Earlier this month, former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and her daughter Chelsea, announced their intention to produce, through their company HiddenLight Productions, a TV drama about female Kurdish fighters who fought against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Syria.
The mini-series will be an adaptation of journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s upcoming book “The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage and Justice”. The book is based on extensive interviews Lemmon conducted in Syria with members of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the female wing of the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), and will be published by Penguin Press on February 16.
“The Daughters of Kobani is an extraordinary account of brave, defiant women fighting for justice and equality,” Clinton told US media after announcing the project. “We created HiddenLight to celebrate heroes – sung and unsung alike – whose courage is too often overlooked, and we could not be more thrilled to bring this inspiring story to viewers around the world.”
While describing female fighters from the YPJ as “heroes”, however, Clinton failed to mention that the YPG is the Syrian arm of the PKK, an armed group that has been waging a bloody war against Washington’s NATO ally, Turkey, for over three decades. The US, alongside the EU, Australia and many other regional and global powers, has long considered the PKK a terrorist organisation.
Of course, the former Secretary of State is well aware of this fact. So what is behind this apparent misinformation campaign aiming to rebrand a terror group as a legitimate organisation fighting for “justice and equality”?
The efforts to whitewash the YPG are not new
Under the Obama administration, the US not only designated the YPG as its main partner in the fight against ISIL in Syria, but also provided it with weapons and logistical support. To legitimise this new partnership, it swept the armed group’s undeniable links to the PKK under the carpet and embarked on a relentless campaign to convince the international community that the group has no motivation other than defeating ISIL.
As part of this campaign, American media organisations published countless positive reports about the group, and especially about its female wing, the YPJ. These efforts proved somewhat fruitful, with the group gaining considerable public support in the West, and opening representative offices in several European countries.
Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, however, drastically altered the situation.
President Trump, as part of his “America first” foreign policy, pulled US troops from Syria and paved the way for Turkey to conduct a defensive military operation in the war-torn country to push the YPG forces away from its borders. Supporters of the Obama administration in the West accused President Trump of “abandoning an American ally that helped defeat ISIL” and tried to convince the international community that the Turkish operation is an unlawful “aggression”. Despite their efforts, however, pro-YPG narratives gradually lost prominence in the international arena and we stopped seeing regular news reports about the alleged heroism and sacrifices of YPG militants in the US media.
Now, after the election victory of Joe Biden, who served as Barack Obama’s Vice President between 2008-16, however, Washington is reversing most of Trump’s Middle East policies, and there are signs that it is planning to once again use the YPG as its boots on the ground in the region.
After two years of relative inaction, ISIL is once again active in both Syria and Iraq. On January 21, the terror group staged its biggest attack in three years in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, killing dozens of people. The Iraqi government already asked for Washington’s help in protecting its citizens against the renewed ISIL threat. Biden, who does not want to send more US troops to the Middle East, desperately needs proxies on the ground to stop the terror group from gaining further power.
A return to Obama-era policies
Biden appointed Lloyd Austin as his Secretary of Defense and Brett McGurk as the US National Security Council’s (NSC) coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.
Both Austin and McGurk were among the main architects of the Obama administration’s YPG-centred policies in Syria. Austin served as the Commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) between 2013-16 and McGurk was the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL between 2015-18.
McGurk was so invested in the US’ partnership with the armed group that he resigned from his role as US envoy to the anti-ISIL coalition following President Trump’s decision to pull troops from Syria and allow Turkey to conduct an operation against the YPG in the country.
Now that they are back in positions of power, and there is renewed need for countering ISIL in areas where the Kurds are influential, there is every reason to believe McGurk and Austin will take steps to rebuild Washington’s partnership with the YPG.
The news of Hilary Clinton’s new TV drama about “the daughters of Kobani” is a clear sign that a new campaign to whitewash the YPG and convince the international community that it is a legitimate force fighting only for “justice and equality” is already underway. And the Clintons are not the only ones in Washington working to revitalise the pro-YPG narratives of the Obama era.
On January 25, for example, Colonel Wayne Marotto, the spokesperson for the anti-ISIL coalition, celebrated the anniversary of Kobani’s liberation from ISIL by sharing a photo of female YPG fighters on Twitter. “We congratulate the Kurds for showing an example of a reliable and capable partnership,” Marotto said, indicating that under the Biden administration this partnership will likely be renewed.
Repeating past mistakes, alienating important allies
The Obama administration’s decision to train and arm the YPG not only gave the PKK, a designated terror organisation, renewed legitimacy, but also damaged Washington’s relations with Turkey, a leading regional power and a NATO member.
Biden’s decision to appoint the architects of this destructive policy to crucial posts in his administration, coupled with efforts by his leading allies to whitewash the YPG as an egalitarian force fighting for justice, signal that the new US President is about to repeat the Obama administration’s mistakes.
Despite Washington’s consistent disregard in recent years of its security concerns and foreign policy red lines, the Turkish government repeatedly voiced its commitment to its alliance with the US. Ankara is still willing to work with the Biden administration to ensure the security and stability of the region, but it understandably demands Washington to assume a foreign policy that is principled, honest and considerate of its most basic security needs.
Despite all the news reports, TV dramas and novels that attempt to cast the YPG as a utopian organisation that fights for democracy, justice and freedom, the Turks know that it is merely the media-friendly facade of the PKK – the terror group that killed tens of thousands of their compatriots.
ISIL needs to be eliminated for good, but terror cannot be defeated with the help of terrorists. The Biden administration should not repeat Obama’s mistakes and jeopardise its crucial partnership with Turkey by supporting a terror group.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.