U.S. Should Arm the Syrian Kurds

The very people that have sustained the brunt of the Islamic State (IS) attacks have been ignored in the Obama administration’s request to arm and train the Syrian opposition. The Kurds have been the only force in Iraq and now in Syria to successfully face IS in combat. Moreover, unlike the uncertainty surrounding the Syrian rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the Kurds in Syria -- in particular, the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria (KNAS) -- represent a democratic and western-oriented body willing to fully cooperate with the West against the Islamists. KNAS President Dr. Sherkoh Abbas is pleading for Kurdish unity, and for President Obama to recognize the Kurds as the most reliable and effective weapon against IS.

The Obama administration’s request from the U.S. Congress to arm and train Syrian Free Army recruits to fight the Islamic State (IS) was approved in a Senate vote (78-22). The House of Representatives voted 273 - 156 to approve the president’s request. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, appearing before Congress, testified that the new rebel “train and equip” program will train around 5,000 rebels per year. There are to be two planned training bases, one in Saudi Arabia and the other in Jordan, each expected to train 1,800 rebels per year. President Obama, in a complete reversal, announced that portions of the Free Syrian Army were now vetted enough to help the U.S. fight against IS.

Some members of Congress were skeptical about the reliability of the people the president claimed had been vetted.  According to the New York Times (Sept. 17, 2014),

U.S. Representative Duncan D. Hunter, a California Republican who fought with the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, joined others in questioning how the military could be sure the rebels of the Free Syrian Army could be trusted with United States arms and how suspect Saudis could host the training. “We need to crush ISIS and not work on arming more Islamic radicals,” he said.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin III (D-WV) suggested that “our past experience, after 13 years, everything that we have tried to do has not proven to be beneficial, not proven at all.” He added, “So what makes you think it’s going to be different this time? What makes you think we can ask a group of Islamists to agree with Americans to fight another group of Islamists as barbaric as they may be?”

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) had this to say: “I think it’s very hard to sort out the moderate rebels from the extremists, and I have a real worry that once we send these rebels back into battle space, there is very little we can do to prevent them from locking arms with al Qaeda or elements of ISIS.”

There are two main questions regarding the Syrian rebels. The first is: do we know whether or not they will indeed fight against the Islamists? Perhaps they will join with them against the West. Secondly, even if some of the rebels were vetted and found to be trustworthy, they won’t be able to join the fight against IS for at least a year, and their numbers will not suffice to present a serious challenge to the IS.

According to Aliza Marcus, an analyst who has studied the Kurds for a long time, “The Kurdish groups from Syria and Turkey reject radical Islamism. They are secular nationalists and natural American allies.” Marcus added, “If Mr. Obama really wants to ensure no boots on the ground, he will have to rethink America’s policy toward Kurdish nationalism, and recognize the Kurds, and not only Iraqi ones, are his main ally against the IS.”

The only capable force currently fighting IS are the Kurds  in northern Iraq and Syria. The Kurds are also the primary victims of the IS aggressive expansion. Over 130,000 Syrian Kurds have fled across the border into Turkey. In the meantime, a leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Dursun Kalkan, appealed for all Kurds to unite.  He also accused Turkish President Erdogan and his government of collaborating with IS. The Ankara government has been encouraging the formation of IS through its support of Islamist elements within the Syrian opposition to Syrian president Bashar Assad. It is also alleged that Turkey is buying oil siphoned off by IS in Iraq, thus enabling IS to fund its campaign of murderous terror.

Sherkoh Abbas, president of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, is delighted with the PKK call for Kurdish unity. He points out, however, that the PKK, considered in the West as a terrorist organization, must end its opposition to Kurdish self-determination or federalism in Syria, as well as end its association with the Syrian dictatorship and the Iranian regime.

Asked whether the Kurds in Syria can defeat IS, Abbas pointed out that the Kurds need U.S. support with arms and training to be able to match the weaponry of IS. He added that the Kurds are fighting three entities in Syria: the Islamic State, the Assad regime, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, all of which seeking to destroy the Kurds.  He also stated that if the Democratic Union Party (YPG), which is affiliated with the PKK, joined the Kurdish front that is supported by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG),  IS would be defeated.

Abbas charged that the U.S. administration did not learn much from its experience in Afghanistan. The U.S. provided the Afghan Islamist rebels with weapons to fight the Soviets, only to have those weapons taken over by such groups as al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and turned against Americans. He explained his thoughts about why the U.S. administration might be repeating the same mistake. In Syria, Abbas pointed out:

The U.S. believes that dividing the country into a federal state will make diplomatic maneuvering difficult. It is also about petro-dollars. Let’s not forget who Washington’s regional allies are. These are the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and other Sunni majority states. They possess huge amounts of dollars and that is why they dictate what they want Syria to look like. These countries don’t want to see the independence of the Kurds or any other minorities and ethnicities. That is why President Obama is not capable of abandoning this policy of backing political Islam. But this approach is doomed to fail because it will only embolden Iran and Assad’s Syria.

Abbas asserted that the vacuum created by the lack of U.S. support for the KRG has resulted in Bashar Assad, Iran, and IS emerging as winners, not the pro-democracy forces that include the Syrian Kurds and groups such as the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria (KNAS). “Americans” Abbas concluded, “who complain they cannot find moderates in Syria, need not look farther than the Kurds of Syria and other minorities who are repressed. They are ready and willing to fight the IS, and additionally seek to acquire all the attributes of western democracies. And unlike the Islamists in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, the Kurds will not turn their guns against America and the West.”