Since 2014, senior U.S. officials have justified their controversial partnership with the People's Protection Units (YPG), which is the PKK terrorist organization's affiliate in Syria, by claiming that the group is the most effective ground force in Syria. The decision to work with YPG militants strained Washington's relations with Ankara, a key NATO ally, but was also considered necessary because U.S. officials argued there was no alternative ground force.
Over the past two years, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), many of whose members were part of the CIA's train-and-equip program, proved the U.S. military wrong. In cooperation with the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), the moderate opposition liberated 2,000 square kilometers in northern Syria, including the Daesh stronghold of al-Bab, from the terrorist organization. In recent weeks, the group showcased their military capabilities by winning a decisive victory against YPG militants in Afrin to prove that the FSA is actually the most effective fighting force on the ground in Syria. Going forward, U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration must cooperate with the moderate opposition, whose vision for Syria overlaps with Washington's regional priorities.
Disengaging from the PKK's Syrian affiliate and instead working with the moderate opposition in Syria could have several benefits for the Trump administration.
First of all, the FSA is simply a better fit for the United States today. The group has thousands of experienced fighters who are prepared to fight Bashar Assad's forces, with which the YPG has been collaborating for years. It is important to recall that the YPG's territorial expansion was facilitated by Assad, on whose behalf it repeatedly assaulted the moderate opposition. Moreover, FSA fighters share Washington's concerns about Iranian expansionism, whereas the YPG asked for assistance from Iranian proxies and the regime in the wake of Operation Olive Branch. Although Turkey has been accused of distracting YPG militants from the fight against Daesh, the inconvenient truth is that the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter Daesh, Brett McGurk, and the rest of their U.S. handlers can no longer keep a leash on the same people whose training cost billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars. As attention shifts from the counter-Daesh campaign to Iran's containment, the U.S. must start thinking which group's interests are more closely aligned to its own.
At the same time, working with the moderate opposition would create an opportunity for the White House to claim the moral high ground in Syria. Due to former President Barack Obama's misguided decision to partner with a terrorist group, U.S. officials have time and again found themselves tiptoeing around the imagined distinction between the PKK in Turkey and the YPG in Syria. Earlier this year, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department described YPG fighters as members of the PKK. This point was also conceded by John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who just replaced H.R. McMaster as Trump's national security advisor. To avoid such scenes, the Trump administration must reverse Obama's Syria policy and throw its weight behind a legitimate group with a proven track record of opposing Iranian proxies and the Assad regime.
Finally, the Trump administration could ease tensions with Ankara, whose support it desperately needs to stop Iranian expansionism, by parting ways with the YPG and working with the moderate opposition. In addition to facilitating closer cooperation on a range of other issues, taking that step would make it possible for the United States to exert greater influence over Syria – whose control is key to containing Iran, keeping Israel safe and protecting U.S. interests in the Middle East.
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