President Barack Obama is reportedly considering directly arming the Syrian Kurds who are fighting the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), a move that is certain to further strain or perhaps even fully disintegrate the relationship between the United States and its NATO Ally Turkey.
The New York Times (NYT) reports:
The plan has filtered up through the Pentagon’s Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East. It calls for providing the Syrian Kurds with small arms and ammunition, and some other supplies, for specific missions, but no heavy weapons such as antitank or antiaircraft weapons.
American officials note that the proposal has not yet been presented at the administration’s highest levels for decision. White House officials declined to comment on it.
Meanwhile, the pro-Turkish government newspaper Daily Sabah reports that Obama providing weapons to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) that controls large swathes of northern Syria “could bring Turkish-U.S. relations to the verge of a breakdown.”
“US mulls losing Turkey by openly transferring arms to terrorist PYD,” states the headline of the Daily Sabah article.
“The direct supply of arms to PYD terrorists could result in the clash of U.S.-armed terrorists and Turkish soldiers in Syria,” it argues.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long been opposed to the U.S. arming the PYD, which Turkey considers to be affiliated to the communist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a group that has been deemed a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington.
Since last month, two U.S. allies have found themselves on opposing sides of a Turkey military offensive, which the Daily Sabah warns would intensify if the Syrian Kurds are directly armed by America.
The Turkish military has been backing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) against the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are led by the YPG. Both the FSA and SDF have received military assistance from the Obama administration.
Despite the Obama administration’s denials, the Syrian Kurds have already been benefiting from the U.S. military aid provided to the SDF, which is primarily comprised of YPG members.
NYT points out:
Deciding whether to arm the Syrian Kurds is a difficult decision for Mr. Obama, who is caught in the middle trying to balance the territorial and political ambitions of Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, two warring American allies that Washington needs to combat the Islamic insurgency.
Turkish-U.S. relations have been strained since the Obama administration made its position towards the Syrian Kurds publicly clear, saying the PYD and YPG are not PKK affiliates.
Although Erdogan has accused the YPG of being behind terrorist attacks in Turkey, the Obama camp maintains its defense of the Syrian Kurds.
The Obama administration and many members of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, with the exception of Turkey, consider the YPG to be America’s most effective partner against the jihadist group on the ground in Syria.
Current law dictates that the U.S. government is only allowed to send weapons to governments of countries internationally recognized as sovereign — not to autonomous regions within countries like Syria’s PYD territory.
Despite the atrocities he has committed against his own people, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad is still viewed by the United Nations as the only legitimate government in Syria. The international body addresses the Assad regime as such.
That means the Obama administration legally arming the Syrian Kurds would have to be done through Assad in the same manner that the U.S. provides weapons to northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) through Baghdad. Assad many not be opposed to arming the Syrian Kurds since they have assisted each other on the battlefield — primarily against ISIS.
The law aside, the U.S. State Department has argued that the executive branch has the prerogative to deem Kurdish groups as a sovereign country so that they can receive direct aid. It would not be the first time the Obama administration circumvents the laws passed by Congress via executive fiat.