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Syrian Kurdish men, fled from clashes between the Islamic State militants and PYD forces in Kobani, at refugee camp near Turkey’s Syrian border. (Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) | Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Akbar Shahid Ahmed reporting,
WASHINGTON — After more than a month of being outnumbered and outgunned, facing likely doom in Kobani, Kurdish fighters have begun to turn the tide against Islamic State militants with help from airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
The U.S. has said the strikes are intended to aid Kobani’s defenders. But it has been reluctant to admit the likely reason for the recent success against ISIS: Unprecedented new coordination between Washington and the main Syrian Kurdish organization, the PYD.
Such cooperation represents a significant development in U.S. strategy in Syria and the Middle East, Syria watchers told The Huffington Post. As the U.S. develops a tactical relationship with the Syrian Kurds, it must rapidly consider the role the group will play in the coalition against ISIS, the PYD’s future political goals, and ways to help the group without further destabilizing the region, experts said.
The strongest new confirmation that the U.S. has decided to work with the PYD comes from a senior Department of Defense official interviewed by The New York Times. The official, granted anonymity by The Times, revealed that “a system had been devised that allowed Kurdish fighters to help American mission planners pinpoint Islamic State targets. “
The information from the PYD fighters is matched against intelligence from satellite and drone images, electronic interception, and other sources before strikes are launched, the official told the Times.
A Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday he had no information to share on cooperation with the Syrian Kurds, suggesting the U.S. wants to keep its coordination under wraps for now.
On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. officials had met with the PYD for the first time over the weekend. (Indirect communications have been ongoing for years, Foreign Policy revealed earlier this month.) Psaki said she expects continued engagement — but she, too, downplayed any suggestion of coordination.
The details revealed in the Times corroborate the claims of Iraqi Kurdish leaders, who told The Wall Street Journal that the strikes that have helped Kobani are linked to increased activity and coordination at operations centers they run with the U.S. The Journal noted that coalition airstrikes around Kobani increased this week after a delegation from Kobani visited the Iraqi Kurdish region.
Recent reports about U.S.-PYD cooperation have been contradictory. The Kurdish outlet BasNews suggested such cooperation six days ago, saying the Iraqi Kurds acted as middlemen, receiving information from the PYD and then identifying targets with the U.S. Air Force. A spokesman for the PYD-linked fighting force in Kobani told independent Kurdish analyst Mutlu Civiroglu on Tuesday that the Syrian Kurds had direct contact with the U.S.-led coalition.
Cooperation with the PYD is tricky for the U.S. It has previously avoided the group out of consideration for its only NATO ally in the region, Turkey. Turkey distrusts the PYD for its efforts to create a Kurdish state in northern Syria and for its close ties to the PKK, the organization of Turkish Kurds that waged a decades-long war against the Turkish state.
The Turkish government has refrained from helping the Syrian Kurds despite international criticism, domestic unrest and the fact that Kobani’s suffering is visible from Turkish territory. The PKK, the PYD’s sister organization, remains on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, which Psaki noted Thursday.
Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and former State Department official, told The Huffington Post that when it comes to the PKK, “we are more royalist than the king, in that the Turks are talking to the PKK [in a peace process after the civil war], and we are not talking to the PKK.”
Still, administration officials, including Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said that the Syrian Kurds will be an essential ground partner for the U.S. in its efforts to undermine the Islamic State. Even U.S.-backed Syrian rebel groups, which have their own suspicions about the Kurds’ territorial ambitions and have previously fought against the PYD alongside the Islamic State, believe that Kobani had to be saved to prove that the U.S. and its international partners could move quickly against ISIS. Hundreds of fighters with the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army coalition have been fighting in Kobani alongside the PYD, Syrian sources and militant researchers told The Huffington Post last week.
U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army fighters will have to be more conciliatory with the Syrian Kurds and open to their demands for broader autonomy following the struggle in Kobani, despite their suspicion that the Kurds carved out territory by tacitly avoiding the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Barkey said.
“Whether grudgingly or not, everybody now in the region will have to take note of the fact that these guys withstood an immense ISIS attack,” Barkey said. “So if you are Free Syrian Army folks, you’re going to have to look at these guys with much more respect — they’ve done something you have not ever been able to do.”
The Syrian Kurdish PYD is also increasingly important to the U.S. because of its relationship with another partner against ISIS, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.
Syrian Kurds have historically had a tense relationship with the leadership of the Iraqi Kurds. Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has embraced a tribal ideology much more conservative than that of the leftist PYD, and developed close ties with Turkey to export the oil that is his region’s lifeline.
When the crisis in Kobani was at its worst last week, Syrian Kurds were critical of Barzani for failing to help them sooner, according to Civiroglu, the Washington-based analyst who reported on PYD-U.S. cooperation this week.
But events are forcing the two groups closer — a development that would be helpful for a U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State.
“The PYD and the [Iraqi Kurds] need each other too much in the fight against ISIS, so any jostling for regional ascendancy or control of the wider Kurdish movement will have to wait until after the immediate ISIS threat fades,” said Max Hoffman, a national security analyst at the Center for American Progress.
