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ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - President Obama announced Wednesday that the US and coalition of allies, now including almost 40 countries, will support members of the Syrian opposition in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 



But for the time being, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from eastern Syria -- one of the most experienced and effective forces in fighting IS over the last years --- will not be considered an official partner.   


“The US, and other Western states will not engage directly with the Democratic Union Party (or PYD, the militia’s political wing) because of its connections to the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK), classed a terrorist organization,” said Dr. Harriet Allsopp, an expert on Syrian Kurds. 


While the PYD maintains formal independence from the PKK, listed as a terrorist organization for its decades-long guerrilla war against the Turkish state, the two groups have a long history of cooperation and share the same ideological background. That has led many to define the PYD as an affiliate or sister organization of the PKK. 


This places the PYD firmly outside the opposition framework, at a time when the US is moving forward with plans to train and arm vetted Syrian rebel groups at bases in Saudi Arabia. 


A major obstacle is that the organization is not a member of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the rival to Bashar al-Assad’s government, as the legitimate representative body of the Syrian people. 


For this reason, the PYD “is not considered part of the Syrian opposition, because it is not a member of the Syrian National Coalition,” Alsopp told Rudaw. “The SNC also opposes the PYD self-administration in Syria.  Therefore, the US will not seek PYD cooperation in the anti-ISIS campaign, nor will they provide military assistance to it.”


The perception that the group has benefitted from working with the Syrian government in the past is also problematic, as the Western allies mull through military options that would “degrade and destroy” IS without handing a victory to the Assad regime. Obama has said the Syrian leader “must go,” but thus far IS has proven to be the regime’s most effective enemy in a devastating four-year civil war. 


But continued success in battle and assistance to local partners like the Peshmerga could lead to a change of approach.  


The YPG and PKK units have earned praise fighting alongside Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga in Shingal, Makhmour and other offensives, and Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani has publicly thanked their fighters, referring to them as “brothers.” 


The group’s military prowess and experience in fighting IS may prove irresistible to a US-led coalition wary of “boots on the ground.” 


 “The policy in both the US and the UK is under review,” said Michael Stephens of the Royal United Service Institute, a defense and security think tank. “The YPG are clearly seen as a force that is successfully fighting IS and is certainly very capable.” 


Richard Haass, President of the Council of Foreign Relations, wrote that: “You need a local partner. In my view, the possibilities for Syria are local Sunni tribes and Kurdish forces, along the lines of what is being done inside Iraq,” where foreign governments have conducted joint missions with Kurdish Peshmerga, Sunni tribes and Shiite militias, in addition to the Iraqi security forces. 


A Turkish veto on including the group may carry less weight than it once did. Turkey has withdrawn key support from the coalition, banning the use of their airbase at Incirlik and refusing to sign a communique pledging to interrupt the supply of funds and recruits into IS-controlled Syria.  


“Can the YPG be part of the anti-IS coalition? Absolutely,” Stephens said. “But a couple of issues need to be ironed out first before that can be set in stone,” including an inclusive political agreement that includes all parties in Kurdish controlled areas of Syria, known as Rojava. 


The PYD has had a prolonged dispute over power sharing with the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Syria (KDP-S), the local affiliate of President Massoud Barzani’s party in Iraqi Kurdistan. This has created divisions within the self governing cantons of Rojava and -- perhaps more importantly -- longstanding tensions with key US allies in Iraqi Kurdistan. 


Resolving the internal disputes “would go some way to bringing in the PYD from the cold and make it much easier to support them in their fight against IS,” according to Stephens. 


As US Secretary of State John Kerry continues to garner support for an anti-IS coalition across  Europe and the Middle East, additional US troops, Predator and Reaper drones, and Navy EA-18G armed radar-jamming planes are set to arrive in Erbil in preparation for a new phase of the offensive against IS jihadis in Syria and Iraq.  


Retired Marine General John Allen, a former US commander in Afghanistan and Iraq, will serve as a coordinator for the international effort against IS.




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