Breaking: US to directly arm Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters, use Kurdish-controlled territories as a safe zone against the Islamic state

Wladimir van Wilgenburg
5 min readOct 4, 2015

BREAKING NEWS: The US will directly arm Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters to fight the Islamic state (IS) in Raqqah reports the Washington Post last Friday. So far, more details have not been released yet. Most likely weapons would go to the newly formed 2,000 strong tribal army headed by Abu Issa, and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, and supplied through Iraqi Kurdish territory.

Syrian Arab tribes recently formed the tribal army, which was branded as the Syrian Arab Coalition by the Pentagon.

The US finally made the decision to support the Kobani model of YPG and FSA fighters in the countryside of Raqqah, and Hasakah province. There were earlier signs of a possible US policy shift. In mid-September, Foreign Policy reported that the US is hoping to avoid another fiasco by embedding Syrian rebels with larger local forces, including possibly Kurdish troops.

On 22 September, CNN reported that U.S. military commanders have proposed a program to provide arms and ammunition to a coalition of up to 5,000 anti-ISIS Syrian rebels now operating in northern Syria, the Pentagon branded the ‘Syrian Arab Coalition’ which works closely with the YPG.

Although there ongoing disputes between FSA rebels and the Kurds, FSA rebels in Raqqah want to move forward.

“We do disagree with the YPG on some matters, but we are currently moving past these differences” for the sake of the larger battle against the Islamic State, Liwa Thuwar a-Raqqa spokesman Abu Muath told Syria Direct.

Kurdish controlled territories in Iraq and Syria.

“So, what we are doing with the train and equip, we are looking where we have had success, so looking to the Kurdish community in the east, and build on that,” president Obama said in a press conference last Thursday in a response to increased Russian support for the Syrian government against rebel groups to protect Assad.

Moreover, the YPG denied Russian media reports that they support Russian operations, and confirmed that the relation between the US-led coalition and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), “will not simply continue but emerge stronger against committed enemy, the Daesh terrorists,” the YPG said last Thursday.

Last Friday, IS-militants attacked the Abdulaziz Mountain close to Tal Tamr, which is an important for future operations in Raqqah. This shows the IS is aware and scared of the future joint FSA-YPG operations backed by the US-led coalition.

“Here is Mount Abdul Aziz, which is a very important position. Before any operation against Raqqa can be launched, it is really important that you’ve got Mount Abdul Aziz covered,” a YPG fighter told Journeyman Pictures.

Strategic Mountain Abdul Aziz (Wikimapia)

On 15 September, the US set up a meeting between Democratic Union Party (PYD) leader Salih Muslim, and KRG president Masoud Barzani in Erbil, in order to pressure both to coordinate against the Islamic state (IS). And surprisingly, on 20 September, a delegation from Barzani’s KDP party participated in the PYD’s party congress. This is 100 per cent related to the plans to equip Arab and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

Finally, the US has realised that supporting FSA groups in Aleppo province would not result in anything due to the strong presence of the al-Nusra front and Jaish al-Fath. Nusra will not allowed US-armed rebels to fight IS, since they fear these US-backed rebels groups could turn their back on Nusra in the future. As a result, US-backed rebel Jamal Marouf was kicked out from Idlib by Nusra in January, and now allegedly resides in Kobani under protection of Kurdish YPG fighters (see Dabiq*).

Sheikh Obeid Hassan Khalil says they have 2,000 FSA rebel fighters to ‘liberate’ Raqqah.

Using the Kurdish areas as a safe zone for FSA-rebels in the Raqqah and Hasakah provinces is easier than inserting FSA-rebels into Aleppo’s countryside, as I argued for the Atlantic Council. Earlier, I co-wrote a piece for the Daily Beast that showed FSA-fighters handed over their weapons to Nusra in the Aleppo province. As a result, the Pentagon stopped sending recruits to Syria.

Yezidis cross the Faysh Khabour border crossing last year: (picture Fox)
Semalka border crossing (Faysh Khabour)

It’s my guess that these shipments most likely will take place in coordination or through the Kurdish Peshmerga forces as agreed upon between the PYD and KRG.

When Kobani was under siege last year, the US delivered KRG weapons to Kobani to the YPG, and Peshmerga fighters entered from the Turkish border. It’s unclear if this new PYD-KRG agreement includes the return of the around 2,000 Syrian Kurdish Peshmerga fighters or not, since most PYD and YPG officials have said this can only take place if they fight under YPG command, or simply refuse their entry.

This US-decision could dramatically improve relations between the Kurdish government in Iraq, and the canton administrations in Syria. Although it needs micromanaging of both KDP-PYD relations, and FSA-Kurdish relations.

The remaining problem remains Turkey: Will they oppose this, or not? Supporting Raqqah’s tribal FSA fighters could provide a balance in the north of Syria between the Kurds and Arabs. Most likely Turkey will oppose this due to the ongoing conflict between rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish state. Turkey opposes any weapon support to the YPG, fearing these weapons could end up in PKK hands.

However, for the US defeating the Islamic state is more important than a conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state. Most likely they hope the conflict would end after Turkish elections take place on 1 November.

IS magazine Dabiq 10 branded the Kurds as proxy forces of the Western crusaders.

*Source: Dabiq: #10 — “Ramadan The Law of Allah or the Laws of Men”, July 2015. “(…) Jamāl Ma’rūf4, Abū ‘Īsā ar-Raqqah5, and ‘Abdul-Jabbār al-‘Akīdī — were recently able to advance on the towns of Sulūk and Tall Abyad in Wilāyat ar-Raqqah,” Dabiq said.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst of Kurdish affairs for The Jamestown Foundation.



Wladimir van Wilgenburg

Jamestown Analyst & freelance journalist based in Kurdistan vvanwilgenburg m