US secretly viewed its own Kurdish partners in Syria “terrorists”

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

US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the White House on Wednesday.  (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the White House on Wednesday.
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
The US State Department admitted last week that it had always viewed the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group the US helped create, as including components of the Kurdistan Workers Party, 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 it 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 in US history have two parts of the US government had such contradictory views. Because some 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 over the last few 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 toward 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 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. 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 st
ate 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 to 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. Trump accelerated this on October 6 when he said the US would leave border areas to a Turkish offensive against US partners.
Trump’s relations with Turkey over Syria are a concern for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who reportedly spoke with his Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney about Trump being “boxed into a complete corner” by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to a piece in The Washington Post on October 11. The US says it didn’t give Turkey a green light to attack its partners, but it opened the airspace and a way for them to do so.