Syria’s Kurds at the center of America’s anti-jihadi strategy

Aron Lund writes: The self-proclaimed Islamic State is under pressure in Syria today. In the Aleppo area, its defenses have been pierced by a Syrian government offensive backed by the Russian Air Force. Although most of the Russian airstrikes have hit other Sunni rebel groups (regardless of what the pro-Kremlin propaganda claims), some attacks target the Islamic State as well. In the deserts east of Homs, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed government is trying to reverse recent losses to the jihadi group. Should his army manage to recapture Palmyra, which was lost in May, it would be a severe blow to the Islamic State.

But until now, the most significant recent victories against the Islamic State have taken place further east and have come at the hands of an American-backed, Kurdish-majority alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.

Created as recently as October, the SDF is a political umbrella designed to provide legal and political cover for American military support to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known as PKK. A Kurdish leftist group locked in battle with the Turkish government, it was designated a “ foreign terrorist organization” by the U.S. government in 1997 and graduated to become a Specially Designated Global Terrorist Organization in 2001, largely due to Turkish pressure.

The PKK, operating in Syria through a front group known as the People’s Defense Units, or YPG (with an all-female version called the YPJ), has emerged as the country’s most potent anti-jihadi force. Having crushed the Islamic State in Kobane in February, Tal Abyad in June, Hasakah City in July, and now in al-Houl on the Iraqi border, the Kurds and their local allies are gearing up for further offensives on jihadi strongholds near Raqqa and south of Hasakah. The White House desperately wants to support them, seeing few other ways to pressure the Islamic State in Syria.

So, in order to avoid any legal or political blowback, U.S. officials now insist that they are not at all working with the-organization-that-must-not-be-named, but rather with the SDF, where the YPG is only one member among many. And the United States has avoided adding the YPG to any blacklists, even though any American official could (but won’t) tell you that it’s a PKK front. [Continue reading…]

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