Washington’s Secret Back-Channel Talks With Syria’s Kurdish ‘Terrorists’

Washington’s Secret Back-Channel Talks With Syria’s Kurdish ‘Terrorists’

Every day, the jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) advance closer to Kobani, a predominantly Kurdish town in northern Syria, close to the Turkish border. As the Islamic State rains down mortars on the town, the vastly outgunned People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia, are attempting to resist the weeks-long assault. While Turkish troops watch from across the border and the U.S.-led air campaign continues, none of the powerful forces in the region have intervened decisively — leaving the YPG to face the jihadist advance on its own.

The United States has rejected formal relations with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the party that is essentially the political wing of the YPG. The PYD, which has ruled Kobani and other Kurdish enclaves inside Syria since President Bashar al-Assad’s forces withdrew in July 2012, is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant organization that has fought Turkey since 1984 — and has consequently been listed as a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the United States. But interviews with American and Kurdish diplomats show that Washington opened indirect talks with the PYD years ago, even as it tried to empower the group’s Kurdish rivals and reconcile them with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Though Washington has declined PYD requests for formal talks, the United States opened indirect talks with the group in 2012, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told Foreign Policy. "We did meet someone who was an intermediary between the U.S. and the PYD. We met him on several occasions: myself once, and other diplomats on other occasions," Ford said. The talks happened "maybe once every six months" and were mediated by a "Syrian citizen in Europe," according to Ford.

The talks have continued since Ford’s departure and are conducted through the U.S. Embassy in Paris, two Kurdish sources familiar with the meetings told Foreign Policy. "They’re just briefing each other [on developments in Syria]. We’re not sure if the contact is going further, to the top of the administration in the U.S.," one of the Kurdish sources said. Both Ford and the Kurds declined to identify the intermediary.

Concerns about a possible backlash from Ankara shaped Washington’s approach to the talks. "We had to be very careful because of the Turkish sensitivities. We made sure that the Turks knew that we had passed messages," Ford said. "They had two requests. One, they appreciated that we were being transparent with them. Sometimes, I think, they knew about the contact and the messages going back and forth. The second is, they had their own direct contact underway with the PYD. They asked us to go very slow on our own contacts with the PYD, because they didn’t want the PYD to be able to play us off against the Turks. They said, ‘If you rush in, it will diminish our leverage with the PYD.’"

At roughly the same time, Washington tried to empower the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a fractious coalition of Syrian Kurdish parties backed by Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani that has good relations with Turkey, as a counterweight to the PYD. In May 2012, a KNC delegation led by its chairman at the time, Abdul Hakim Bashar, visited Washington and met with Ford, Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, and Frederic Hof, the U.S. envoy to the Syrian opposition.

The priority for the Americans was to fold the KNC into the exiled Syrian opposition, then headed by the Syrian National Council (SNC). Ford and Hof urged the KNC to "concentrate on bridging the group’s differences with the SNC and focus on the removal of [Assad] as the most urgent goal," according to a previously undisclosed State Department record of the meeting obtained by Foreign Policy through the Freedom of Information Act.

In Washington’s reckoning, that required the KNC to drop its precondition that the SNC recognize Kurdish political demands, and revisit the matter only when Assad had been toppled. "The Ambassadors advised that the appropriate time would come, perhaps during the constitutional drafting process, where the Kurds could then debate the issue of political decentralization," the document says.

The United States would eventually get its wish in November 2013, when the KNC joined the Istanbul-based Syrian Opposition Coalition. But at the May 2012 meeting, the KNC had concerns of its own: The party, according to the meeting record, complained about the Syrian opposition’s "intransigence and perceived domination by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) and Turkey." Its meetings with the SNC, said Kurdish officials, were "no different than they were with the Baathists."

Although the KNC is backed by Barzani and his Turkish allies, the party was also harshly critical of Ankara and its support for Islamists within the Arab opposition. When one KNC official, whose name is redacted in the State Department cables, described Turkey’s position as "not good," the "entire delegation nodded in agreement." Turkey’s vision for Syria was a centralized "Islamist government" backed by a constitution "without mention of the Kurds," according to a KNC official quoted in the document. By contrast, the KNC called for a decentralized Syrian state with guarantees for Kurdish rights.

The KNC again voiced concerns about Turkey and Islamists within the Syrian opposition during a December 2012 meeting with Ford in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil. "The extremists in the opposition were getting support from governments, such as Turkey, that wanted to ensure that the Kurds would not have special rights," the State Department cable quoted a KNC official, whose name was redacted, as saying. "[KNC officials] were distrustful of Turkish support for the FSA, which they saw as a way for Turkey to keep the Syrian-Kurdish population in check."

