Washington’s secret talks with Syria’s branch of the PKK

Foreign Policy reports: Every day, the jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) advance closer to Kobani, a predominantly Kurdish town in northern Syria, close to the Turkish border. As the Islamic State rains down mortars on the town, the vastly outgunned People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia, are attempting to resist the weeks-long assault. While Turkish troops watch from across the border and the U.S.-led air campaign continues, none of the powerful forces in the region have intervened decisively — leaving the YPG to face the jihadist advance on its own.

The United States has rejected formal relations with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the party that is essentially the political wing of the YPG. The PYD, which has ruled Kobani and other Kurdish enclaves inside Syria since President Bashar al-Assad’s forces withdrew in July 2012, is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant organization that has fought Turkey since 1984 — and has consequently been listed as a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the United States. But interviews with American and Kurdish diplomats show that Washington opened indirect talks with the PYD years ago, even as it tried to empower the group’s Kurdish rivals and reconcile them with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Though Washington has declined PYD requests for formal talks, the United States opened indirect talks with the group in 2012, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told Foreign Policy. “We did meet someone who was an intermediary between the U.S. and the PYD. We met him on several occasions: myself once, and other diplomats on other occasions,” Ford said. The talks happened “maybe once every six months” and were mediated by a “Syrian citizen in Europe,” according to Ford.

The talks have continued since Ford’s departure and are conducted through the U.S. Embassy in Paris, two Kurdish sources familiar with the meetings told Foreign Policy. “They’re just briefing each other [on developments in Syria]. We’re not sure if the contact is going further, to the top of the administration in the U.S.,” one of the Kurdish sources said. Both Ford and the Kurds declined to identify the intermediary.

Concerns about a possible backlash from Ankara shaped Washington’s approach to the talks. [Continue reading…]

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