— American proxies are now at war with each other in Syria.
with Syrian rebel battalions that receive covert backing from one
arm of the U.S. government told BuzzFeed News that they recently
began fighting rival rebels supported by another arm of the U.S.
infighting between American proxies is the latest setback for the
Obama administration’s Syria policy and lays bare its
contradictions as violence in the country gets worse.
confusion is playing out on the battlefield — with the U.S.
effectively engaged in a proxy war with itself. “It’s very
strange, and I cannot understand it,” said Ahmed Othman, the
commander of the U.S.-backed rebel battalion Furqa al-Sultan Murad,
who said he had come under attack from U.S.-backed Kurdish militants
in Aleppo this week.
al-Sultan Murad receives weapons from the U.S. and its allies as
part of a covert program, overseen by the CIA, that aids rebel
groups struggling to overthrow the government of Syrian president
Bashar al-Assad, according to rebel officials and analysts tracking
Kurdish militants, on the other hand, receive weapons and support
from the Pentagon as part of U.S. efforts to fight ISIS. Known as
the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, they are the
the Obama administration’s strategy against the extremists in
Syria and coordinate regularly with U.S. airstrikes.
as Assad and his Russian allies have routed rebels around Aleppo in
recent weeks — rolling back Islamist factions and moderate U.S.
allies alike, as aid groups warn of a humanitarian
the YPG has seized the opportunity to take ground from these groups,
the face of public objections from U.S. officials and reportedly
backed by Russian airstrikes, the YPG has overrun key villages in
the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib. It now threatens the
town of Azaz, on the border with Turkey, through which rebel groups
have long received crucial supplies. Over the weekend, Turkey began
shelling YPG positions around Azaz in response, raising another
difficult scenario for the U.S. in which its proxy is under assault
from its NATO ally.
as America has looked on while Russia and Syria target its
moderate rebel partners, it has failed to stop the YPG from
attacking them too. “That is a major problem,” said Andrew
Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East
Policy. “It’s not just that it’s a nonsense policy. It’s
that we’re losing influence so rapidly to the Russians that people
just aren’t listening to us anymore.”
the Furqa al-Sultan Murad commander, said the YPG tried to seize two
areas of Aleppo under his control, resulting in firefights that left
casualties on both sides. He had captured seven YPG fighters and was
holding them prisoner, he dded.
group receives weapons from the U.S. and its allies, including TOW
anti-tank missiles, he said, and fights Assad as well as ISIS. The
aid is part of a long-running CIA
effort approved by Congress and coordinated from an operations room
in Turkey with participation from international allies of the
rebellion such as Saudi Arabia. Othman said he was in regular
contact with his American handlers about the problems on the ground.
“The Americans must stop [the YPG] — they must tell them you are
attacking groups that we support just like we support you,” he
said. “But they are just watching. I don’t understand U.S.
recruits take part in a training session at a camp in a rebel-held
area of Aleppo before fighting along with opposition
fighters. Karam Al-masri / AFP /
with three other groups — the Northern Division, Jaysh
al-Mujahideen and a coalition called Jabhat al-Shamiya — that have
received support from the operations room also said they were now
battling the YPG in northern Syria.
“There are many groups
supported by [the operations room] that are fighting the YPG right
now,” said the Northern Division’s Col. Ahmed Hamada, who added
that some of his fighters had received U.S. training in the past.
official with the Turkish government criticized the U.S. for what he
described as a Syria policy gone awry. “The YPG is taking land and
villages from groups that are getting American aid,” he said,
speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of
the subject. “These are groups that are not only getting American
aid. Some of them also got training from the Americans.”
official added that U.S.-backed Arab rebel groups had seen their
support dwindle of late, while the YPG was benefiting from a surge
of interest from both Washington and Moscow. “The Americans are
not giving the moderate rebels enough material. They are not
providing any political support,” he said. “And they did not
stop the YPG from attacking them.”
said we are not in control of the YPG in [those areas],” he added.
“That’s the official answer. It doesn’t make any sense to us.
What can I say?”
an emailed statement, Col. Patrick J. Ryder, a spokesman for the
U.S. Central Command, which oversees support for the YPG, said he
had no information to provide “regarding potential friction
between various opposition groups.”
continues to be a very complex and challenging environment,” he
said. “I can tell you that we remain focused on supporting
indigenous anti-[ISIS] ground forces in their fight against [ISIS].”
State Department official acknowledged the increasingly problematic
situation. “We’ve expressed to all parties that recent
provocative moves in northern Syria, which have only served to
heighten tensions and lessen the focus on [ISIS], are
counterproductive and undermine our collective, cooperative efforts
in northern Syria to degrade and defeat [ISIS],” he told BuzzFeed
News, likewise speaking on condition of anonymity.
spokesman for the YPG declined to comment. Yet the group appears to
be battling Islamists and U.S.-backed moderates alike, said Faysal
Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The YPG has also
been physically capturing territory [around] Azaz, amid Russian
bombing and regime progress further south in Aleppo province,” he
said. “I see these moves as opportunistic, capitalizing on the
insurgent losses in the province to increase YPG territory.”
YPG is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK,
the insurgent force warring with the Turkish government in the
country’s restive southeast. Both Washington and Ankara list the
PKK as a terror group. Yet to Turkey’s increasing anger, the U.S.
has sought to differentiate between the PKK and the YPG, promoting
the latter as a key partner. In late January, Brett McGurk,
President Obama’s special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, paid a
visit to the YPG in the Syrian town of Kobane, which U.S. airstrikes
had helped the group defend from ISIS last year.
YPG fits well with the Obama administration’s growing hesitance to
confront Assad: it has long maintained a détente with the Syrian
government, focusing instead on pushing back ISIS and other
extremists from Kurdish land.
part of its embrace of the YPG, the Pentagon has propped up a new
YPG-dominated military coalition called the Syrian Democratic Front
(SDF) and encouraged smaller Arab battalions to join. In October,
the U.S. government air-dropped a crate of weapons to the SDF in
Syria, and it has also embedded special forces advisors with the
group. This is both a bid to give U.S. support to the YPG some
political cover and a nod to the reality that driving ISIS from its
Sunni Arab strongholds will require significant help from Sunni Arab
Department of Defense official sought to distance U.S. efforts from
recent YPG offensives around Aleppo. He said the U.S. was supporting
the group east of the Euphrates River, in its fight against ISIS,
but not in its new campaign against rebel groups to the west. “Some
of the Kurdish groups west of the Euphrates” have been “engaging
with some Syrian opposition groups,” he said, speaking on
condition of anonymity.
important here is that we are not providing any direct support to
these groups,” he added. “Our operations have been focused on
the SDF east of the Euphrates as they fight ISIS.”
battle between America’s two proxies reflects the competing
impulses of the Obama administration’s Syria policy. “The SDF
model is meant to replace the failed [operations room] model,”
said Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Center for a New American
he noted that groups like Furqa al-Sultan Murad are battling ISIS as
well as Assad — and still considered a bulwark against the
extremists by the U.S. “It is a front-line combatant against
ISIS,” he said of the battalion.
recent clashes could make it difficult for the U.S. to build the
crucial Arab component of its ISIS fight, the Washington Institute’s
Tabler said. “If this continues, the U.S. is only going to have
one option it can work with, which is the YPG. It’s not going to
have the Arab option,” he said. “Which would be fine if the
Kurds were the majority of the Syrian population, but they’re not.
We need Sunni Arabs to defeat ISIS.”
additional reporting from Munzer al-Awad in Turkey.