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Syrian Fighters Want to Open an Office in Washington, a Move That Could Anger U.S. Ally

The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political branch of the Syria-based militant group the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has filed a request with the U.S. Justice Department to open an office in Washington D.C., documents reveal.

“The SDC's mission in the United States will primarily focus on educating the American people about the Democratic process in Syria, and will encourage the American Government to make laws that strengthen democracy in Syria and adopt federalism as a solution for the democratic transition In Syria,” reads the original petition filed with the Justice Department on January 31.

“The legislative agenda of the US. Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council will involve efforts to better equip the army of Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS); improve the region's counterterrorism apparatus to meet the needs of the post-ISIS era; end the Turkish occupation of Syria; allow the DFNS to operate an international airport; and increase humanitarian aid to the region,” the document indicated. 

An amendment to the documents was made on March 16.

The SDF is a U.S.-backed group fighting in Syria. It's a coalition of Kurdish, Arab and Syriac Christian fighters but is mostly run by the Kurdish YPG. It has been essential in the U.S. fight against the Islamic State.

Turkey’s government, however, believes that the YPG is a terrorist group that supports Kurdish independence within its border, and the country has launched an offensive against the group in recent months. Ankara claims that the YPG is linked to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which the U.S. considers a terrorist group. The petition to open an office in Washington was filed just days after Turkey, a U.S. ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, began its incursion against the Kurds in northern Syria’s Afrin region.

If the Syrian Democratic Council were to open an office in Washington, it could jeopardize the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey, some experts argued.

“From SDC's standpoint, one could see the advantage of having an office in Washington. It allows them an opportunity to lobby Capitol Hill directly, which may help them retain their relevancy amid plans of an American withdrawal from Syria,” Ryan Gingeras, an expert on Turkish history at the Naval Postgraduate School, told Newsweek.

“As a group with clear ties to the PKK, the office undoubtedly would be a lightning rod for controversy. The fact that the SDC retains ties to a designated terror organization will undermine both its credibility on the Hill and certainly create discomfort within the U.S.-Turkish relationship,” Gingeras added.

But others argued that the group’s political wing might prove more palatable inside the beltway: The group the SDC is linked to already receives backing from Washington. 

“The SDC has a much broader banner that includes, at least nominally, Syrian Arabs too. That should provide enough cover for the Trump administration to accept the application. They can argue they’re officially recognizing a pro-democracy ally, not a Kurdish militant group,” Chris Meserole, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, told Newsweek.

927665706 Members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) attend the funeral in Deir Ezzor, Syria, of Kurdish fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who were killed in combat against Islamic State group (ISIS) in Qamishli, Syria, on March 3. The SDF’s political wing wants to open a representative office in Washington, D.C. Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

What’s more, several controversial organizations already have a presence in Washington. 

“Foreign governments, parties and groups attempt to influence policy outcomes in Washington all the time. The Iranian Mujahedin-e Khalq, for example, used to be on a U.S. terrorist list. They opened an office in D.C. in 2013,” Amanda Kadlec, a Middle East analyst with the Rand Corporation in Washington D.C., told Newsweek.

“It's possible that the opening of an office would irritate Turkey, but it wouldn't make [or] break U.S.-Turkey relations. The bigger issue for Turkey is the degree and scope of support that the U.S. has provided the Kurds over the years and the host of other diplomatic tangles between the two countries that have caused tension. This may be one more thing, but not likely to be the straw that breaks,” she added.

The Justice Department did not respond in time for publication to Newsweek’s questions about when a final decision will be made about whether to open the office.

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