HUFFINGTON POST
10/16/2014 08:47 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2014

Syrian Kurds Gain Importance In Campaign Against ISIS

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- After more than a month of being outnumbered and outgunned, facing likely doom in Kobani, Kurdish fighters have begun to turn the tide against Islamic State militants with help from airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

The U.S. has said the strikes are intended to aid Kobani's defenders. But it has been reluctant to admit the likely reason for the recent success against ISIS: Unprecedented new coordination between Washington and the main Syrian Kurdish organization, the PYD.

Such cooperation represents a significant development in U.S. strategy in Syria and the Middle East, Syria watchers told The Huffington Post. As the U.S. develops a tactical relationship with the Syrian Kurds, it must rapidly consider the role the group will play in the coalition against ISIS, the PYD's future political goals, and ways to help the group without further destabilizing the region, experts said.

The strongest new confirmation that the U.S. has decided to work with the PYD comes from a senior Department of Defense official interviewed by The New York Times. The official, granted anonymity by The Times, revealed that "a system had been devised that allowed Kurdish fighters to help American mission planners pinpoint Islamic State targets. "

The information from the PYD fighters is matched against intelligence from satellite and drone images, electronic interception, and other sources before strikes are launched, the official told the Times.

A Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday he had no information to share on cooperation with the Syrian Kurds, suggesting the U.S. wants to keep its coordination under wraps for now.

On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. officials had met with the PYD for the first time over the weekend. (Indirect communications have been ongoing for years, Foreign Policy revealed earlier this month.) Psaki said she expects continued engagement -- but she, too, downplayed any suggestion of coordination.

The details revealed in the Times corroborate the claims of Iraqi Kurdish leaders, who told The Wall Street Journal that the strikes that have helped Kobani are linked to increased activity and coordination at operations centers they run with the U.S. The Journal noted that coalition airstrikes around Kobani increased this week after a delegation from Kobani visited the Iraqi Kurdish region.

Recent reports about U.S.-PYD cooperation have been contradictory. The Kurdish outlet BasNews suggested such cooperation six days ago, saying the Iraqi Kurds acted as middlemen, receiving information from the PYD and then identifying targets with the U.S. Air Force. A spokesman for the PYD-linked fighting force in Kobani told independent Kurdish analyst Mutlu Civiroglu on Tuesday that the Syrian Kurds had direct contact with the U.S.-led coalition.

Cooperation with the PYD is tricky for the U.S. It has previously avoided the group out of consideration for its only NATO ally in the region, Turkey. Turkey distrusts the PYD for its efforts to create a Kurdish state in northern Syria and for its close ties to the PKK, the organization of Turkish Kurds that waged a decades-long war against the Turkish state.

The Turkish government has refrained from helping the Syrian Kurds despite international criticism, domestic unrest and the fact that Kobani's suffering is visible from Turkish territory. The PKK, the PYD's sister organization, remains on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, which Psaki noted Thursday.

Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and former State Department official, told The Huffington Post that when it comes to the PKK, "we are more royalist than the king, in that the Turks are talking to the PKK [in a peace process after the civil war], and we are not talking to the PKK."

Still, administration officials, including Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said that the Syrian Kurds will be an essential ground partner for the U.S. in its efforts to undermine the Islamic State. Even U.S.-backed Syrian rebel groups, which have their own suspicions about the Kurds' territorial ambitions and have previously fought against the PYD alongside the Islamic State, believe that Kobani had to be saved to prove that the U.S. and its international partners could move quickly against ISIS. Hundreds of fighters with the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army coalition have been fighting in Kobani alongside the PYD, Syrian sources and militant researchers told The Huffington Post last week.

U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army fighters will have to be more conciliatory with the Syrian Kurds and open to their demands for broader autonomy following the struggle in Kobani, despite their suspicion that the Kurds carved out territory by tacitly avoiding the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Barkey said.

"Whether grudgingly or not, everybody now in the region will have to take note of the fact that these guys withstood an immense ISIS attack," Barkey said. "So if you are Free Syrian Army folks, you're going to have to look at these guys with much more respect -- they've done something you have not ever been able to do."

The Syrian Kurdish PYD is also increasingly important to the U.S. because of its relationship with another partner against ISIS, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.

Syrian Kurds have historically had a tense relationship with the leadership of the Iraqi Kurds. Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has embraced a tribal ideology much more conservative than that of the leftist PYD, and developed close ties with Turkey to export the oil that is his region's lifeline.

When the crisis in Kobani was at its worst last week, Syrian Kurds were critical of Barzani for failing to help them sooner, according to Civiroglu, the Washington-based analyst who reported on PYD-U.S. cooperation this week.

But events are forcing the two groups closer -- a development that would be helpful for a U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State.

"The PYD and the [Iraqi Kurds] need each other too much in the fight against ISIS, so any jostling for regional ascendancy or control of the wider Kurdish movement will have to wait until after the immediate ISIS threat fades," said Max Hoffman, a national security analyst at the Center for American Progress.

In a joint email to The Huffington Post, Hoffman and a colleague at the Center for American Progress, Michael Werz, said they believe the international community is likely to develop stronger ties with the PYD in the months ahead regardless of Turkish arguments. Turkey's stance, they said, is self-defeating, costing it the chance to improve its relationship with Kurds across the region and risking its own domestic peace process with the PKK.

Hoffman noted that the Syrian Kurdish group also controls another region in Syria -- Jazira Canton, which can be directly resupplied from Iraqi Kurdistan.

But working with this increasingly important partner against ISIS will require long-term planning, Barkey said.

He said the U.S. and its allies must prepare for what the Syrian Kurds might eventually ask in exchange for their cooperation against ISIS. He noted PYD and PKK fighters aided the U.S. in its fight to save the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar in Iraq in August.

"It's going to be very hard for the United States down the road," Barkey said -- particularly if, as many of the U.S.-backed rebels demand, the U.S.-led coalition ultimately helps remove the current Syrian government.

"If Assad disappears tomorrow, the Kurds will come out and say, 'We want our autonomous region.' It's going to be very hard for the United States to come back and say, 'We don’t like you' because they're terrorists," Barkey said, referring to the PYD's link with the PKK.

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