Kurdish YPG fighters have been America's most effective allies against the Islamic State.

Photographer: Ahmet Sik/Getty Images

Obama Administration Argues Over Support for Syrian Kurds

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Syrian Kurds are now attacking U.S.-supported rebels, but U.S. officials disagree about whether the Kurds have switched sides -- and about whether the U.S. should continue increasing its arms support for them, as opposed to focusing support on Sunni Arab rebels.

Kurdish fighters have taken advantage of the Russian-backed Syrian regime offensives in the north of the country, seizing territory from U.S.-backed rebels who are on the defensive. But factions within the Obama administration disagree about whether the Kurds are simply being opportunistic, or have coordinated their attacks with Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime.

Some administration officials told us that U.S. intelligence has documented meetings between the Kurds’ armed group and officials in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, which has fought alongside the Assad regime against the opposition since 2011. This faction also says the Kurdish group, the YPG, is closely working with the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist organization at war with Turkey.

One senior administration official said the CIA has found that the Kurds directly coordinated with Russian forces recently during an attack on the headquarters of the CIA-backed Syrian opposition in the town of Marea. The official said the U.S. intelligence is that Kurdish troops laid down tracer fire on the building just before Russian bombers destroyed it. Another U.S. official disputed this account.

Other U.S. officials expressed doubt that the Kurds would coordinate so explicitly with Assad, Russia and Iran. Mutlu Civiroglu, an analyst on Kurdish affairs who has contacts among the YPG, told us the group "denies any coordination with the Russians, but they acknowledge they benefit from Russian airstrikes." Russian and Syrian officials have said that they are directly aiding the YPG  and that the YPG is aligned with the regime in Damascus, but Civiroglu dismissed that as propaganda.

One U.S. official who works on the campaign against the Islamic State acknowledged that the YPG does not trust some of the rebel groups. Although the YPG and those rebels both fight the Islamic State, the YPG has avoided large-scale battles with the Assad regime.  The rebels, who are focused on the fight against Assad, have maintained close ties with Turkey, which has shelled YPG positions.

“Given the recent fighting, the U.S. is backing both sides of a Kurdish-Turkish proxy war in Syria,” said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Washington just doesn't want to get militarily involved so they think it’s the best they can do. It’s a low bar.”

Some U.S. officials argue internally that the U.S. has no choice but to heavily support the YPG. Although YPG fighters are attacking U.S.-backed rebels, these officials argue that they have proven themselves more effective against the Islamic State than others have been.

Several administration officials told us that Brett McGurk, the special envoy to the coalition to fight the Islamic State, is making that case. These officials say he has support from leaders of Joint Special Operations Command, which has at least 50 advisers inside Syria working directly with the YPG in the fight against the Islamic State. (JSOC did not respond to a request for comment.) YPG supporters inside the administration point to the Kurdish offensive in the town of Shadadi, which began just after McGurk visited Syria. McGurk declined to comment on the record for this article.

A separate group inside the Obama administration argues that unwavering support for the YPG undermines the U.S. effort to build a Sunni Arab ground force. This group contends that because the Kurds have no intention of attacking and holding Islamic State strongholds such as Raqqa, it is shortsighted to allow them to wear down the Sunni opposition to Assad. Those Sunnis are seen as the best hope to displace the Islamic State on Sunni lands. They argue for more support for Sunni Arab groups fighting in and around Aleppo and less support for the YPG.

This group is losing the internal policy battle, just as the Sunni Arab rebels continue to lose battles to the regime, the Russians, the Iranians, the Islamic State and now the YPG. U.S. arms shipments to the YPG continue to increase while support to the Sunni Arab rebel groups does not. Several administration officials told us that the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, is among those calling for more support for the Sunni Arab rebels. Power has publicly called for building a Sunni Arab ground force to take and hold land now occupied by the Islamic State.

Secretary of State John Kerry has publicly called for robust support for the Sunni opposition, although his focus recently has been on striking a deal with Russia for a broader cease-fire. The administration announced Monday that the U.S. and Russia had agreed to a provisional cease-fire to begin on Saturday, assuming that both powers can convince their proxies on the ground to go along.

As the Kurds attack some rebel groups, the U.S. finds itself supporting both sides. The CIA has spent almost $1 billion training and arming Sunni Arab rebels in Syria. The White House has not allowed the CIA to give the rebels anti-aircraft weapons such as Manpads, leaving the Sunni rebels at a distinct disadvantage against Russian air power. But several U.S. officials told us the Saudis have told the U.S. government they plan to give Syrian rebel groups anti-aircraft weapons despite U.S. objections.

The U.S. policy in Syria has always been to support the Syrian opposition in order to pressure the Assad regime to negotiate in good faith toward a transition to democracy. If the Syrian Sunni Arab rebel groups don’t get enough support to survive, the prospects for a diplomatic solution die with them. That may be irrelevant to the U.S.'s Kurdish allies, but it matters to the U.S.

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