On December 30, Turkey’s pro-government news outlet Daily Sabah published a year-end article claiming the country achieved “relative peace” in Syria in 2020.
“Syria witnessed major developments in 2020, yet another rocky year in the country's decadelong civil war,” the article stated.
The Daily Sabah then strayed into deceiving readers when it discussed U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units).
“Meanwhile, while sanctioning the Assad regime, the U.S. continued its massive financial support for the YPG terrorists in 2020,” the article stated.
It added: “Although the U.S. recognizes the PKK as a terrorist organization, it denies the group's connection with the YPG, despite the ideological and organizational links between the groups. American support for the terrorist organization has long vexed Ankara because Washington views the YPG as a ‘reliable partner’ in its fight against Daesh (Islamic State terrorists) and continues to provide it with arms and equipment in the face of strong objections from Turkey.”
This black-and-white description of the U.S. support for the YPG’s fight against Islamic State terrorists in Syria is misleading.
Although the United States and Turkey designate the PKK as a terrorist group, U.S. policymakers view the YPG in Syria as a separate group from the PKK; the latter conducts operations inside Turkey. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan denies any distinction between the two groups.
The U.S. began supporting the YPG somewhat reluctantly, as an expedient way to counter the rise of Islamic State (IS) in 2014 without deploying large numbers of U.S. troops to Iraq.
The catalyst for U.S. backing of the YPG was the IS siege of the northern Syrian town of Kobane, close to the Turkish border. During that battle, the U.S. began conducting airstrikes in support of the Kurdish fighters, who eventually broke the siege.
Turkey was criticized for not intervening against IS forces that were moving against the city, allegedly due to the Turkish government’s antipathy toward the YPG.
At the time, some inside the U.S. government opposed teaming up with a group opposed to Turkey, a NATO ally. Apart from causing friction with Turkey, critics said the Kurdish group alienated some of Syria’s Arab population.
After halting the IS offensive, the U.S. continued to support the YPG as a “reliable ally” against Islamic State. An anonymous U.S. State Department official was quoted as describing the U.S. relationship with the YPG as “temporary, transactional, and tactical.” While the U.S. withdrew from northern Syria in late 2019, it still maintains ties with the group.
The U.S. has tried to assuage Turkish security concerns throughout the Syria conflict with steps that include pressuring the YPG to dismantle fortifications along the border with Turkey. The U.S. military allies also urged the YPG to change its “brand,” leading to the creation of a coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
While the YPG has played a leading role in the SDF, the coalition also includes personnel from various ethnic militias, including Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, and fighters from outside Syria.