Is the Trump Administration about to Make a Huge Mistake in Syria?

Latest op-ed by SAC's Director of Government Relations, Mohammed Ghanem-

The Washington Examiner

In 2007, when I was a professor at Damascus University, one of my closest friends was a janitor at a nearby school. This man, whom I will call Azad, was quite intelligent and had ambitious dreams for himself and his family. But we both knew that all doors were closed to him save for menial jobs such as janitor, waiter, or shoe-shiner for a simple reason: he was Kurdish.


Syria's ruling Baath Party had systematically and mercilessly persecuted Kurds for decades before the Syrian Revolution, ever since the infamous 1962 "Hassake census" that stripped citizenship from 120,000 Kurds. Kurdish suffering increased in 1973, when Hafiz al-Assad initiated a wide campaign against Kurdish culture and ethnically cleansed thousands of Kurds to create an "Arab security belt." This situation persisted until the eve of the Syrian Revolution, so that my friend Azad had meager job prospects because his ID card marked him as "Foreigner from Hassake," the main Syrian Kurdish city. 

By the eve of the Syrian Revolution, pro-Kurdish activists such as Mishal Tammo were regularly jailed by Syrian security forces. But one group in particular had hardly any Syria-specific activities: the PYD, which forms the core of U.S.-backed "Syrian Democratic Forces" and is now America's anti-ISIS partner of choice in Syria. The Pentagon announced Tuesday that, having received President Trump's approval, it would begin directly arming the PYD for an upcoming assault on Raqqah. But this is an Iraq-level blunder; it could detonate ethnic tensions and pave the way for the next ISIS to emerge.

In mid-2011, as protests against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad were surging, Assad sought to co-opt Kurdish leaders by presenting them an offer: If they themselves cracked down on Kurdish protesters, ethnic autonomy for Kurds would increase. The PYD alone accepted this Faustian bargain.

Only months later, longtime Kurdish activist turned Syrian Revolution figure Mishaal Tammo was gunned down, and Tammo's close associates blamed the PYD for his death. In mid-2012, Assad handed over control of Kurdish areas to the PYD, and PYD and Baath Party headquarters were soon operating side-by-side. By 2014, the Institute for the Study of War had concluded that PYD administration "enables the regime to control Kurdish areas." In 2016, the PYD even joined Assad, Iran and Russia in besieging Aleppo – a siege that culminated in a massive bloodbath and regime takeover last December.

Many U.S. officials back the PYD based on their positive experiences with Iraqi Kurdistan. But the PYD is at odds with the Pashmerga, the main U.S. partners in Iraqi Kurdistan. The "Roj-Pesh," a Pashmerga-trained Syrian Kurdish force, has for years been fighting ISIS in Iraq because the PYD has barred them from Syria.

While PYD propaganda describes their "Rojava" territories as a democratic oasis, the group has cracked down on Kurdish opposition parties and instituted a Baath-style school curriculum that the regional teachers' union calls "totalitarian." Although there are few bombardments on PYD areas, some 800,000 Kurds have fled PYD rule, mainly due to the PYD's large-scale forced conscription practices that include the use of child soldiers.

U.S. officials often claim that there is no alternative to the PYD – sometimes, if they are more blunt, they claim "Arabs can't fight" – but this is incorrect. First, there is a Kurdish alternative: the "Roj-Pesh" fields some 5,000 fighters and has plans to expand to 10,000. Second, there are Arab alternatives. In recent weeks, a coalition of Free Syrian Army groups has virtually removed ISIS from the Damascus area and is now approaching the main eastern city of Deir Ezzor. Turkish-backed rebels in "Operation Euphrates Shield" have made similarly impressive gains to seal the Syrian-Turkish border.

Each of these coalitions commands at least 5,000 active fighters – and unlike the PYD, which insists on monopolizing power, these groups wish to work together to create a true multi-ethnic force. Combined, they field some 15,000 fighters, which is more than enough to take and hold Raqqah.

After two years of benefiting from the vast majority of anti-ISIS Coalition airstrikes in Syria, the PYD may indeed be the strongest Syrian anti-ISIS force. Yet it is not a force for stability; the PYD's tacit partnership with Assad, its record of human rights abuses, and its tendency to monopolize power have earned it the enmity of other anti-ISIS groups and ordinary Syrians. PYD officials this week even suggested future plans to attack the rebel bastion of Idlib. Plus, as the PYD's ongoing hostilities with Turkey indicate, the group lacks the regional buy-in necessary to be a successful holding force.

The Trump administration will be making an Iraq-level mistake if it continues America's over-reliance on the PYD.

Just as former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki failed to build a political support base after U.S. forces withdrew in 2010, leading to the rise of ISIS, the PYD would be unable to maintain stability without heavy U.S. military backing. The fact that, even now, the Pentagon needs to deploy Army Rangers to prevent imminent Turkish-PYD clashes should show clearly that the PYD is dragging the U.S. into a quagmire.

When ISIS is defeated and the U.S. cuts its $10 billion anti-ISIS yearly budget, the PYD will lose its military edge, but the PYD's misdeeds and the resulting Arab enmity will continue. A bloody ethnic war that spawns the next version of ISIS will then be primed to erupt.

The PYD has fought ISIS well and provided needed protection to many Syrian Kurds; it should not be thrown under the bus. But it is not the right force to take Raqqah, a large Arab city whose capture by the PYD would detonate ethnic tensions across northern Syria. Rather, the Pentagon should defuse ethnic tensions and protect its gains by increasing support for anti-ISIS Syrian rebels, helping Pashmerga-trained forces to enter Syria, and insisting on a more inclusive approach for the PYD to maintain current levels of U.S. support.

The PYD may be able to give the Trump administration the headline it wants, "ISIS routed from Raqqah." But though it takes time, the U.S. would be better served conquering Raqqah in a sustainable way and ensuring that pro-American forces control Raqqah in the long-term.

Mohammed Alaa Ghanem is the director of government relations and a senior political adviser at the Syrian American Council and a former professor at the University of Damascus, Syria.