President Barack Obama is set to announce plans to send 250 more US troops to Syria, media accounts indicate—but they are vague on exactly which forces the troops will be backing. There are already some 50 Pentagon special operations troops embedded with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but accounts say the new effort will be to bring more Arab militias into the fight against ISIS. The SDF itself was created to ally the Kurdish YPG militia with Arab factions, to give the US-backed anti-ISIS forces greater legitimacy with the Syrian opposition and Arab states. So will the new effort be to bring more Arab fighters under the SDF umbrella, or to have US forces backing Arab factions that resist allying with Kurds?
Judging from the Reuters account, everybody is wondering that. SDF spokesman Talal Silo is quoted saying: "Any support they offer is positive but we hope there will be greater support. So far we have been supplied only with ammunition, and we were hoping to be supplied with military hardware."
But also quoted is the High Negotiations Committee—the Saudi-backed coalition of Arab factions from which the Kurds were barred when it came together last year. An HNC statement welcomed US aid to rid Syria of the ISIS "scourge," but also said Washington should do more to fight Bashar Assad. It is worthy of note that Obama's announcement comes days after his meeting with Saudi King Salman in Riyadh.
Without stating its sources, Reuters tells us: "If the Kurds are given the green light to advance with American air support, the main short-term objective could be sealing off the last stretch of the border that is not held by the Kurds or the government, west of the Euphrates river." This can only be a reference to the Azaz enclave, the scene of recent fighting between the YPG and FSA-aligned Arab factions. But the account notes (rather obviously) that this "would infuriate Turkey, which regards the border as the main access route for other Sunni Muslim rebel groups it supports against Assad." (Reuters, BBC News, BBC News, CNN)
As Obama's move was reported, the BBC scored a media coup, interviewing PKK leader Cemil Bayik at his hideout in Iraq's Qandil Mountains. Bayik accused the Turkish government of a "genocidal policy" against the Kurds, and pledged: "The Kurds will defend themselves to the end, so long as this is the Turkish approach—of course the PKK will escalate the war."
He also asserted the the PKK has had "direct" communications with the United States to coordinate the battle against ISIS.
For reaction, the BBC turned to Turkish presidential adviser Ilnur Cevik, charged that the PKK is "trying to create a separate state in Turkey—this is outright secession." When asked if there was any chance of negotiation, he replied: "At the moment, no." (BBC News)
Actually, the PKK has abandoned its aspirations to secession, and is still officially seeking an autonomous Kurdish region within Turkey. But if this is not possible, the hardliners within the PKK may prevail and the organization may in fact return to a secessionist posture. This is no doubt the Turkish government's intention—to have an excuse for an utterly ruthless counterinsurgency war.
Cemil Bayik may be playing at a similar propaganda game—asserting that the PKK has had contact with the US because this is a reality he hopes to bring about. Or, perhaps it is true. The PKK remains on the US "foreign terrorist organizations" list, even as the Pentagon is backing its YPG allies in Syria. As we have noted, the White House has been parsing the problem by maintaining that the YPG and PKK are separate organizations—which is technically true. But, as we've also noted, Obama has been in a contradictory position for over a year now: caught between the imperative to back the YPG as the most effective and motivated force to fight ISIS in Syria and that of appeasing his allies in Ankara and Riyadh—both implacably hostile to the Kurds and backing the most reactionary Islamist factions within the Syria opposition.
Where these 250 new Green Berets are deployed should be very telling as to which way the political winds will prevail…