WASHINGTON, DC — The American military’s refusal to support the Kurds in their fight against Turkey in northern Syria’s Afrin region is likely to push them to join the Iranian- and Russian-backed Bashar al-Assad coalition, according to an analyst who recently traveled to the Middle East as part of a United States military delegation and a former U.S. ambassador.
During a panel discussion sponsored by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank, moderator Josh Rogin from the Washington Post questioned the two experts — Melissa Dalton from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and former Ambassador Ryan Crocker — noting that news reports suggest the Assad regime was coming to the aid of the Kurdish forces in Afrin when the U.S. government was not willing to do so.
Rogin went on to ask, “Is that true? How scared should we be about the Kurds striking a deal with the regime and cutting us out?”
Dalton, a former Pentagon official who recently traveled to Syria with Gen. Joseph Votel, the top American commander in the Middle East, responded: “I could see future instances of pragmatic interests driving certain parties that perhaps haven’t been aligned in the past together in order to address what they view as a more viable way forward to address their interests.”
Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to the Middle East and the Afghanistan region, added:
The Kurds as a non-Arab minority did not threaten the Assad regime so the [Syrian regime] pretty well left them alone … They do have that kind of unique relationship [with Assad], and up until fairly recently, there were representatives from Damascus in Qamishili [Kurdish-controlled territory that borders Turkey in northern Syria].
So, it’s a sure bet that given the uncertainty of what we may do next, that the Syrian Kurds are definitely talking to the regime.
Experts at the FDD sponsored event, which also included the think tank’s Dr. David Adesnik and the political director for United For a Free Syria Mouaz Moustafa, noted that assistance from Russia- and Iran-allied Shiite militias, including the narco-terrorist group Hezbollah, have allowed Assad to remain in power.
This month, Breitbart News, citing the Kurdish officials, reported that “hundreds” of Iranian-allied Shiite troops loyal to Assad had joined the YPG in Afrin to defend the territorial unity of Syria and its borders.
Dalton said the U.S. military’s current approach in Syria is “largely to muddle through” with the available partners on the ground as it continues to fight against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), explaining:
The primary purpose of the U.S. forces that are still in Syria is of course to conclude that counter ISIS campaign … there are still some hardened cells of ISIS … that we’re working very closely with our SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] partners to roll up.
U.S.-allied SDF fighters refer to a predominantly Kurdish force led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that controls most of northern Syria, including the Afrin region near the Turkish border.
Although NATO member Turkey has long expressed concerns about the YPG’s alleged ties to the terrorist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the United States has continued to support the Syrian Kurdish fighters.
However, the situation has changed in Afrin, where Gen. Votel recently told lawmakers the United States has no “direct relationship” with YPG members under attack from Turkey.
The top U.S. general did acknowledge:
Many fighters in the SDF have familial ties to the Kurds in Afrin…Our alliance with Turkey is paramount, and we will continue to assist the Turkish military in countering the PKK and other VEOs [ violent extremist organizations] that threaten their border, but we must continue to urge restraint as their actions have clearly increased risk to our campaign to defeat ISIS.
The United States has praised the Kurdish fighters in Syria as vital allies throughout the fight against ISIS that started in 2014.
Referring to Afrin, Dalton noted:
When it comes to the counter-ISIS mission, the partnership between the United States and the [Kurdish-led] SDF has been quite clear.
As that is starting to wind down, and we are shifting into more questions of stabilization, post-conflict reconstruction, and how we begin to put Humpty Dumpty back together again in Syria — it’s raising these questions of how viable partnerships and alliances are going to be in this new environment and putting pressure on some of the existing partnerships.
On January 20, Turkey launched began its air and ground campaign into the Kurdish-held Afrin region.