Streetwise Professor

October 22, 2019

The Kurds, the US, and Syria: Who Owes Whom a Debt of Gratitude?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 5:48 pm

I linked on Twitter to this StrategyPage article on Syria a few weeks back. It is well-done, and quite detailed, so it’s worth linking here.

I repeat my Twitter challenge: I dare anyone to read that article, and identify a plausible strategy for the US to bring about a positive outcome in Syria (either for Syrians, or for US interests). Especially in light of serial US failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

One thing of particular interest is that at one time or another, the US has supported virtually every anti-Assad group in Syria, including people who are indistinguishable from those we have been killing for decades in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Yemen and the Philippines and . . . ). What’s more, at times American-supported groups have fought one another. So it’s hardly as if (a) we’ve shown good taste in allies, and (b) we can actually get those allies to do what we want.

Yet the shrieks about the impending disaster that will attend getting out of Syria get louder by the day. Perhaps someone could tell me how the impending disaster would be at all distinguishable from the disaster that has been ongoing for 8 years.

Day after day we are bombarded by opeds and talking heads decrying Trump’s policy. (It is his policy, not his administration’s, for most of his administration has been trying to undermine it 24/7.) Just what record of achievement can these people point to that warrants paying attention to them for a nanosecond? They appear to be convinced of their own strategic genius, evidently based on the fact that they were awesome at Risk while doing tequila shots in their college dorms, rather than by any accomplishment in the real world (especially the Middle East).

They tell us that the truly horrible aspect of Trump’s policy is betraying the Kurds, whom fought alongside the US in defeating ISIS. This allegedly gives them some moral claim on the US.

Not to gainsay the Kurd’s contribution, or their bravery, but here’s the reality. Fighting ISIS in Syria was a war of choice for the US: for the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, it was an not. It was an existential clash. The US saved the Kurds, primarily through airpower. This video of a US smart bomb ruining an ISIS flag bearer’s day in Kobani (where the Kurds were fighting a vicious battle against ISIS) is emblematic:

So who has a moral claim upon whom?

As vital and courageous as it was, the Kurds’ fighting against ISIS clearly does NOT obligate the United States to advance their ambitions to carve out an independent state in Syria (let alone in Turkey, or Iraq). Especially inasmuch as this would complicate an already fraught relationship with a difficult ally, but one which is far more important to American interests than the Kurds. It was perfectly reasonable for the US to say to the Kurds: “We appreciate your contribution to the war against ISIS. But without us, you would have been massacred. You have to back off the border with Turkey, and not expect us to protect you if you decide to do otherwise.”

The Kurds decided to do otherwise. So be it. Instead of saying “how with good conscience can we repay the Kurds for what they have done for us in such a fashion?” with justice the US can say “how with good conscience can the Kurds repay the US for what we have done for them in such a fashion?”

The Kurds are reputedly the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state. Their actions in Syria provide a pretty good explanation of why that’s so.

The Syrian Kurds made their choice. Defending their choice would not advance the interests of the US, and the balance of obligations is hardly as one sided as the Syria-obsessed portray. Indeed, the balance quite plausibly goes quite the opposite direction.

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  1. “The Kurds are reputedly the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state”: that can’t be right, there are only 35 million of them. So they are outnumbered by, for instance, the English.

    Comment by dearieme — October 23, 2019 @ 4:59 am

  2. @dearieme–Well, if Parliament would get on with it, that problem would be solved. Or would you need to be shed of the Scots too?

    Comment by cpirrong — October 23, 2019 @ 2:46 pm

  3. The Scots, the Welsh, the Northern Irish. And others too numerous to list.

    Comment by dearieme — October 23, 2019 @ 4:19 pm

  4. @dearieme–I was wondering about the Welsh and the Northern Irish too.

    Comment by cpirrong — October 23, 2019 @ 5:56 pm

  5. I agree entirely with your assessment. The media and the “talking heads” seem to be singing from the same sheet.

    There is no conceivable way that the US could advance any strategic interests by continuing to support the Kurds in Syria unless Washington saw a reason to build a large Kurdish state (from lands in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and eventually Iran) that no one else in the region supports. (Perhaps Israel might, but I am not sure.) At the very least, that approach would involve the US in a war with Turkey. The Kurdish question long predates him, but Obama created the mess in Syria with his asinine interventionist policy. Now, it is better to get out. President Trump should be commended for doing so.

    Whether planned or not by Trump, abandoning the field to Russia and Turkey is likely to lead (in time) to increased tensions between the two. Their interests are not the same with regard to the Kurdish question, and Turkey will not readily tolerate being subordinated to Russia in its own backyard. Putin is a master at playing a strong foreign policy with a rather weak hand, but one has to bear in mind that Russia is not the US. It cannot fill the role the US has long played as the region’s off-shore hegemon.

    Comment by Ben — October 24, 2019 @ 6:17 am

  6. Very interesting podcast on the some guys who really know, according to friends of mine who really know. One of them loathes Erdogan, so every time he has to point out that the Turks are right about some minor point, he prefaced it with “I am not being an apologist…….” . Well worth the time.

    Comment by Sotos — October 29, 2019 @ 3:11 pm

  7. Thanks, @Sotos. It was very informative, at the very least because it makes plain the impossibly complicated nature of the conflict, with all of the contending parties all of whom hate one another, and none of whom love us.

    I know of both guys and have read their site for years, and even subscribed to their newsletter before they went online.

    Austin Bay is a big fan of Ataturk. He wrote a brief bio of him (which is quite good). That’s the main reason for his loathing of Erdogan.

    Comment by cpirrong — October 29, 2019 @ 5:19 pm

  8. @dearieme–I was going to say Edward I might object, but figured you just consider him an occupying frog.

    Comment by cpirrong — October 30, 2019 @ 8:07 am

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