Although the Kurdish YPG (the Democratic Forces of Syria) is a professional fighting force and the only one in Syria to have recovered ground from and vanquished the Islamic State, both the US and Russia are hesitating before seeking to use its military capabilities. The Kurdish leaders’ price for their cooperation is stiff enough to give them pause.
Salih Muslim, Co-Chair of the Democratic Union Party (the PYD), and lham Ehmed, a senior member of the PYD and its messenger to Washington are driving a hard bargain with both powers for the services of the movement’s military arm, the YPG.
Still, both are seriously vying for the services of the 30,000-strong Kurdish militia, realizing that it would be their trump card for defeating ISIS, a goal which they hold – albeit separately – in common.
The PYD is an offshoot of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish Worker’s Party, also known as the PKK, and shares its separatist aspirations. Any power which fostered those aspirations would find an enemy in Ankara.
Syrian Kurds want autonomy as their price for smashing ISIS
On a number of occasions, DEBKA Weekly’s sources have underscored the linkage between the autonomous Kurdish Republic of Iraq, the Kurdish-populated regions of northern Syria, and the Turkish PKK. Strengthening that linkage would lead the three separatist movements to establish an independent Kurdish state stretching contiguously from northern Iraq to the Mediterranean coast with a population of 10 to 12 million inhabitants.
The roughly 3 million Syrian Kurds control three northern pockets: Qamishli-Hasakeh near the Iraqi frontier; Kobane on the Turkish border; and Afrin, their regional capital, in the northwest. (See attached map.)
Their militia may well be the game changer for determining whether the US or Russia finally beats ISIS in Syria.
There is no question that the YPG is the only force able to undertake an offensive against Raqqa, the Islamic State’s center of rule in Syria, and hope to break through its defensive lines. This ability was demonstrated in the ferocious battle for Kobane that raged from September 2014 to January 2015. The city was almost completely destroyed and most of the population fled across the border to Turkey but, in the end, ISIS was driven out of the city and its outlying areas by the Kurdish militia, with the help of US air strikes and Turkish tank fire.
Short of arms, the Kurdish militia relies heavily on three clandestine units
Just as significant is the Kurdish militia’s success in keeping ISIS at bay from the town of Hasakeh in the past three months. Not only are their defensive lines intact, but every few days the Kurds improve their positions and gain fresh territory, a feat achieved with nothing but light weapons and grenades.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources estimate that with sophisticated heavy weapons, these Kurdish fighters would finally be able to launch the first major counterattack against ISIS forces and open the road to Raqqa, 230 kilometers to the south of their domains.
At present they are fighting with little but a few hundred PK DShK and ZU-23 machine guns, rocket propelled grenades, Kalashnikovs and some 62mm, 82mm and 120mm mortars. The few heavier items they have were captured from ISIS. Their six T-55 tanks break down frequently and a handful of Humvee light trucks are reserved for evacuating the wounded.
The YPG produces its own missiles and when it needs fresh supplies, turns to the Iraqi black market.
This arsenal is obviously no match for the Islamic State’s advanced American tanks, missiles and heavy MRLs and certainly not up to the job of an all-out showdown for finally vanquishing the jihadists. Their tactics against ISIS therefore rely heavily on three small undercover units – a military intelligence branch, “special forces” for operating behind enemy lines and a counter-terror unit.
Separate Kurdish conditions for Washington and Moscow
Kurdish leaders are prepared to place their combat resources for a quick victory against ISIS at the disposal of either the US or Russia – depending on which of the two powers meets their conditions.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that the Kurds have drawn up two separate lists of demands for each of the two powers:
For integration in the US-led coalition, the Kurds are demanding:
- Sophisticated weapons systems powerful enough to beat ISIS.
- The merger of Kurdish enclaves into a contiguous Kurdish territory stretching from the Syria-Iraq border to the Mediterranean coast.
This would require President Barack Obama to break his word to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan never to allow the Syrian Kurds to control linked territory, the price he paid for the use of Turkey’s Incirlik air base by the US air force.
- The Syrian air force must be barred from airspace over the Kurdish areas.
The Kurdish conditions for an alliance with Russia are:
- Sophisticated Russian hardware in return for which the Kurds would embark on an offensive against Raqqa.
- The same merger of Kurdish enclaves into a contiguous territory from the Iraqi border to the Mediterranean.
- A Russian guarantee of Syrian President Basha Assad’s consent to an independent Kurdish territory on the model of the Kurdish Republic of Iraq.
- A Russian guarantee of non-violence against the Kurds by the Assad regime.
DEBKA Weekly’s Kurdish sources report that this week, when Russia and the Kurds seemed to be getting close to an understanding, Washington moved in. To persuade the Kurds to hold back from a commitment to Moscow, US forces on Oct. 10, conducted an air drop to YPG forces in northern Syria of small arms ammunition. A US official said this was part of the newly-crafted Washington strategy for helping the Kurdish militia fight ISIS.
Kurdish leaders were meant to understand from this gesture that, before coming to terms with Moscow, it was worth their while to carry on talking to Washington.