After the failure of its $500 million program to stand up a Syrian volunteer force to battle Islamic State extremists, the Obama administration has begun an effort to enable Arab militias to fight alongside a Kurdish force that has gotten U.S. air support for the past year.
The stated U.S. aim is to oust the Islamic State from its de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria. But if the Shammar tribal militia, the biggest in Hasaka province, is any example, many Arab forces on the ground have a different agenda. For that matter, so does the Kurdish People’s Protection Force, or YPG, which dominates this area and has worked closely with the United States since the siege last year of the border town of Kobani.
The road to the palace of Sheikh Humaydi Daham al Hadi, the head of the Shammar tribe, winds through vast wheat fields in this isolated corner of eastern Syria, past checkpoints manned by YPG fighters, and then by his own guards.
Hasaka, an oil, gas and grain producing area, is now part of what the YPG calls Jazera, one of three cantons that comprise Rojava, or west Kurdistan, a 200-mile-long corridor on Syria’s border with Turkey. The Syrian government, which still has troops in at least two cities, has acquiesced to YPG control.
Because Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist group and has closed its borders because of the YPG’s affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, the only way into Rojava is by a ferry across the Tigris River from Iraq and hours of driving on secondary roads.
Welcoming visitors in his vast reception room, Sheikh Humaydi says his goal is to lead a Shammar tribal uprising against the Islamic State “to liberate Syria, Iraq and beyond.” But he also wants to carry on a 2-century-old struggle against conservative Wahabi Islam, which he said destroyed the last Shammar emirate, and he favors the breakup of Saudi Arabia, where the puritanical sect dominates. “We are already working on that,” he said.
The U.S. dropped 50 tons of ammunition into Syria’s Hasaka province on Oct. 11.
According to his son, Bandar al Humaydi, who heads the al Sanadid militia, the immediate priority of is “to liberate al Hawl and Ash Shaddadi from the Islamic State,” a reference to two towns in the oil- and gas-producing parts of Hasaka province. Bandar says he has 600 to 700 front-line fighters and 2,000 reserves but is in need of ammunition and better weapons, including TOW anti-tank missiles.
But any moves by al Sanadid depend on the YPG, which named Sheikh Humaydi co-president of the canton and recommended the al Sanadid militia to the U.S. military to receive military aid airdrops, the only known one of which took place Oct. 11.
In fact, every major decision in Rojava is up to the YPG, including the actual distribution of U.S. aid. Bandar al Humaydi said YPG military commanders told him that they had received the first U.S. shipment of 50 tons of ammunition, but that so far the Kurdish militia hadn’t distributed it. It’s not clear if the Kurdish militia supports Bandar’s plan to liberate al Hawl and Ash Shaddadi.
If al Sanadid has no immediate plans to attack Raqqa, which lies about 150 miles southeast of here, it reflects the view of the YPG, which controls territory as little as 35 miles from the Islamic State stronghold.
“We in the YPG have a strategic goal, to link Afrin with Kobani,” said Polat Can, a senior militia official, referring to two Kurdish enclaves in Rojava that are separated by 60 miles of territory controlled by the Islamic State. “We will do everything we can to achieve it.”
Other areas, such as Raqqa, “are not so important,” he said in an interview in Suleimaniyah, Iraq. Humaydi supports the YPG plan.
American military officials say the U.S. won’t back any such operation, and officials in Ankara say Turkey would block it, by force if necessary. Turkey fears that if the YPG seizes the corridor, millions more Syrian Arabs and Turkmans will flee to Turkey.
The statements by Humaydi and Can are the latest sign that Obama administration decisions to fix one problem could have long-term and unintended implications.
The airdrop of ammunition took place just two days after the administration declared an end to its “train-and-equip” program, which had widely been declared a failure. But how the Arab groups were selected to be part of the new program is hardly clear.
The process appears to give the YPG veto power over the buildup of Arab forces. It was Can who announced the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces on Oct. 11, just hours before the arms airdrop. The al Sanadid militia was among the groups he named.
U.S. officials visited northern Syria in early October to meet with the YPG’s proposed partners. But they declined to meet Sheikh Humaydi at his compound.
One day later, Can told McClatchy that the YPG would retain overall command of the joint Kurdish-Arab force. “The international community has assigned this mission to the YPG,” he said.
U.S. officials visited YPG-dominated northern Syria in early October to meet with the Kurdish militia’s proposed partners. Bandar al Humaydi said the vetting session took place on a farm in the region after the Americans declined to call on him and his father at their compound, on the advice of the YPG, whose personnel sat in on the discussion, he said.
“The Americans said they will transfer our case to their leadership and that they hoped we could be invited,” Bandar told McClatchy.
Still unclear is how many volunteers the local forces, all with their own agendas, can actually muster. Can estimated there are 30,000 Arabs already fighting and 40,000 YPG fighters. But U.S. officials put the YPG numbers at closer to 20,000 and the Arabs at as few as 5,000.
But according to Bandar, “if the Americans support us, we will be able to reach Damascus. We have men, tens of thousands, who might join us in Syria and in Iraq.”
It isn’t only Turkey that is likely to question the U.S. approach to fighting the Islamic State in northern Syria. The method of selecting military aid recipients seems to favor forces with the agenda to remake the map of the Middle East. But backing such forces could put the U.S. into conflict with the stated national interests of regional powers like Turkey, which is loath to see Syria break apart; Iran, which wants Iraq to stay together; and Saudi Arabia, which can be expected to defend its own territorial integrity.
Meanwhile, a force that didn’t make it through the YPG’s first round of vetting turns out to be the only major militia in the region that supports the U.S. goal of attacking Raqqa.
That is the Liwa Thurwar al-Raqqa, or the Raqqa Revolutionaries, led by a Raqqa merchant who goes by the nom-de-guerre Abu Issa, or “Issa’s father.” The group captured large parts of northern Syria before the Syrian government handed the rest to the YPG and includes many fighters from Raqqa itself.
“We are now preparing for the battle of Raqqa,” Abu Issa told McClatchy in his first interview given to Western news media. “But we have very limited resources. We need to have the same equipment as our enemy has,” he said, referring to the tanks and armored personnel carries the Islamic State seized from the Iraqi army. “All our weapons are spoils from the regime.”
More than 15 of his fighters even have been trained by the U.S. in the use of TOW missiles, though none have in fact been supplied to his forces.
“We have been fighting ISIS for almost two years,” he said. “We were the first to fight them. The most important thing is we need weapons, to encourage people to come for training. If I had weapons, ammunition and support, I could gather 10,000 fighters.”
Unlike the Shammar leadership, Abu Issa was silent when asked if he supported the YPG’s goal of capturing another 60 miles of territory along the Syrian-Turkish border. “Our goal is to go to Raqqa,” he said.
But he said the U.S. had not been in contact with him. “We didn’t get anything from the Americans. They don’t even contact us,” he said. “We are waiting to be supported.”
U.S. officials acknowledged that the Raqqa Revolutionaries are not being supplied. “He’s making a lot of noise,” said one U.S. military official, who could not be identified because he is not authorized to speak on the record. “We’re working through the Syrian Democratic Forces there. He’s not part of the vetted Arab force.”
Special correspondent Zakaria Zakaria contributed from Tel Alo.
Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc