A FLAWED PARTNERSHIP
The origins of the current mess in northern Syria can be traced to the US having selected the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed division, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as its Syrian partner force against the Islamic State (ISIS). This alliance began in an ad hoc manner when a town the YPG held, Kobani, was besieged shortly after the US anti-ISIS intervention in Syria began in 2014 and the US airstrikes broke the siege. The US then chose to continue the partnership, enabling an expansion of the YPG-held areas, justified as a pragmatic choice since the YPG was the only available force on the ground. This was untrue.
There were rebel groups available, who had already fought ISIS successfully and had greater legitimacy in the largely Arab areas ISIS had occupied. But these groups were also fighting Bashar al-Asad’s regime. Obama was negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran and a tacit condition was that America would do nothing to threaten Asad’s survival, Tehran’s paramount interest in the region. Obama would wage a narrow ‘counter-terrorism’ war in Syria against ISIS, telling the public this was to avoid being ensnared in the messy underlying war and in private telling the Iranians this was an excellent opportunity for collaboration since the operation aligned with their interests. It was within this Iran-friendly framework that Obama chose the YPG, because of its history of good relations with the pro-Asad coalition.
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