All of Washington has been atwitter with the president’s recent decision to draw down American forces from their ongoing mission in Syria. The reason is the purported American abandonment — betrayal, in the eyes of many — of the Syrian Kurds. But the situation is more complicated than that. There has been much conflation of both the American mission in Syria and the disposition of America’s erstwhile Kurdish friends.
The fact is, despite being the world’s largest stateless ethnic population, sharing a contiguous landmass that cuts across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran — roughly a 500,000-square-kilometer area — the Kurds are by no means a monolithic entity. What’s more, the United States government has never officially endorsed the concept of a Kurdish state in the Middle East.
Don’t let those facts stop the experts from trotting out many falsehoods and half-truths about the messy situation that is Syria, though. Obviously, the Kurds who have been fighting alongside Americans throughout the entirety of America’s three-decade-long series of Middle East conflicts should be rewarded for their courage. It is utterly confounding, however, that the same “serious” foreign-policy “thinkers” in Washington and media who continually lambaste President Trump for his supposedly destabilizing actions in the Middle East are also in favor of massively destabilizing the region to midwife the birth of an independent, Kurdish state.
The rejiggering of the Middle East map would require more than the paltry American force currently fighting alongside the Kurds of northern Syria. It not only would require the United States to understand the various tribal and regional dynamics between the numerous Kurdish communities throughout the Mideast but would also mean that any potential Kurdish state would have to be cleaved from Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. This could never be achieved peacefully. It would entail some degree of violence and inevitably invoke ethno-religious tribal backlash against the United States at precisely the moment America does not need that headache.
Further, what critics do not understand is that the Kurds have been rewarded for their loyalty to the United States. They also confuse the Marxist elements of northern Syria’s Kurds with the pro-American Peshmerga of northern Iraq.
Here’s Why Everyone Is Upset About the Kurds
Following Desert Storm, the Kurds of northern Iraq heeded the George H. W. Bush administration’s calls to rise against Saddam Hussein. But politics reared its ugly head: just as the Kurds were standing up to Saddam’s repression in Iraq, the Americans opted to enter into an armistice with Saddam’s regime once the last bits of his military exited neighboring Kuwait.
In turn, the Kurds were slaughtered by Saddam for their troubles. Understandably, many Americans recognized the moral wrong that was committed by abandoning the Kurds. Nonetheless, many did not support risking a quagmire by invading Iraq and toppling Saddam’s regime after successfully ousting his forces from Kuwait.
In 1994, though, the United States made up for their earlier abandonment of the Iraqi Kurds by creating a No-Fly Zone that separated Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq from Saddam’s iron grip. Once that occurred, the Kurds of northern Iraq — with their fearsome Peshmerga forces — built a potent proto-state that was independent in all but its name. Buttressed by lucrative oil supplies beneath their land and shielded from Saddam’s murderous regime by American warplanes, Kurdish Iraq flourished. Today, it is a wealthy and relatively safe place. And, while it remains a nominal part of post-Saddam Iraq (even having supplied that country with its first post-Saddam president, Jalal Talabani), the Kurds of northern Iraq are unlike any other Kurdish ethnic group living in the Mideast: they are mostly sovereign.
Americans everywhere can rejoice that we have corrected a mistake that George H. W. Bush made during his otherwise-successful Desert Storm.
Read My Lips: No Kurdish State in Syria
The Kurds of northern Syria are quite different from their Iraqi Kurd brethren. In Syria, the Kurds are represented by the Syrian Democratic Forces (YPG). The YPG were, until the threat of ISIS appeared, an overtly Marxist organization with heavy ties to Turkey’s longtime Kurdish Marxist group, the PKK. The PKK, in fact, are responsible for tens of thousands of Turkish deaths as the PKK has engaged in a decades-long terrorist campaign against Turkey.
The PKK and their Syrian Kurdish allies would argue that they are fighting a war of national liberation. Certainly, Turkey has a long history of brutalizing the Kurds. But at no point has the United States ever offered to settle this matter. And in no way could anyone other than the Turks and Kurds reach a settlement. Basically, the United States did not have a dog in that fight. Plus, Turkey’s presence as a vital (albeit troubled) NATO partner meant that Washington needed to steer clear of the Kurdish problem in Turkey and Syria unless we wanted to invoke the kind of reaction that Turkey is having today. In fact, some U.S. Army leaders boasted of their successful encouragement for the YPG to “change their brand” before the anti-ISIS coalition in the Mideast formed with the YPG leading the fight, so as not to invoke the ire of the other powers joining the coalition in 2015 (most oppose an independent Kurdish state).
It is true that the Syrian Kurdish YPG forces fought gallantly alongside — and for — American forces during our conflict against ISIS. But the YPG did this not out of love for a capitalist country like the United States. Rather, the YPG sacrificed much in the hopes that Washington would grant the Kurds a united, independent state. Such a move, while morally appealing, would entail the greatest destabilization of the Middle East since the Sykes–Picot Agreement helped to create the modern, chaotic Middle East.
America Is a Country With Interests, Not a Charity
The United States has done the right thing: Washington honored its commitment to Iraq’s Kurdish population by ensuring they exist as a separate yet equal component of Shiite-dominated Iraq. At the same time, though, Washington has ensured that its NATO partnership with Turkey is preserved by refusing to make any new, formal commitments to the Kurds in Syria. This may seem like an unfair move, but this is geopolitics we are discussing here.
As Lord Palmerston once said, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies; they only have permanent interests.” The United States has no interest in destabilizing the Middle East further. Breaking apart NATO by pushing Turkey away totally from our orbit while creating an independent Kurdish state in northern Syria would prompt backlash from nearly every Middle Eastern state.
Brandon J. Weichert can be reached via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.