Combined Arab-Kurdish army gets better wheels
by PAUL IDDON
In January 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces, an Arab-Kurdish militia fighting in Syria, received armored vehicles — reportedly IAG Guardian personnel carriers — from the United States for the first time.
“Previously we didn’t get support in this form, we would get light weapons and ammunition,” SDF spokesman Talal Silo told Reuters. “There are signs of full support from the new American leadership — more than before — for our forces.”
The main component of the SDF, the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, claimed shortly thereafter that it did not receive any of this equipment. Instead, the Pentagon stated the vehicles were delivered to the Syrian Arab Coalition, another member of the SDF.
ABD öncülüğündeki koalisyon tarafından #YPG'ye yeni zırhlı araçlar gönderildi #Kobani
This is more likely than not a formality to placate Turkey, which perceives the YPG to be little more than the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which it considers to be a terrorist group. Since the United States started delivering guns and bullets to the SDF in late 2015, it has invariably claimed the hardware was going solely to Arab members of the coalition.
The delivery was reportedly one of the last acts of the Obama administration and is hugely significant. The SDF has been advancing into Syria’s Raqqa province since November 2016 and receives substantial support from the United States.
Now, possession of significant numbers of armored Guardians will give these fighters additional protection as they move closer to their main target, the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s main urban stronghold in Syria.
Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said that supplying the SDF such vehicles “was a ground-level tactical decision … based on the threats the SDF might be facing.”
“The rocket, mortar and sniper attacks from Daesh can’t do anything to these machines,” an anonymous SDF source told the Russian state-owned media outlet Sputnik. “They are very robust and can withstand even mine blasts.”
The U.S.-led coalition has also delivered Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles to the Kurdish peshmerga in neighboring Iraq. Improvised explosive devices are responsible for the majority of more than 1,600 peshmerga deaths incurred during the war with the Islamic State.
The peshmerga have been relatively fortunate, fielding Soviet-era T-55 and T-62 tanks grabbed years ago from Saddam Hussein’s army — and others left behind by the Iraqi Army during its 2014 retreat from northern Iraq. The SDF, on the other hand, only have a dozen, at best, similarly aged former Syrian tanks.
It’s unclear if the SDF’s new Guardians include weapons. The SDF/YPG have sought to compensate for their lack of armored vehicles by building makeshift ones, which are of dubious quality. They’ve also relied heavily on technicals, or modified pick-up trucks with heavy mounted machine guns.
Sputnik’s aforementioned source claimed that the United States supplied the coalition “with heat-seeking missiles, mortars, sniper rifles and other weapons, along with the vehicles.”
There’s a tactical reason for it, if so. The SDF must fend off mass attacks by armored Islamic State suicide bomb trucks. In the jihadist-occupied northwestern Syrian city of Al Bab, the terror group sent in armored suicide vehicles to stave off a combined Turkish and Free Syrian Army assault, inflicting severe casualties on these forces in the process.
Turkey is likely to be seriously irked by the U.S. decision to hand the SDF armored vehicles — especially if Washington added anti-tank missiles into the mix. Ankara would worry the missiles could wind up back in Turkey and in the hands of the PKK.
“Because of the wars in Iraq and Syria with advanced weaponry used by all belligerents, the PKK has become a sophisticated force by diversifying its weaponry, ammunition and equipment,” Metin Gurcan of Al-Monitor noted. “The Turkish military notes the PKK and its northern Syrian combat affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are gradually becoming more of a regular army by constantly improving their conventional capabilities.”
One unnamed Turkish defense analyst told Gurcan that the PKK has already improved its anti-tank capabilities. “In the past, the PKK used to rely mostly on PG-7 RPG-7 rockets,” the analyst told Al-Monitor. “Now they field RPG-7VM, PG-7ML, DZGI-40 and HEI-AP rockets.”
Gurcan also noted that PKK media outlets have released footage of Kurdish militants attacking the Turkish army with Fagot and Metis anti-tank missiles. Video recordings from 2016 further reveal two examples of the group firing tank-busting Milan missiles.
And Turkey is vowing to attack the SDF-controlled Syrian city of Manbij once the Turkish offensive at Al-Bab is over.
An attack on the SDF could draw in the YPG and lead to a full-blown escalation of clashes. And that would come after Turkish tanks in Syria, especially older U.S.-made M-60 Pattons, and newer German made Leopard 2s, have proven highly vulnerable to anti-tank missiles.
If the SDF/YPG were to aim American missiles at Turkish tanks, that would strain relations between Ankara and Washington … to put it mildly.
However, one clear area where the Turks have an overwhelming advantage over the SDF/YPG is from the air, since the coalition does not possess anti-aircraft missiles, which Silo — the SDF spokesman — asked Washington for last month. The United States has not reciprocated his request.
The militias also sorely lack any serious capability to counter helicopters or jet fighters. In a clash, Turkey could ravage their positions.