Is the military running US foreign policy?
It is beyond any doubt that the U.S. military and administration knew that the People’s Protection Units (YPG), their pick as ground partner against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), had organic ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Washington officially recognizes as a terrorist group.
When Senator Lindsay Graham openly asked then Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on April 28, 2016 why the Barack Obama administration wanted to send heavier arms to the YPG, Carter confirmed knowledge of those relations.
The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the political wing of the PKK in Syria. They share the same leadership (when they enlist members pledge alliance to the PKK’s founding leader Abdullah Öcalan, currently in a Turkish jail), the same budget, the same arsenal, the same chain of command from the Kandil Mountains in Iraq, and the same pool of militants. So the PYD/YPG is actually not a “PKK-affiliated” group, it is a sub-geographical unit of the same organization.
Öcalan was arrested by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) on Feb. 15, 1999 as he was leaving the Greek Embassy in Kenya, thanks to the help of the CIA authorized by then U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Knowing that the YPG and the PKK are effectively equal, and legally not wanting to appear to be giving arms to a terrorist organization, the U.S. military already asked the YPG to “change the brand” back in 2015. U.S. Special Forces Commander General Raymond Thomas said during an Aspen Security Forum presentation on July 22, 2017 that he had personally proposed the name change to the YPG.
“With about a day’s notice [the YPG] declared that it was now the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF],” Thomas said to laughter from the audience.
“I thought it was a stroke of brilliance to put ‘democracy’ in there somewhere. It gave them a little bit of credibility. I was lucky to have a great partner like Brett McGurk with me because they were asking for things I couldn’t give them. They wanted a seat at the table, whether it was Geneva, or Astana, or wherever the talks are happening about the future of Syria. But because they have been branded as the PKK they could never get to the table. So we paired them militarily and McGurk was able to keep them in the conversation,” he added.
This conversation must have taken place at some point between October 2014 and October 2015. Because in October 2014, considering the ISIL advance on the YPG-held border town of Kobane, Obama decided to turn down an offer to work together from Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, picking the YPG as the ground partner for the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in the fight against ISIL. As the U.S.’s ground troops, dying instead of GI Joes in Syria, the SDF was officially announced on Oct. 10, 2015.
Press reports show that the first visit to the region of Thomas and McGurk, the U.S. presidential envoy for the anti-ISIL coalition, was Feb. 1, 2016. That means the two visited the YPG-held regions in the east of Syria and had meetings with ranking YPG members (or in other words PKK members), before their open-to-the-media visit. It also shows that before Carter’s testimony in the U.S. Senate, the U.S. military was trying to erase the PKK/YPG links in the delivery of arms, aware that these links could eventually taint them and aware that the SDF was essentially established as a cover organization.
McGurk is one of few U.S. officials who remained in his critical post under both Obama and Donald Trump. As Thomas clearly put it, he can be considered the diplomatic face of the U.S. military.
McGurk and CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel were again seen on the stage a few days ago near Kobane on Jan. 21, the day after the Turkish military started its “Operation Olive Branch” on Afrin in northwest Syria. The straw that broke the camel’s back for the Turkish government was a statement from a U.S. military officer that a 30,000-strong “Border Protection Force” would be formed, made up of the SDF, in order to protect the YPG-held area against attack from Iraq and Turkey, a U.S. ally in NATO.
Is it in the U.S.’s interests to push away an ally, in a key geographical location, with military power like Turkey? Is it in the U.S.’s interests to push Ankara to look for security solutions with Russia and Iran, for the sake of a partnership with an organization that Washington does not even want to be seen in public with?
It should not be the CENTCOM warriors who make this decision. It should be Trump, who carries the political responsibility, whatever the military says or does.