US envoy in Syria to prop up Kurdish-Arab alliance
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.”