On some points, the U.S. position was less than prescient. In December 2012, Ford pressured the KNC to join the opposition without any guarantees on Kurdish rights, because Assad "would be gone soon" and "commitments about rights would mean little if the Kurds were too isolated within a transitional government to ensure that the commitments were implemented." Ford acknowledged the presence of extremists in the FSA, but encouraged the KNC to reach out to the "moderate elements, of which there were many."

The Americans also shared some of the Kurds’ concerns about Turkey’s stance toward extreme Islamist factions. Speaking to Foreign Policy, Ford said he spoke with Turkish officials "many times" about the flow of jihadists into Syria through Turkish territory. "I raised it personally with the head of Turkish intelligence," Ford said, referring to Hakan Fidan, a confidant of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has played in a key role in Turkey’s policy on Syria.

"The Turks’ basic talking point was: If you share information about individuals you want, we will be helpful blocking their transit of Turkish territory," Ford said. "To me, that’s kind of a cop-out answer. A lot of times we don’t know the names. And so cutting access means — and I said this to them — doing what we do on the Mexican border: putting a lot more resources into guarding the border, blocking movement flows."

KNC officials approached the Americans with requests for assistance that would allow them to challenge the PYD as the preeminent force in Syria’s Kurdish areas. In May 2012, the KNC asked Washington for megaphones, equipment for home hospitals, generators, satellite phones, and help setting up satellite TV channels. In December 2012, a KNC delegation told Ford that "KNC parties were not receiving outside support or arms, and could not compete with the PYD," according to a State Department document. When asked by Foreign Policy if the KNC ever asked for American weapons, Ford said, "Of course they did" — but added that Washington never provided any.

The KNC’s appeals for American support also came in the context of its struggle for influence with Islamist factions within the Syrian opposition. Reflecting the Kurds’ weak position compared to Islamists, a "disturbed" KNC member "blurted out" to U.S. officials that Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leaders "are buying their votes and we need to do the same."

In response, the United States provided the KNC with political and media training under the Middle East Partnership Initiative, Ford said, adding that much of it took place in Turkey. "We brought in activists from Syrian Kurdish areas, and it involved things like how to organize grassroots work, how to explain viewpoints to a mass media audience, other sorts of media training. It also involved some issues related to organization building — how to think about structures instead of everything being run by one guy," Ford told Foreign Policy. "We were trying to build a network among people that the Syrian government couldn’t monitor necessarily."

If anything, the KNC’s appeals for assistance underlined its own lack of influence compared to the PYD. The idea that megaphones and TV channels would weaken the PYD’s grip is dubious at best. The Americans seemingly realized the KNC’s relative weakness at some point in 2012, and chose to open the back channel to the PYD.

"The PYD-YPG is a Syrian group that is moving on the ground, so we had an interest in understanding their viewpoint and ideas even if we didn’t see an immediate value in meeting them face to face," Ford told Foreign Policy. "The main thing is we believed there needed to be a political solution that had to be negotiated. The Kurds needed to be involved in that, even if we didn’t think the PYD was fully representative of the Kurds. We wanted to understand why they continued to work with the regime and why they were hostile to Kurdish activists in the KNC. We wanted to get a sense of how this crisis and Kurdish infighting all could end."

Since IS intensified its attacks on Kurdish areas, the PYD has requested Western military support. Kurdish sources familiar with the indirect U.S.-PYD talks told Foreign Policy that Washington is currently pushing the PYD to distance itself from the Assad regime by joining the Syrian Coalition, working with the FSA, and improving ties with the KNC and Barzani. For its part, the PYD denies working with the regime, and says the Istanbul-based opposition refuses to work with them. The recent agreement between the YPG and FSA factions to fight IS together might reflect a PYD eagerness to meet preconditions for U.S. assistance.

As IS threatens a massacre in Kobani, many experts are calling on Washington to reassess its stance toward Syrian Kurds. "Imagine if last year the U.S. had channeled some support to the YPG in its fight — it’s quite possible this would have helped stop IS from its sweep across Syria into Iraq," said Aliza Marcus, author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence. "The U.S. needs to accept that its best allies in the region are the Kurds. They are uniformly pro-Western, pro-secular, and are much more united in their fight against the radical Islamists than the Syrian opposition." 

Ford agreed that the United States should expand contacts with the PYD. "Right now, the PYD is up to its eyeballs in Islamic State alligators," he said. "I think we have a common enemy in the Islamic State." 

Read the documents below: