Rethinking the U.S. Alliance with Kurdish Fighters in Syria

By James Jeffrey

Ambassador James F. Jeffrey joined the Wilson Center in December 2020 as Chair of the Middle East Program. Ambassador Jeffrey served as the Secretary’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS until November 8, 2020. He is a senior American diplomat with experience in political, security, and energy issues in the Middle East, Turkey, Germany, and the Balkans.

As the ISIS “Caliphate” in Syria and Iraq faces annihilation in coming weeks, the U.S.  must rethink relations with its highly problematic but effective ally in the ISIS fight – the Syrian Kurdish PYD – which controls the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) –a joint Kurdish-Sunni Arab militia that has cleansed northeastern Syria of ISIS and now fights ISIS remnants in its capital Raqqa. Any such rethink must focus on equities with Turkey as well as the overall U.S. mission in the region, facing Russian-assisted Iranian expansion.

Allied with the SDF, the U.S. is now in effective control of a large swath of Syria and has repeatedly defended this territory and the SDF against not only ISIS and the Syrian government, but the Turks. Turkey, a key U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS and a NATO member critical for various Washington regional goals, sees the SDF as a front for the PYD, the Syrian offshoot of the PKK.  The Turks (and the U.S.) consider the PKK to be a terrorist organization, which has tried since 1984 to overthrow Turkish control of its largely-Kurdish populated southeast. U.S. military support for the PYD, beginning in 2014, to defend the Kurdish city of Kobane against ISIS, expanded in 2015 as first the Obama and then the Trump Administration accelerated operations against ISIS using local, not U.S., infantry.  Meanwhile, a ceasefire between the PKK and Turkey broke down that year, followed by a wave of violence throughout Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used this ‘fight against terror’ to win an election in 2015 and a constitutional referendum in 2017, and has repeatedly attacked the U.S. for its support of the PYD.

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