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U.S. Reliance On Kurdish Forces In Fight Against ISIS


Kurdish forces have become a crucial ally in the fight against ISIS. Kurdish troops working with the United States have managed to beat back ISIS at various points along the Turkish-Syria border several times in the last year. They have shed blood for U.S. policies, including the invasion of Iraq. Does the U.S. owe the Kurds something for their loyalty?

Jonathan Steele is a columnist at the Guardian, and he recently wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books called "The Syrian Kurds Are Winning!" He joins us now from the BBC in London. Jonathan, thanks so much for being with us.

JONATHAN STEELE: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: What do you mean when you say the Kurds are winning?

STEELE: Well, they're doing very well. They've captured, as you said in the introduction, a number of cities on the Turkish-Syrian border, particularly Kobani after a four-month's battle. Then they captured Tal Abyad, which is an important crossing point for IS to bring in material and fighters and money. And they've more recently captured some cities away from the border towards Raqqa.

SIMON: When you say they're winning - winning the fight against ISIS or winning the aspiration that many Kurds have for their own homeland?

STEELE: Well, both. I think, probably, winning is maybe overdoing it. They're advancing. Let's put it like that. And they've turned back ISIS. It's going to be a long way before they defeat ISIS completely. And, of course, it's not possible for a Kurdish force, however motivated, however armed, to capture Raqqa, which is a largely Arab city. So they'll need allies for that.

But they're also winning their aspirations because obviously, they would like to create an autonomous area within Syria, which they've done on the pattern, not quite as far as the Iraqi Kurds have gone in Kurdistan regional government in northern Iraq, but they're doing pretty well. They have their own self-government, their own army. They have their own flag. The Syrian government forces have not been there for about three years, except in a couple of small places, so they are pretty much on their own and doing quite well.

SIMON: The United States has said for a number of years now that it's opposed to an independent Kurdish state, in part because, of course, Turkey is opposed to an independent Kurdish state. But does this increasing reliance on Kurdish forces add to - I think we can fairly say - a kind of blood debt that many Kurds feel the U.S. owes them?

STEELE: Well, it's true. They have been betrayed by the U.S. a number of times in the past. And so they do feel the U.S. owes them a debt. But on the other hand, there's always a feeling that at some point in the future, U.S. government policy could change. The U.S. may see its interests in the region differently, particularly as regards Turkey because Turkey is an ever-present potential threat to the Kurds. So nobody's being too euphoric about the current U.S. alliance against ISIS.

SIMON: And is this circumstance creating what amounts to autonomous Kurdish states on the ground, even if they're not recognized as such?

STEELE: Well, it is, I think. And that's what's worrying the Turks particularly. And there's a huge cultural resurgence. One mustn't forget that until 2011, when this uprising against Assad began, the Kurdish language was forbidden in the Kurdish regions of northern Syria. And so most people, except the young now, speak better Arabic than Kurdish. That's slowly changing. They have Kurdish language courses. The primary schools are in Kurdish. They have Kurdish media, TV, radio, newspapers and so on. So gradually, they're reviving their own language. And that, of course, is a crucial feature in any attempt to revive a national culture and a national identity.

SIMON: Jonathan Steele of the Guardian, thanks so much.

STEELE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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