POLITICS
12/18/2015 05:01 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2015

The U.S. Found The People Who Can Beat ISIS. The Only Problem Is Everyone Hates Them.

The Kurds who pushed ISIS out of Kobani seem like the perfect allies. If only it were that simple.
Salih Muslim Muhammad, chairman of the PYD, answers journalists' questions as he arrives to pay tribute to the victims of the
ADRIEN MORLENT/AFP/Getty Images
Salih Muslim Muhammad, chairman of the PYD, answers journalists' questions as he arrives to pay tribute to the victims of the attacks claimed by Islamic State which killed at least 129 people and left more than 350 injured, on November 17, 2015 in front of the Bataclan theatre in Paris. 
 

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- One day in the fall of 2012, Salih Muslim Muhammed walked into the boxy gray American embassy in Stockholm and applied for a U.S. visa.

At 61, with a thick mustache and bushy black hair just beginning to turn gray, Muslim looked like an academic who never quite made it out of the 1970s. He had a penchant for open-necked shirts worn with blazers and aviator-style glasses. He was soft-spoken for a revolutionary.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank, had invited Muslim to hear about the radical experiment he has spent years developing in northern Syria.

Muslim was -- and remains -- the head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish organization. The PYD chose him as its leader in 2010, when he was living in the Kurdish region of Iraq. He returned to Syria in March of the following year, when peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring began against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad's security services responded with violence, firing the opening salvos in a civil war that has become increasingly brutal. Just over a year later, in the summer of 2012, Assad's beleaguered forces granted the PYD quasi-independence by withdrawing almost entirely from Syria's Kurd-dominated region, in order to focus on fighting Sunni Arab rebels.

A visit to the U.S. would have given Muslim the chance to explain what the PYD was building in the three pockets of Syria the group calls Rojava. The trip would have deepened U.S.-Rojava relations, which at the time relied on an intermediary to pass messages between the PYD and American diplomats about every six months.

But Muslim didn't end up visiting the U.S. in 2012. He didn't make it in 2013 or 2014, either.

While his visa application waited for approval, the self-described Islamic State, also known as ISIS, grew stronger, expanding its territory right up to Rojava's borders. The extremists became the West's top concern in the Middle East, which made it essential for the U.S. to become more interested in the PYD and its affiliated militia, the YPG. By the fall of 2014, the Syrian Kurds captured global attention by resisting weeks of ISIS attacks in the border town of Kobani. The U.S. began accepting the YPG's recommendations for airstrike targets, and American officials started saying the Kurds' struggle was the key battle in the fight against ISIS. More than 60 percent of anti-ISIS strikes in Syria between Sept. 23, 2014, when the U.S.-led coalition began bombing, and Jan. 27, 2015, when Kobani was liberated, were on Kobani and the surrounding Kurdish areas, a Mother Jones analysis found.

U.S. military cooperation with Muslim's group is now taken for granted. Almost every major Syria-related decision by the Obama administration expands it further. The latest, announced in late October, was to establish the first consistent U.S. presence on the ground in the war-torn country, a small group of Special Forces. The commandos are now stationed in PYD-controlled territory in northeastern Syria. The Kurds, meanwhile, are advancing against ISIS -- and paying a price for it, most recently losing at least 50 lives in an ISIS attack on the Kurdish town of Hasaka in early December.

But despite the PYD playing host to American forces, Muslim still hasn't been been hosted in the United States.

The same day he found out Kobani was free, he also learned that the State Department had reached a determination on his three-year-old visa application: He'd been turned down.

A State Department official who spoke with The Huffington Post about the Kurdish leader's case said he could not comment on individual visa applications. But he did flag a section of visa law that defines ineligibilities. The segment notes that receiving training from a listed terrorist organization would make an applicant ineligible.

That means Muslim's difficulties getting a visa are probably a result of the same political hurdles that are making it difficult for the U.S. to cooperate fully with his group.

Turkey, a key NATO ally, hates the PYD. The Iraqi Kurds, who are vital to American plans for a stable Iraq, see Muslim's group as a potential threat. And the thousands of Syrian Arab rebels who are helping the West fight ISIS are just as wary -- they see the Kurds as racist and possibly complicit with Assad.

Washington's most important relationship in the fight against the Islamic State is also its most precarious.

[This is part of a series exploring the U.S.'s relationship with the Syrian Kurds. Go here for the other story, which covers the Kurds' ties to a Bronx-born libertarian socialist who found Bernie Sanders too conservative.]