In a joint email to The Huffington Post, Hoffman and a colleague at the Center for American Progress, Michael Werz, said they believe the international community is likely to develop stronger ties with the PYD in the months ahead regardless of Turkish arguments. Turkey’s stance, they said, is self-defeating, costing it the chance to improve its relationship with Kurds across the region and risking its own domestic peace process with the PKK.
Hoffman noted that the Syrian Kurdish group also controls another region in Syria — Jazira Canton, which can be directly resupplied from Iraqi Kurdistan.
But working with this increasingly important partner against ISIS will require long-term planning, Barkey said.
He said the U.S. and its allies must prepare for what the Syrian Kurds might eventually ask in exchange for their cooperation against ISIS. He noted PYD and PKK fighters aided the U.S. in its fight to save the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar in Iraq in August.
“It’s going to be very hard for the United States down the road,” Barkey said — particularly if, as many of the U.S.-backed rebels demand, the U.S.-led coalition ultimately helps remove the current Syrian government.
“If Assad disappears tomorrow, the Kurds will come out and say, ‘We want our autonomous region.’ It’s going to be very hard for the United States to come back and say, ‘We don’t like you’ because they’re terrorists,” Barkey said, referring to the PYD’s link with the PKK.
Turkish forces on armoured vehicles at the outskirts of Suruc, secure the border area with Syria, background, Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab and its surrounding areas have been under attack since mid-September, with militants capturing dozens of nearby Kurdish villages. The flag is indicating that the jihadists may have regrouped and broken through the Kurdish lines. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Suzan Fraser reporting,
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The NATO alliance has drawn up a strategy to defend Turkey if it is attacked along its border with Syria, a Turkish official said Monday.
Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz, whose country is a NATO member, said the alliance did that at his government’s request as Islamic State militants, who have captured a large swath of Iraq and Syria, are trying to take the Syrian town of Kobani near the Turkish border.
“If there is an attack, NATO’s joint defense mechanisms will be activated,” Yilmaz told reporters. “From the moment the incidents relating to Syria first started, we asked NATO to prepare for possibilities to make plans. NATO prepared a plan taking various alternatives into account.”
“Therefore,” he said, “if there is an attack on Turkey, NATO will bring about the provisions of Article 5 of the Washington Convention.” Article 5 states that an attack against one NATO member shall be considered an attack against all members.
NATO’s new secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, appeared to confirm what Turkey was saying during a news conference in Warsaw, Poland, on Monday.
After expressing concern about the violence in Syria and the fact that it has spilled over into Iraq, he said: “The main responsibility for NATO is to protect all allied countries. Turkey is a NATO ally and our main responsibility is to protect the integrity, the borders of Turkey, and that’s the reason why we have deployed Patriot missiles in Turkey to enhance, to strengthen their air defense of Turkey. And Turkey should know that NATO will be there if there is any spillover, any attacks on Turkey as a consequence of the violence we see in Syria.”
Kurdish forces are defending Kobani, but two banners of the Islamic State group were raised over a building and a nearby hill on Monday, suggesting that the militants may have broken through the Kurdish perimeter.
(AP correspondents Vanessa Gera in Warsaw and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed).
The delicate truce between Kyiv and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine was broken again on Sunday. New NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is optimistic that the situation can be resolved.
There was fresh shelling in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Sunday, the one-month anniversary of the ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and the pro-Russian rebels.
“There is no ceasefire,” a resident of the city said, gesturing to the firefight and destruction in the distance.
Ukraine’s military blames the separatists for the outbreak of violence near Donetsk’s government-held airport, where at least three civilians and three separatists were killed and dozens were wounded, according to senior rebel official Eduard Basulin.
Ukrainian military spokesman Volodymyr Polyovy gave a different account, telling a press conference that two service staff were killed on Sunday and about six people were wounded. “The terrorists are violating the terms of the ceasefire,” he added.
Clashes around the airport have been going on for weeks, as the facility, which has a modernized runway capable of handling heavy transporters, is of great strategic value. And while the separatists have been able to take several other important buildings in Donetsk, the airport remains in Kyiv’s hands.
Both sides blame each other for the civilian deaths.
“The airport is a springboard for the city…our main task is to push them (government forces) away from the city so that they can no longer shell residential districts,” Basulin said.
Clinging to a fragile truce
Despite the ongoing violence, neither Kyiv nor Moscow seems willing to proclaim the truce invalid.
Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have come together to create a monitoring contact group, which together with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) patrols the frontline. Berlin has also considered sending troops to support the patrols.
The Ukrainian government has a large interest in maintaining some form of peace ahead of October 26 parliamentary polls called by President Petro Poroshenko. Europe, for its part, would also rather maintain the status quo as opposed to widening its impasse with Russia and its gas supplies as winter approaches.
NATO secretary general optimistic
There is great interest into how newly-minted NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will approach the issue. Speaking on his first day in office on Wednesday, Stoltenberg told journalists that he saw no contradiction between his pro-US, stronger-NATO stance and improved ties with Russia.
