Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria.

Photographer: UYGAR ONDER SIMSEK/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Airdrop in Syria Ends Up Arming the Kurds

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Last weekend, the White House announced that the U.S. had dropped 50 tons of ammunition to Syrian Arabs fighting the Islamic State. Some officials now say that the new Arab coalition was a front and that Kurdish groups received most of the weapons -- as the U.S. intended.

American and Kurdish officials and Syrian Arab opposition leaders told us this week that ammunition said to have been for the Syrian Arab Coalition, a newly announced group of Sunni Arab brigades in northeastern Syria, had largely ended up arming the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and its associated military forces, known as the People's Protection Units or YPG. That will aid the Kurds in fighting the Islamic State and cementing their control of Kurdish territory.

One senior administration official who works on the issue told us that the White House knew that the coalition was likely to pass on most if not all of the weapons to the Kurds. The official, who called the Syrian Arab Coalition a "ploy" to arm the Kurds, said the White House knew they would receive the shipments because they controlled the area where the weapons were dropped. The U.S. did not ask the Arab coalition for any guarantees the weapons would stay in Arab hands, the official said.

The Obama administration has not said that the arms are going to the Kurds. “Our successful airdrop provided ammunition to Arab fighters fighting in Northern Syria against ISIL,” Commander Kyle Raines, of U.S. Central Command, told us in a statement. If the U.S. were seen openly arming the Kurds, that could alienate Turkey and some Syrian Arab groups outside Kurdish territory.

A local Kurdish official told the Associated Press this week that the U.S. had provided 120 tons of weapons and ammunition to the YPG. The Washington Post reported Thursday that Turkey summoned the U.S. ambassador in Ankara to complain about the weapons drops. (Turkey has long been at odds with its own Kurdish population.) One Kurdish official close to the YPG confirmed to us that the weapons and ammunition dropped this week would be largely going to its fighters. 

On Thursday,  Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst, published an interview in which the YPG commander, Sipan Hemo, acknowledged his group had received the airdrops, which he said were important to its cause. “With this new support, the cooperation we have had for a year has reached a new level. And we hope to increase our work together even more, we hope to work strategically. So what we received was not big. But it is big for a new start,” Hemo said.

In addition, the YPG itself has acknowledged that it is participating in a new alliance with Sunni Arab and Syrian Christian groups known as the Democratic Forces of Syria. That group held its first meeting Thursday in the Syrian city of Al Hasakah to discuss how to divide up the new U.S.-provided ammunition between Kurdish, Arab and Christian rebel brigades, a representative of the group said.

It was just last week when the Obama administration began referring to the Syrian Arab Coalition, on background to news outlets. As the New York Times noted, Arab rebel groups fighting in the area freely admitted they had never heard of such an organization, although they were excited about the prospect of getting the weapons.

U.S. officials told us that the leaders of the Arab groups inside the coalition have been vetted by the U.S., even if the brigades themselves are unknown to the U.S. and its allies. A senior administration official said the goal of the airdrop was to aid the groups that can fight the Islamic State outside the areas already controlled by Kurds, including Raqqa.

Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who just returned from a tour of the region, told us that the Sunni Arab groups in the coalition were either completely unknown or relatively obscure, and certainly not in a position to mount a major offensive against the Islamic State in big cities like Raqqa, where the Islamic State has tens of thousands of well-armed fighters.

"The Arab groups are either not significant or in the case of the Assyrian Christian group, more or less unknown,” Ford said. “That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It just means they haven’t had an impact on the ground heretofore.”

The Arab groups may be unproven, but the Kurds are not perfectly in sync with the U.S. agenda. They have no intention of leaving Kurdish territory to fight the Islamic State, Ford said, which means arming them is “just a recipe for medium- and long-term fighting.”

Turkey has doubled down on its military campaign against Kurdish groups in northeastern Syria in recent weeks. The Turks believe that the YPG is closely aligned in Syria with the PKK, another Kurdish fighting force that both the U.S. and Turkish governments consider a terrorist organization.

The U.S. has been working with the YPG in Syria for some time, with varying levels of transparency. For example, U.S. airstrikes cleared the way for Kurdish fighters to retake the Syrian city of Kobani from the Islamic State in January. More recently, the U.S. has been trying to get Turkey to increase its involvement in Syria; to that end, American officials have played down cooperation with the YPG.

Working with the Kurdish group also presents a potential legal problem. The U.S. is prohibited from arming groups that commit human rights abuses. On Monday, Amnesty International released a report that said fighters from the People's Protection Units had deliberately displaced Arab and Turkmen residents from the areas it now administers in Syria, burning homes and in some cases razing whole villages. 

Evan Barrett, an adviser to the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, an umbrella group resisting the Syrian regime, said the Obama administration is exaggerating the role of Sunni Arabs in the recent ammunition drops for three reasons: to prove the U.S. still has a Sunni Arab partner against the Islamic State, to avoid angering the Turks, and to distance the U.S. from the human rights accusations against the Kurdish group. The Syrian Arab Coalition and the new Syrian Democratic Force are helpful for all three goals, he said, adding that "both groups seem to have been invented from whole cloth over the last several days." 

The U.S. airdrop was presented by the White House as a way to compensate for the failed "train and equip" program, which was meant to give the U.S. reliable Sunni Arab partners on the ground to fight the Islamic State. But if the recipients of the ammunition are Kurds rather than Sunni Arabs, the result is very different: once again failing to find and bolster Arab partners, once again relying on Kurds to do the fighting.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net