This story continues below.

A fighter with the women's arm of the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPJ, stands before Islamic State propaganda in the town of
Barcroft Media via Getty Images
A fighter with the women's arm of the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPJ, stands before Islamic State propaganda in the town of Tal Hamis, Syria, on February 28, 2015, after Kurdish forces captured it from the extremists.

What could make the leader of Syria's most effective anti-ISIS force a U.S.-listed terrorist?

History, mostly.

Many Syrian Kurds have spent years fighting alongside -- and identifying as members of -- an armed guerrilla movement based in Turkey called the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Although HuffPost could not confirm whether Muslim had personally received training from the PKK, the point is that the U.S., bound to Turkey via NATO, has long deemed the group a terrorist organization. The PKK has killed Turkish officials and civilians for more than 30 years, arguing that the government has suppressed its millions-strong Kurdish minority.

Syria's Assad regime harbored the PKK for decades because of its own tensions with Turkey. That gave the group the chance to solidify its ideological appeal among the nearly 2 million Kurds within Syria. Even after the PKK lost Damascus' support in 1998, analysts say the PKK has continued to strongly influence PYD leaders. 

Turkey has become anxious as it watches Kurds unite against ISIS and gain confidence from the PYD's success carving a proto-state out of the ruins of Syria. Kurds make up at least 18 percent of Turkey's population, and many have indicated at the ballot box that they want greater autonomy in Kurd-dominated southeastern Turkey. In two parliamentary elections this year, the pro-Kurdish HDP party garnered a record number of votes, and crossed for the first time the official threshold for party representation in parliament.

Prominent Turkish journalist Cengiz Candar said in January that "the emergence of Kurdish identity" worries Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his inner circle. 

This shared identity spans the borders between the different Kurdish groups that Turkey has worked so hard to maintain. "Every day there are funerals" of Kurds who grew up in Turkey but crossed into Syria to join the struggle there, Candar said. A longtime proponent of peace between Turkey and the Kurdish insurgency, the journalist believes the U.S. should remove the PKK from its terror list -- something influential thinkers in the West have suggested as well -- to encourage a Turkish rapprochement with the militants and signal good faith to the Syrian Kurds.

That hasn't happened. Rather, Erdogan seems to have to become even more anxious about the Kurds after the June elections, in which his party lost its parliamentary majority while its pro-Kurdish rival enjoyed unprecedented success. Things got worse in July, when an ISIS-linked terror attack on an aid convoy heading from Turkey to Kobani killed scores of people, mostly Kurds. Turkish and Syrian Kurds alike said the attack was a painful vindication of their argument that Turkey's policies led to the rise of ISIS and other extremist actors in Syria.

Mourners in Istanbul, Turkey, carry the coffins of two victims of the attack on the Turkish town of Suruc, on July 22, 2
YASIN AKGUL via Getty Images
Mourners in Istanbul, Turkey, carry the coffins of two victims of the attack on the Turkish town of Suruc, on July 22, 2015.

Days later, the PKK launched attacks on Turkish officers, and Erdogan directed the Turkish state to return to open conflict with the group for the first time since 2013.

Turkey has since been bombing both ISIS and the PKK. The former is something the U.S. and its allies have long been hoping for. But the latter is the strongest threat yet to Washington's relationship with the Syrian Kurds.

The Obama administration can't afford to alienate either Turkey or the PYD. State Department and White House officials insist that the U.S. views the PYD and the PKK as distinct entities.

That's at odds with how many Kurds see themselves -- "it's all PKK but different branches," an Iranian Kurd fighting alongside the PYD told The Wall Street Journal this summer.

And as much as the U.S. tries to claim that it isn't playing a double game, it won't stop Turkey from sabotaging U.S. relations with the PYD. In October, Turkey shelled Syrian Kurdish positions, saying the group had crossed an agreed-upon line. A State Department spokesman said he couldn't confirm or deny the shelling, even though Turkey's own prime minister confirmed it. However, he emphasized that Washington would keep working with effective anti-ISIS forces in Syria.

Days later, a Pentagon spokesman spoke of advances against ISIS by Kurds and Syrian Arabs, noting that their force, made up largely of PYD-linked fighters, had received U.S. air support via aircraft based in Turkey. When asked by HuffPost how Turkey felt about assistance flowing to the Syrian Kurds from its base, a Turkish official reiterated that his government sees the PYD and the PKK as inseparable.

