainly problematic,” said Andrea Taylor, associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East in Washington. However, she added, “the anti-ISIS coalition does need a ground force component in Syria.”

Since war erupted in Syria, ten­sions between Arab and Kurdish Syrians have grown. As Kurdish factions, mainly the YPG, gained control over northern parts of Syria in mid-2013, the fear of Kurdish separatism increased.

According to Human Rights Watch, Kurdish authorities in north-eastern Syria have commit­ted abuses in areas where they control non-Kurdish residents, including Arab and Turkmen com­munities. The YPG strongly denies the allegations.

“The United States should stip­ulate its support to the SDF on adherence to IHL [international humanitarian law] standards and it should enable a more balanced relationship between the Kurds and Arabs within the alliance as it pushes south towards Raqqa,” Tay­lor said.

On February 4th, Saudi mili­tary spokesman Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Asiri said his country was ready to send ground troops to Syria to fight ISIS. Asiri’s comments came with reports suggesting that Saudi Arabia was coordinating with Turkey on the possibility of deploying ground troops to Syria. The United Arab Emirates also said it is ready to join efforts in deploy­ing troops against ISIS.

“The United States, Turkey and their allies have a shared interest to destroy and defeat ISIS,” said Taylor. “If the United States were to take advantage of Saudi Arabia’s volunteering of ground troops to defeat ISIS and seek other willing contributors, it could establish a ground force component, in which the SDF would participate, fully ca­pable of defeating ISIS in Syria.”