Ready for ISIS.

Photographer: Ahmet Sik/Getty Images

This Former Schoolteacher Is Building a U.S. Alliance With Syria's Kurds

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
Read More.
a | A

Sinam Mohamed does not look like the kind of woman who would have much influence over America's quiet war in Syria. But this soft-faced former English teacher has emerged as a crucial liaison between the Barack Obama administration and the largely Kurdish army fighting alongside U.S. special operators to encircle the Islamic State's capital at Raqqa.

When I met with her at a private home in Arlington, Virginia, this week, she said she was asking the U.S. government to recognize the loose federation of Kurdish-majority cantons in northern Syria known as Rojava. As Rojava's unofficial foreign minister, Mohamed said her most important job is to build a strategic relationship with Washington. And in the past year, she has had a number of meetings with key U.S. officials planning the war against the Islamic State to do just that. On Friday she will brief hill staffers in Congress.

Until recently that relationship would have been unthinkable, because the militia overseen by the administration in Rojava, known as the YPG, is closely linked to the Kurdistan Worker's Party -- designated as terrorists by the U.S. and Turkey. Robert Ford, who was U.S. ambassador to Syria between 2011 and 2014, told me when he served in Damascus it was U.S. policy to avoid contact with the YPG because of those ties.

Things for Rojava and the YPG began to change in 2015, when the Pentagon's program to train and equip rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad collapsed and the Islamic State launched terror attacks in Europe. Mohamed told me the breakthrough came that January, when U.S. and coalition aircraft provided air cover to YPG forces fighting the Islamic State in the city of Kobani. "The resistance of our people was strong, our people did not leave," she said. "At that time the United States helped us with air strikes, but they didn't give us weapons."

The Obama administration did not start arming the YPG until the militia aligned with some Arab fighters to form a group called the Syrian Democratic Forces. The U.S. provided the first packages of ammunition for them last fall, and the relationship has grown closer ever since. In February, the U.S. envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State, Brett McGurk traveled to the Rojava and was photographed with the YPG's commander.

Mohamed estimates there are more than 200 U.S. special operators advising and fighting alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces now. Indeed, their presence caused a diplomatic incident with Turkey when photos of U.S. soldiers surfaced on the internet wearing YPG patches on their uniforms.

"The Americans realized the only forces they can rely on are the Syrian Democratic Forces," she said. "They tried with the Free Syrian Army, the so called moderates, they spent millions. But when these groups entered Syria, they joined al-Nusra,” an al-Qaeda affiliate.

Many in the Syrian opposition disagree with this assessment. There is still an active CIA program to work with the Free Syrian Army – a group of mostly Syrian army deserters -- though most U.S. officials acknowledge that this force is not what it once was. Last month at a conference in Oslo, a founder of a nongovernmental group that publicizes Islamic State atrocities in Raqqa, Abdul-Aziz al-Hamza, told me U.S. support for the YPG was "malicious": “They are committing a lot of violations against civilians, they force children to join their army and they are arresting other Kurdish activists.”

Mohamed acknowledged to me that there have been reports of some abuses by YPG forces and said she believes this does happen from time to time. But she also said the Rojava administration and the YPG have recently received human-rights training from groups such as Geneva Call. For example, she said, YPG commanders now must sign a pledge not to conscript fighters younger than 18.

This is not the only concern critics have raised about the recent U.S. embrace of the YPG. Ford said he did not oppose U.S. contacts with the Rojava government or the YPG, but he worried that the Obama administration sees them today as a magic bullet. "If this is the group the Americans think will spearhead the containment of the Islamic State in Syria, that needs to be carefully reconsidered," he said. "It would be great to wish away ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq and Syria, but the reality is they exist. So the Americans need to think very carefully before they jump into the middle of that."

Syria's democratic opposition groups also worry about U.S. support for the YPG because it does not fight against the Syrian regime and Russia, just the Islamic State. In places where the Free Syrian Army and the YPG are both fighting, like Aleppo, two rebel groups supported by the U.S. government have found themselves on opposite sides of the battlefield.

Mohamed did not apologize for Rojava's current policy towards Assad and Russia. "When we started the revolution in Rojava, we adopted the policy of whoever attacks us we can respond, whoever does not attack we do not respond," she said. "We don't join anyone else's fight. The Assad regime attacked us in Aleppo, and many places, and we have killed many of them. Then after that they stopped, and we stopped."

At the same time, Mohamed said, this policy is not the same as fighting alongside Russia or Syria. "We refused to fight alongside the Russians, we consider the United States to be our strategic partnership. Sometimes, though, you are forced to work with Russia and Assad in places such as in Afrin. Sometimes they fight in one place and we are fighting in the same place," she said.

Despite this, Mohamed said she wants the Rojava administration to participate in peace talks in Geneva on the opposition side, but the U.S. is reluctant. "They tell us it's not time for you now to be included," she said, recounting her conversations with U.S. officials. "The Arabs don't want you to be there. The Turks don't want you to be there. We say, 'If you don't include us you cannot solve the problem of Syria.' "  

For now that does not seem likely. The Turkish government -- which provides a lot of support for the anti-Assad Syrian rebels -- makes little distinction between the YPG and its own Kurdish separatists, and has closed the border between Rojava and Turkey. The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq has also closed its border with Rojava, making it next to impossible to deliver humanitarian goods to the area. Mohamed told me she hopes the Iraqi Kurds will follow through on a promise to open that border this week for the Islamic month of Ramadan. Mohamed also said the Rojava administration and the YPG were not committed to entering the fight in Turkey for Kurdish liberation. "We have our own problems. We have to liberate our areas from ISIS," she said.

Nonetheless, Mohamed was open about her admiration for the founder of the Kurdistan Worker's Party, Abdullah Ocalan, who lived in Syria before he was kicked out of the country in 1998. She was effusive about how his philosophy of gender equality and federalism influenced the Rojava administration today. She told me that one day soon she hoped the Turks would release him from prison.

An irony here is that the CIA assisted in Ocalan's 1999 capture in Kenya and his extradition to Turkey. But that was before the rise of the Islamic State and the collapse of Syria, and before the U.S. needed Ocalan’s followers to help put that country back together.

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

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net