Syrian Kurds Fight ISIL, Assad, With Little Help From United States

Humanitarian disaster unfolding in northeastern Syria

Syrian refugees cross into Turkey / AP

The Kurdish community in Syria has been overlooked as a potential U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic militants, experts say, even as tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds are forced to flee their homes amid a worsening humanitarian crisis.

Airstrikes reportedly hit the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) early Wednesday as the jihadist group advanced toward Kurdish villages in the Kobani area in northeastern Syria. At least 150,000 Syrian Kurdish villagers have escaped across the border into Turkey—while others have been blocked by Turkish authorities and met with tear gas, raising fears of a potential massacre similar to the one which threatened the Yazidis in Iraq.

Although it was unclear who ordered the strikes, residents in the area said they believed the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL was responsible. Turkish officials denied that either their airspace or an American base in southern Turkey was used for the operation.

U.S. relations with Turkey are a key sticking point in the fight to save the Syrian Kurds from ISIL. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated on Tuesday at the United Nations annual meeting that he was considering more robust support for the U.S. campaign against ISIL, critics say his administration adopted lenient border policies that allowed foreign fighters and arms to pour into Syria and bolster jihadist groups.

Erdogan views the Syrian Kurds with suspicion. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the YPG, have close ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey—a group that Turkey and the United States have designated as a terrorist organization after a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government.

However, the PKK and Turkey have reached a tentative cease-fire, and both the PKK and YPG have engaged in some of the heaviest fighting against Islamic militants. Kurdish militias helped tens of thousands Yazidis in August secure safe passage into Syria after ISIL threatened to exterminate them.

Erdogan has also raised the ire of some U.S. lawmakers and officials by backing Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization that seeks the destruction of Israel. Human rights groups have assailed Erdogan for his repression of critical journalists.

Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a former Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq for the George W. Bush administration, said in an email that U.S. officials have still not acknowledged the harmful actions of the president in Turkey, a country that is a NATO member and traditional ally.

"More than a generation of American diplomats has accepted the idea [as I once did] that the PKK was a terrorist group rather than an insurgency," he said. "There was also an unspoken quid pro quo that the United States would defer to Turkey on the PKK so long as Turkey deferred to the United States on groups like Hamas. Erdogan shredded that understanding in 2006, but we're still on auto-drive when it comes to Turkey."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday that Turkey will be "very engaged on the frontlines of this [coalition] effort" against ISIL.

Rubin noted that Turkey continues to wield significant influence in Washington, including through the Congressional Turkish Caucus.

A commander of the Syrian Kurdish YPG told the Wall Street Journal this week that the group has not received support from the West and has been forced to seek arms on the black market. The YPG is one of the few forces in the region to achieve victories against ISIL.

The YPG also recently formed an alliance with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), another rebel group battling both ISIL and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The FSA has complained for months about the lack of weapons provided by the United States.

Rubin criticized the State Department for not inviting the Kurds in January to the Geneva peace talks on Syria. The Kurds in Iraq, led by President Masoud Barzani, have also acquired some light arms from the United States—unlike the Syrian Kurds.

"Heck, if I can go to Qamishli and Syrian Kurdistan without incident and without fear for my security, there's no reason why American diplomats or congressmen can't," Rubin said. "We just prefer to ignore our friends even as we worry about our enemies."

Neither the National Security Council nor the State Department responded to a request for comment.

YPG Commander Adam Derike told the Journal that he was not optimistic about Western backing.

"We follow the international rules of law…We saved the Yazidis from death," he said. "The Islamic State is fighting humanity. We take our orders from the people, and we are fighting for humanity."

"But all the time, if you are fighting for humanity, you are fighting alone."