After much debate, the Trump administration has decided to support Syria’s Kurds with weapons and training as part of the offensive on Raqqa.
This is a dangerous if perhaps necessary decision that could have far-reaching long-term effects on the U.S. relationship with Turkey as well as the shape of post-conflict Syria. And although I support the decision, let me first lay out—as best I can—the argument against it.
First, bluntly speaking, the YPG is a foreign terrorist organization. Despite protests to the contrary, there is no hard distinction between the YPG and the PKK, a group that has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state. Some have argued that the U.S. should offer to delist the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization in exchange for support against the Islamic State, and this argument has some merits. But for now, directly arming the YPG will require a waiver from the Trump administration essentially notifying the Congress that we are about to arm people we consider to be terrorists because we think it’s in the best interests of the American people.
Second, for the reasons above, arming the YPG could have a toxic effect on U.S. relations with Turkey. We have labored, for two years now, to see if there was a way we could arm the YPG while somehow buying off the Turks with more military and intelligence cooperation, and at the end of the day, there is no deal to be had short of delivering U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen in handcuffs on the tarmac of Ankara Esenboğa Airport. So whoever arms the YPG will eat the consequences with the Turks, which could involve them shutting down U.S. access to the strategic airbase at Incirlik. That’s why Susan Rice told Mike Flynn that we would make the decision in the waning days of the Obama administration so that we could take the blame for the decision and Trump could start with a clean slate. Flynn, who was a paid agent of the Turkish government at the time, declined her offer.