Faysal Itani, an analyst at the Atlantic Council, warns that Turkey may surreptitiously launch a "backlash" to isolate the Syrian Kurds. Turkey could pressure Syrian Arab groups to challenge the PYD, Itani said, undermining the Arab-Kurd alliance that the U.S. hopes will save Syria. Joshua Walker, a Turkey expert at the German Marshall fund and a former State Department adviser, said another possibility is that Turkey could build a dossier of intelligence showing links between the PYD and the PKK. That would make the Obama administration's outreach to the Syrian Kurds look like a violation of U.S. anti-terror laws.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani (L) wave on November 16, 2013 in the
AFP via Getty Images
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani (L) wave on November 16, 2013 in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir.

Turkey isn't the only U.S. partner in the region that has a problem with the PYD.

On Nov. 16, 2013, 300 couples lined up outside a sports hall in the spiritual capital of the Kurds -- Diyarbakir, a city of Roman walls and legendary lamb dishes in southern Turkey.

The couples were preparing to wed at a state-sponsored ceremony featuring a long-exiled Kurdish singer. But the real ceremony featured a 301st couple: then-Turkish prime minister Erdogan and Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan. The tall Turk in his suit and the squat Kurd in his militia's traditional baggy camouflage were making an unprecedented statement of unity.

"It was a great wedding ceremony in Diyarbakir ... it was like a dream," Kurdish poet Bejan Matur said sarcastically of the two leaders' joint appearance. Matur, a former journalist, lives in Diyarbakir. "It was a happy wedding."

The ceremony crystallized a potent threat to Rojava: the chance that Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds, who have traditionally been darlings of the West, will together undermine the Syrian Kurds and their relationship with Washington.

Neither Barzani nor Erdogan wants to see the Syrian Kurds become as powerful as they might with full U.S. support.

Rojava is not a natural ally for Barzani, a right-wing politician who has battled leftist Kurds in his own region and supported anti-PYD elements in Kurdish Syria. Unlike the stateless Kurds in Turkey and Syria, the Iraqi Kurds have a territory and enjoy global stature. The last thing Barzani wants is a challenge to his supremacy in the global Kurdish community.

He and Erdogan have shared more over the years than a skepticism of the PYD and the PKK. For instance, Turkey has allowed the Iraqi Kurds to sell oil independently, allowing them to avoid sharing revenues with Iraq's central government.

Then, Matur said, "ISIS came and all the balance was disturbed.”

The Islamic State's expansion tested Erdogan’s and Barzani’s commitment to one another, in part by making the PYD newly important to the Iraqi Kurdish leader.

Erdogan was slow to help Barzani when ISIS threatened the wealthy region that the Iraqi Kurds had been building up since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Rather, it was the PKK and the YPG (the PYD's militia) who came to Iraqi Kurdistan's aid when ISIS advanced on it in August 2014. The U.S. and Iran were the ones who provided Barzani with arms.

As international help to the Iraqi Kurds has increased with the launch of the anti-ISIS campaign, Barzani has gained the flexibility to move away from Erdogan. "Now he has the advantage to not be used," Matur argued. "He will still go for a relationship with Turkey, but the color of the instrument has changed, the color is more Kurdish now -- he can't be used as any ordinary Middle Eastern leader."

Members of Barzani's government have boasted to HuffPost about greater alignment between their forces and the PYD's, including intelligence-sharing and some cooperation along the Syria-Iraq border. That's music to the weary ears of U.S. officials searching for reliable local allies against ISIS. In September, Brett McGurk, then one of the top Obama administration officials coordinating the anti-ISIS coalition, let the world know via Twitter that Muslim, the PYD leader whose visa application was rejected, was visiting Iraqi Kurdistan to meet with Barzani.

That doesn't mean, though, that the Iraqi Kurdish leader has fully embraced the Syrian Kurds. Barzani sent a handful of fighters to help Kobani last year, but Candar, the Turkish journalist, thinks that was simply a way for Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey to gain good publicity and try to manage the Syrian Kurds' fight. And Barzani's government has been challenged by refugees from the Yazidi community, whose persecution by ISIS transfixed the world in the summer of 2014. Many Yazidis talk of the PKK rather than the Iraqi Kurds as their saviors.

