POLITICS
07/31/2015 10:59 am ET Updated Jul 31, 2015

The Facebook Feud That Explains The United States' Dilemma in Syria

What's in a Facebook verification? Potentially, the future of America's strategy against ISIS.
<span>People wave Kurdish flags as they march to protest attacks by Islamic State militants against the Syrian town of Ayn al
Credit: Associated Press
People wave Kurdish flags as they march to protest attacks by Islamic State militants against the Syrian town of Ayn al-Arab or Kobani, in Diyarbakir, Turkey, Friday, June 26, 2015.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S.'s two main partners in Syria have been sniping at each other for months in official statements and media reports, undermining Washington's hopes for a united front against the so-called Islamic State. Now, it seems that observing that tussle has become as easy as simply hopping onto Facebook.

Kurdish activists reported in mid-July that the Facebook page of the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia that in January successfully pushed Islamic State forces out of Kobani with U.S. help, had lost its official verification -- the little blue check mark that appears on pages Facebook considers authentic. Kurdish activists described the development to The Huffington Post as the latest assault in an ongoing digital battle between the YPG's supporters and its critics.

Who are those critics? The Islamic State group is among them -- but that's not what Washington needs to worry about. The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State appreciates that the YPG is determined to fight the militants. The coalition hopes that the Kurds can prove to the world, especially would-be Islamic State recruits, that the militant network is hardly the invincible behemoth it claims to be.

The problem is that the Arab-dominated nationalist opposition in Syria -- which started the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad four years ago, and which has been supported by the West to various degrees ever since -- dislikes the YPG and its political associate, the PYD. 

The Syrian Kurds believe their militia lost its Facebook verification as part of an online campaign by members of the U.S.-recognized nationalist opposition who are based in Turkey and have links with the Turkish government. Ankara dislikes the YPG and the PYD because of their ties to the PKK, a Kurdish militant group that has battled Turkey for decades. Turkish officials have argued for months that the PKK is as great a threat as the Islamic State -- and in recent days, Turkey has responded to that perceived threat with a bombing campaign against PKK holdouts in the Kurdish region of Iraq that Syrian Kurds claim has extended into their territory.

That stance explains why the Syrian Kurds believe the Facebook move was part of a concerted effort by Syrian Arabs and their Turkish backers to damage their credibility. They argue that media reports about Kurds targeting Arabs in areas they take from the Islamic State are part of that effort as well. Arab residents of northern Syria have told multiple outlets, including The WorldPost, that they fear ethnically motivated persecution by the YPG.

Mutlu Civiroglu, a Washington-based analyst who closely monitors the Syrian Kurds, told HuffPost that Kurdish sources have identified what they say are two signs of evidence that there is an anti-YPG campaign extending to Facebook.

On July 2, Yeni Akit, an Islamist newspaper in Turkey that is close to the government, published a story focusing on the YPG militia's Facebook page. The article repeatedly called the YPG a "terrorist" organization (a designation that both Turkey and the U.S. use for the PKK). It interpreted the YPG's Facebook verification as a sign of U.S. support for the Kurdish militia's "terrorist" activity -- likely a reference to the strikes that have helped the Kurds win significant territory from the Islamic State for months. The story asked readers to spread photographic and video evidence of Kurdish abuses against other Syrians to pressure Facebook to remove the verification.

By July 14, the verification had indeed disappeared, though it's still not clear exactly why. Kurds believe that Syrian Arabs in Turkey played a role because of their online activity, Civiroglu told HuffPost, pointing specifically to a July 14 Facebook post from a user identifying himself as a Syrian Arab opposition member. The user, who lists his name as Tarek AlJazairi, put up a screen shot of the YPG's Facebook page. The blue check mark -- the verified symbol -- is conspicuously absent.

Screenshot from Facebook

AlJazairi's message roughly translates to: "By the grace of God, we have completed work with the Facebook administration to cancel the authentication of the official page for this terrorist organization prior to completely closing it down."

HuffPost was unable to confirm whether Facebook received complaints from Syrian Arabs about the YPG's page. The person who operates the AlJazairi profile did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Oubai Shahbandar, a strategic communications adviser to the Syrian nationalist opposition in Turkey, told HuffPost he was not familiar with AlJazairi.

U.S. officials working with the Syrian Kurds declined to comment for this article.

A source close to Facebook's verification process would say only that the initial verification of the YPG page months ago was an error. Facebook recognized that mistake this month and rectified it, the source said. The YPG's Facebook page now describes itself as a "Media/News/Publishing" outlet, rather than a "Government Organization," as it did when it was verified.

But the case only gets curiouser. Another Facebook page tied to the Syrian Kurds, that of the Asayish civil defense organization, still had its blue check mark as of Thursday. The Asayish is less publicly linked to the PYD and therefore attracts less vitriol from Turkey or Syrian Arabs. 

Could that be the next virtual battleground for these two warring U.S. partners? Will the mysterious AlJazairi first try to achieve his stated goal of shutting down the YPG page? Time will tell -- but for now, the chances of a reconciliation look slim.

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