ISIS gains in Syria

06/03/2015 12:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

ISIS gains in Syria

ISIS is gaining ground in Syria. While working on a long-term strategy to train and equip the moderate Syrian opposition, the United States can stem the Islamic State's advance by providing weapons and close air support to battle-hardened Kurdish militias -- the "Peoples Protection Units" (YPG).

YPG is the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which administers an autonomous region encompassing non-contiguous cantons along Syria's border with Turkey - Jazira, Kobani, and Afrin in November 2013. They call it "Rojava."

Its administration is inspirational. The PYD's policy of grass-roots democracy, environmental sustainability, and women's empowerment represents an antidote to the Islamic State's savage nihilism.

The YPG has also shown prowess on the battlefield. They overcame great odds to defeat ISIS in Kobani. US air strikes and weapons supplies were pivotal to winning Kobani, where 40 percent of the city's defenders were women.

YPG has also engaged ISIS in a string of villages from Ras al-Ayna to Tel Tamir. It rescued hundreds of Assyrian Christians enslaved by ISIS in the Khabour Valley. It also opened a humanitarian corridor from Mount Sinjar, saving thousands of Yazidis.

Arab Sunni insurgents are are losing ground to ISIS, which is gaining control of critical supply routes to Aleppo and Idlib.

US assistance can help YPG drive ISIS out of Northeast Syria. Uniting Rojava's cantons would establish a buffer between ISIS and Turkey, limiting the flow of recruits and weapons to Islamic State fighters.

YPG is also in position to re-take Rabia, a border crossing between Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan that ISIS uses to resupply its forces. Kurdish control of Northern Syria would represent a major strategic victory against the Islamic State.

The Obama administration places great stock on the moderate Syrian opposition, which it plans to train in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The train and equip program is fraught with difficulties. At best, it will take time. So-called moderate opposition could join or hand over their weapons to the Islamic State.

Why is the Obama administration reluctant to engage with the PYD, which is combat-ready and keen to cooperate?

Turkey strongly objects. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls PYD "a terrorist organization." He was furious when Washington launched air strikes and dropped weapons to help the PYD's fight against ISIS in Kobani.

Turkey has launched an intense propaganda campaign to defame the PYD.

It accuses the PYD of acting as a surrogate for the PKK, which includes Kurds from Turkey who have fought for three decades to achieve greater political and cultural rights in Turkey. The PKK is considered a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the US and other countries. (Given the current ceasefire involving talks between the Turkish government and the PKK, many have called for removing it from the FTO list).

US Department of State Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf recently said that the PYD is not a terrorist organization under US law. Saleh Muslim, the PYD Co-Chair, rebutted a recent report by Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office, insisting: "The PYD does not hold any organizational links to the PKK."

Salih Moslem heralds the PYD's inclusive and representative local administration. Ethnic and religious minorities, including Arabs and Turkmen, play a leading role in municipal councils established by the PYD.

He rejects allegations that the PYD works with the Syrian regime. "(The PYD) has neither direct nor indirect links to the Baathist regime in Syria. Since March 2004, the PYD has been fighting the Assad regime following the Qamishli uprising. (We) have recently clashed in Aleppo and Al Hassakah province."

The PYD is willing to cooperate with moderate factions of the Free Syrian Army and the "moderate Syrian opposition, though it has ignored the demands and rights of minorities including the Kurds."

Salih Moslem stands by Rojava. "With no clear immediate resolution in sight...the Kurds cannot be expected to give up Rojava in the expectation that some future transition process will secure the democratic aspirations of the Kurdish people. We would propose that the devolved democratic model that has been established in Rojava as a viable model of popular democracy that should be adopted in a future free and democratic Syria."

The PYD wants contact and cooperation with the US Government. The US Special Envoy for Syria, Daniel Rubinstein, has met Salih Moslem a few times in Paris. Contact is a good start. However, Salih Moslem cannot get a visa to visit the United States for more intense discussions about the PYD's potential contribution.

The United States has few friends in Syria. If PYD is prepared to fight ISIS and work with the moderate Syrian opposition, the US should provide military and diplomatic support.

Commentary by David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign- affairs experts to the State Department. His new book is "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East."


Isis Syria Iraq