The US State Department admitted on Friday that it had always viewed the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group that the US helped create, as including components of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the US views as a terrorist organization. This was in contrast to the Pentagon which viewed the SDF as key partners in the defeat of Islamic State. For years, two parts of the US government fought a quiet war against one another, as the US urged the SDF in Syria to fight ISIS, a war in which is suffered around 11,000 casualties.
The comments were made by a State Department official and tweeted by Wall Street Journal reporter Dion Nissenbaum. "For years the US government rejected idea that the YPG in Syria was an offshoot of the PKK, a group the US and Turkey classify as a terrorist group. Yesterday, a State Department official admitted the obvious," noted Nissenbaum. At the same time Lara Seligman, Pentagon correspondent for Foreign Policy noted that "US military officers who served with the SDF described a group of passionate, fearless fighters who share American values." She wrote that these US military officers were unanimously "devastated by the latest news, and more than one expressed a deep sense of shame."
Rarely have two parts of the US government had such contradictory views.
Rarely in US history have two parts of the US government had such contradictory views. Because parts of the US government do not speak to each other and because the US pursued several different tracks on Syria policy, often isolated in silos of feedback loops, the view of the SDF was not discussed openly between policy teams. For instance US military commanders on the ground in eastern Syria do not seem to have been listened to by their State Department colleagues and vice-versa. The US pursued at least four different policies in Syria in the last years. One was a pro-Syrian rebel track, partly at CIA and under the Obama administration, that funded and supported Syrian rebel groups. These groups were judged a failure inside the administration and ditched in 2017 by US President Donald Trump.
The second track was in Geneva where the State Department sought to push for a transition in Syria's government towards a more inclusive format that would include groups like the Syrian opposition. In Geneva the US team excluded its own partners from eastern Syria, systematically ignoring Kurdish voices, especially those linked to the SDF. Most recently in the end of September the US made it clear that it would exclude the SDF from discussions about Syria's constitution, even though they controlled one third of Syria.
A third track under the Trump administration was a focus on 'America first,' which means leaving Syria. Trump articulated this in the spring of 2018, in December 2018 and finally in October 2019. He said that the US must wrap up its "endless wars" abroad. He didn't appear to internalize views from his former National Security Advisor John Bolton or his military commanders who were running the war in Syria, which they saw as a phenomenal success that needed more investment. He also seemed to bypass his State Department envoys on the anti-ISIS campaign, whether Brett McGurk or Jim Jeffrey, who don't seem to have been directly consulted about abrupt policy changes.
In the fourth, and more important Syria policy, the US also pursued a pro-SDF track that sought to rebrand the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) as the SDF and make it more inclusive. This envisioned training around 110,000 members of the SDF and security units linked to it. The US Inspector General report at the Pentagon in June 2019 reiterated the US desire to train and supply arms to the SDF, building up its strength every quarter of the year. This report wasn't secret, it was the 18th report on Operation Inherent Resolve and it could be openly read at the State Department.
One part of the US was training 110,000 fighters while the other envisioned eventually jettisoning them.
Yet there was very little open or transparent discussion about how one part of the US was training 110,000 fighters while the other part envisioned eventually jettisoning them and backing Turkey's attack on those 110,000 fighters as "terrorists." The closest the US got to admitting its internal contradiction on Syria was to continually assert that the US was listening to Ankara's security concerns. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice-President Joe Biden both indicated this in 2016.
While some Americans indicated to Ankara that they viewed the SDF as linked to "terrorists," this does not seem to have been communicated to the SDF itself or those working with it. That means Washington spoke one way to Ankara when it met Turkish officials, and another way when talking to the SDF. This decision to compartmentalize and mislead a major power, one that is part of NATO, while also misleading a group the US was arming and training in Syria, led to an inevitable train wreck.
... Syria policy represents probably one of the most severe breakdowns in US planning and foreign policy. Up until the last moment before Turkey began bombing the SDF, the US was working with and training the SDF. The US never communicated the dire nature of the situation to its partners, nor did it share with them the fact that the US would not work for a ceasefire or for a way to prevent the attacks on them at the UN. Instead the US comes away from Syria claiming it didn't give a green light, but it did serve up its allies to be destroyed without seeking any way out for them or for Turkey. It looks more and more like the US knowingly used the SDF to fight ISIS with knowledge at the highest levels that it owed the SDF nothing and would provide no diplomatic cover for them and no support in the case they were attacked, preferring that they fight ISIS and then disappear. This is despite the fact the US invested heavily in their training and that commanders on the ground felt the relationship worked well. The US has also provided no evidence that its own partners were a security threat to Turkey, something Washington had ample resources to monitor and report on. If it had evidence SDF-linked groups were plotting attacks against Turkey it never sought to distance the US or the SDF from those groups or to give the SDF an ultimatum against including groups that were a threat to Turkey.
The US now says it knew the SDF included elements linked to the PKK, but it was the US that sought to create this SDF brand to diminish or hide those links so as to work with the SDF. It didn't work to reduce the SDFs connections or turn them into a viable group the US could work with openly, instead calling them a substate actor and keeping them at arms length diplomatically while working intimately with them on the military side. Had Washington been transparent it would not have tried to rebrand the SDF only to then enable Turkey to destroy it, it would have sought to turn the SDF into a group it could work with and provide a road map for eastern Syria. Instead there was no road map and eastern Syria turned into a dead end of bombing and destruction of the very area the US worked for years to stabilize and liberate.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.