Nearly a year into a bombing campaign intended to degrade and destroy the Islamic State, the United States finally may have found a reliable partner on the ground in Syria.
In comments Monday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged that Kurdish fighters from the YPG militia are identifying bombing targets for U.S.-led airstrikes. He referred to the militia as “capable,” hailed its “effective action,” and said because of the Kurds’ actions, U.S. forces had been able to “support them tactically.”
It was the first public description by a senior Obama administration official detailing the cooperation that has been unfolding for months between the United States and the militia, which has drawn the ire of key NATO ally Turkey.
The militia’s success is one of the reasons the United States is intensifying its bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, Carter said.
“That’s what we were doing over the weekend north of Raqqa, which is conducting airstrikes that limit ISIL’s freedom of movement and ability to counter those capable Kurdish forces,” Carter said, referring to the Islamic State by a common acronym.
Carter’s singling out of the YPG, or the People’s Protection Units, comes after months in which U.S. officials have said they were putting off a more concerted campaign in Syria in favor of pressing against the Islamic State in Iraq because the U.S. lacked a capable ground partner in Syria. As long ago as October, then Pentagon spokesman John Kirby was blunt about why U.S. activities there were lagging: “We don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria. It’s just a fact.”
But at a briefing for reporters with visiting French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Carter praised the YPG’s recent successes against the Islamic State. Backed by U.S. air power, he said, YPG forces have advanced in the past weeks to within 18 miles of Raqqa, the main stronghold of the Islamic State in Syria.
“That's the manner in which effective and lasting defeat of ISIL will occur, when there are effective local forces on the ground that we can support and enable so that they can take territory, hold territory and make sure that good governance comes in behind it,” Carter said.
How far the YPG will push its offensive is uncertain. Raqqa is not traditionally a Kurdish area, and Kurdish forces, which are said to number an estimated 16,000 troops, are not expected to try to take the city alone.
But the YPG offers a much more robust anti-Islamic State force inside Syria than does the training program the United States has undertaken: so far, only about 190 so-called moderate rebels have been enlisted in the program, which is intended to train 5,000 anti-Islamic State fighters a year.
The United States last month also expanded its airstrikes to northern Aleppo, another key northern Syria city about 100 miles west of Raqqa, putting the Islamic State on notice that a new drive to remove them from what is called the Marea front could be in the offing.
President Barack Obama also spoke of an intensifying campaign in Syria Monday after he attended a briefing at the Pentagon with Carter and other top Pentagon leaders.
Obama did not mention the Kurdish fighters by name, but he ticked off Islamic State losses in Syria and Iraq going back to last August, many of them defeats in which either the YPG or Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga troops played important roles.
“Over the past year we've seen that, when we have an effective partner on the ground, ISIL can be pushed back,” Obama said.
Obama repeated Pentagon claims that the Islamic State “has lost more than a quarter of the populated areas that it had seized in Iraq,” an assertion that some analysts have criticized for failing to account for the militant group’s offsetting gains in the same period.
The closer links between the Pentagon and the Kurdish fighters, however, seem likely to increase tension between the United States and Turkey, the only predominantly Muslim nation among the 28 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, known as PYD, which represents the 2.2 million Kurds in Syria.
The PYD, in turn, has close ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, called the PKK., which has waged a 30-year armed struggle against the Turkish government to establish an independent Kurdistan.
Turkey fears the Syrian Kurds will establish an autonomous zone along the Turkish border and encourage Turkish Kurds to press their autonomy campaign. Last week, Turkey said it was willing to establish a working relationship with the Syrian Kurds, but only if the Kurds gave up on plans to establish local governments in the Syria towns its captured.
Neither Carter nor Obama made reference to such disputes in their comments Monday.
Carter made it clear that U.S. and allied warplanes are increasingly depending on the Kurdish forces as part of the Pentagon’s broader campaign to defeat the Islamic State.
“We are doing more in Syria from the air,” Carter said. “I think you saw some of that in recent days. And the opportunity to do that effectively is provided in the case of the last few days by the effective action on the ground of Kurdish forces, which gives us the opportunity to support them tactically.”
The Kurds in Syria provide Washington with a more secular Muslim ally than Islamist militants fighting to oust the government of President Bashar Assad, who have often cooperated with the al Qaida’s Nusra Front, the terror group’s Syrian affiliate.
Carter made no reference to the YPG’s affiliation with the PKK, which the U.S. State Department designated a terrorist organization in 1997.
The war in Syria is not the only violence that is creating odd bedfellows for Washington.
In Iraq, the United States has relied on Shiite Muslim militias with ties to Iran, still a U.S. enemy despite a recent thaw in relations, to confront Islamic State militants in that country.
Lesley Clark in Washington and Roy Gutman in Istanbul contributed