Jens Stoltenberg took the helm of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on October 1.
“We see opportunity in the ceasefire…but we also see violations of the ceasefire and it’s a fragile situation,” the former Norwegian prime minister said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin cautiously approved of Stoltenberg’s ascension, saying “we have very good relations, including personal relations.” The new NATO chief promised to react with an “open mind” if Russia sought to restart the NATO-Russia council, which has ceased operations since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March.
Some 75 people are reported to have died since the Ukrainian-Separatist truce, which was backed by Kyiv and the Kremlin, went into effect on September 5.
es/nm (AP, AFP, Reuters)
New NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg of Norway arrives to chair his first meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels Oct. 1. Francois Lenoir / Reuters
The Associated Press.
At a time of daunting geopolitical crises, NATO is undergoing its own version of regime change, with the arrival of a new chief official who has the blessing, at least temporarily, of one of the West’s biggest adversaries: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Former two-term Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg started work Wednesday as NATO’s secretary-general, the 13th in the trans-Atlantic organization’s 65-year existence. And the key question is whether his consensus-building style will be more effective in tamping down the Ukraine conflict and other flashpoints than the hard talk of his predecessor, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
“I expect more moderate language, and that he will try to keep the dialogue open,” said Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, an independent Norwegian research institution.
To allies like Germany, the expectation of a dial-back of the rhetoric from Rasmussen — a former conservative Danish prime minister — was one factor arguing in Stoltenberg’s favor.
Last month, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, though squarely blaming the Kremlin for the continued crisis over Ukraine, said: “I found that some things that came out of Brussels, from NATO headquarters, in these last few weeks weren’t always helpful.”
Stoltenberg was unanimously chosen as Rasmussen’s successor by NATO’s policy making North Atlantic Council in March. It was a pick that won swift if tentative approval from Putin, who had dealt with Stoltenberg when the 55-year-old Norwegian headed the left-of-center government of one of Russia’s neighboring countries.
“We have very good relations, including personal relations,” Putin said in an interview on Russian state television last spring. “This is a very serious, responsible person, but we’ll see how our relations develop with him in his new position.”
Traditionally, a European has headed NATO’s civilian headquarters in Brussels, while an American officer holds the post of the alliance’s supreme military commander, beginning with General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1951-52.
Stoltenberg will be the first secretary-general to hail from an alliance nation that borders Russia. He becomes NATO’s highest-ranking civilian at a time when Western relations with Moscow are at their lowest ebb since the collapse of the Berlin Wall a quarter-century ago.
Simultaneously, NATO member states are confronted with crises in Iraq, Syria and North Africa, the uncertain future of Afghanistan, and an array of security challenges ranging from the threat of cyber-attacks to pirates preying on commercial shipping in the waters off the Horn of Africa.
“As we all know, NATO is not just a security alliance. It is a family of values which reaches across the Atlantic and defends almost 1 billion citizens of our allied countries,” Stoltenberg told a news conference at the NATO summit in Wales earlier this month.
“We must continue to stand up for those values,” he said.
Stoltenberg, an economist by training, became Norway’s youngest prime minister in 2000 the day after his 41st birthday, though he had to resign seven months later when his Labor Party took a beating at the polls. He joined the party at age 14 and was involved in Vietnam War-era street protests that sometimes ended with rocks being thrown at the U.S. Embassy.
In the waning days of the Cold War, when he was a promising young politician, the Soviet Union’s spy agency tried to recruit him, but he reported the KGB’s attempts to Norwegian authorities and did nothing wrong, Norwegian intelligence officials have said.
As premier, he became a recognizable face on the international scene with his sober, dignified response to the terror attacks that killed 77 people in Norway in July 2011. It was the worst atrocity since World War II to befall his small but proud country. For Norwegians, he said, it meant “hours, days, nights filled with shock, despair, anger and weeping.”
Belying a dovish reputation, Stoltenberg pushed through an increase in military spending during his second spell as prime minister in 2005-13.
Stoltenberg has long been a staunch U.S. ally. He endorsed President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” after the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, backed the decision to send Norwegian troops to Afghanistan, and sent Norwegian units to take part in NATO’s airstrikes in Libya.
As well as heading NATO’s staff and chairing its policy making council, a major part of the secretary-general’s job is trying to broker agreement among the alliance’s 28 member countries. Stoltenberg can boast of some international assignments, including serving as a United Nations special envoy on climate change and chairman of a high-level UN advisory panel on climate-change financing.
He is married with two grown-up children and is an avid biker and skier. Harpviken predicted that Stoltenberg will miss the informality of Norwegian public life, where he could strike up a conversation with a fellow cyclist or motorist as they both waited for the light to change on an Oslo street.
The analyst also said Stoltenberg has demonstrated that he has the skills needed to achieve effective unity at NATO at a time where the alliance must tackle security challenges on multiple fronts simultaneously.
“He rarely picks a conflict with anybody,” Harpviken said. “He is a consensus maker. Not a visionary perhaps, but one who builds through small steps and minor measures.”