Barzani's position on his fellow Kurds is evolving, says Dlawer Ala'aldeen, the head of the Middle East Research Institute in Kurdistan. But it's still "not as good as one wanted."

Syrian refugees in Sanliurfa, Turkey, wait to return to the Sunni Arab town of Tal Abyad on June 17, 2015, after Syrian
Gokhan Sahin via Getty Images
Syrian refugees in Sanliurfa, Turkey, wait to return to the Sunni Arab town of Tal Abyad on June 17, 2015, after Syrian Kurdish forces freed it from from the Islamic State group.

External concerns aren't the only challenge to the U.S.-PYD partnership. Internal realities in Syria matter, too -- specifically, the reality that the majority of Syrians are Sunni Arabs, not Kurds. ISIS will never be removed from Syria unless Syrian Arabs push it out, observers believe. The YPG has even made that clear through its reluctance to march into Sunni-majority areas on its own.

But like Turkey and like Barzani's government, the Arab nationalists fighting Assad have a big problem with the Syrian Kurds. Mistrust between the groups has been fomented by the Assad regime and may have been exacerbated by Turkish pressure on the Arabs. The tension is palpable in conversations with people on both sides, and even emerges in tussles on Facebook.

The Obama administration is attempting to solve this problem by pushing the Syrian Kurds to work with Sunni Arab nationalist fighters. It says a new amalgam of those groups -- called the Syrian Democratic Forces -- is preparing to capture the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.

Yet officials say that alliance is largely a smoke screen to allow more U.S. aid to flow to the Kurds.

To truly win over the Arabs, the PYD will need to tackle Amnesty International's allegations that the group engaged in ethnic cleansing in Kurd-captured Arab majority areas. The Kurds will also have to convince the Syrian nationalists that they share the goal of removing Assad despite tolerating the presence of his forces in some parts of Rojava. 

The PYD and YPG must also be more willing to share arms and control with the Arabs. Arab fighters told Foreign Policy in November that they felt like junior partners within the Syrian Democratic Forces. And a landmark conference of the Arab nationalist groups in Saudi Arabia in December excluded the PYD.

These aren't insurmountable problems. Syrian Kurdish officials maintain that they don't discriminate against Arabs, noting that many Sunni Arabs hold powerful positions in the Rojava administration. Lima Fakih, an Amnesty researcher, told HuffPost the abuses her group recorded seemed motivated not by deep-seated ethnic hatred, but rather by Kurdish anxieties about previous ISIS attacks in Sunni-dominated areas.

What's unclear is whether the tensions will be tackled soon enough -- before the PYD irreparably worsens Kurd-Arab relations with more moves that seem ethnically motivated, or Turkey devises a new scheme to push the groups apart.

Despite these problems, the U.S. doesn't have a lot of friends in Syria, and it's not likely to bump the Syrian Kurds off that list anytime soon. In fact, if the group continues to see success against ISIS, its importance in Washington will only grow.

Powerful cheerleaders in the administration and on Capitol Hill continue to advocate for arms transfers and more support to the Kurds. In January, two lawmakers on opposite sides of the aisle -- Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Marsha Blackburn (R- Tenn.) -- personally wrote to the State Department about Salih Muslim Muhammed's visa case.

The U.S. has been here before: It offered support to the Iraqi Kurds in the 1990s, which was crucial in helping them achieve quasi-statehood and making them into a key American ally. Peter Galbraith, a former ambassador who was instrumental in devising policy towards the Kurds (and made a pretty penny off it), has visited Rojava. He told HuffPost during the siege of Kobani that his "biggest impression" of the Syrian Kurdish enclave was how similar it was to Iraqi Kurdistan when it first gained autonomy, in 1991. Recalling low buildings on semi-paved streets that ran on a handful of generators, Galbraith described "a great sense of revolutionary excitement."

And even those who are otherwise critical of the Obama administration's approach in Syria, like Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), want to see more cooperation with the PYD and YPG. The Syrian Kurds "are one of the most effective fighting forces among the moderate opposition and have really earned our support," Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in October. He points out that Russia has also courted Rojava, warning that the U.S. shouldn't miss its moment. Schiff says he recognizes that the Kurds' top priority -- guarding and uniting their own territory --might differ from the primary U.S. goal of defeating ISIS.

Still, he thinks even limited coordination might help.

"We don't really have all that many great choices in Syria," Schiff said.

This October, Muslim, the PYD leader, applied again for a U.S. visa. He hopes that this time, he'll get one.

 

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