There’s Always a Next Time to Betray the Kurds

The Kurds have no choice but to always trust the United States—and to suffer the inevitable consequences.

A Peshmerga soldier places a Kurdish flag near the front line with the Islamic State in Iraq.
A Peshmerga soldier walk to place a Kurdish flag near the front line with the Islamic State in Sinjar, Iraq, on Nov. 16, 2015. John Moore/Getty Images

During the observance of Yom Kippur, I received a text from one of my oldest and dearest friends as she sat in synagogue that read, “I just prayed for the Kurds. This is nuts.” Although texting during service was a violation of temple norms, especially on Judaism’s most solemn day, the message was spot on amid news alerts of Turkey’s new offensive in Syria. U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last weekend to redeploy American forces in northeastern Syria and disavow the U.S. security relationship with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has caused an uproar in Washington. The Beltway’s hot take machine went into overdrive with a combination of thinly veiled apologia and high dudgeon, though heavy on the condemnation end of the scale.

The criticism of Trump’s damaging and morally egregious decision may feel good, but—without giving the president a pass—it also reeks of hypocrisy. U.S. officials across the past two administrations could never credibly warn the Turkish government of the consequences of invading Syria because officials in Ankara knew there would be none. The United States barely protested when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered two other incursions in northern Syria and threatened U.S. soldiers in the process. The Turks could also count on parts of the U.S. professional bureaucracy, the analytic community, and members of Congress to offer specious arguments about the strategic partnership with the United States to ensure that there would be few costs to rolling over U.S. allies in northern Syria. Just a few weeks ago, Erdogan’s now fiercest critic in the Senate, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, was offering Turkey a free trade agreement and a way back into the F-35 fighter program after Ankara purchased a Russian air defense system.

Under these circumstances, one has to wonder why the Kurds kept putting their faith in the United States. The answer should be clear: The United States is powerful and can afford to be duplicitous, whereas the Kurds are weak and are thus forced to be credulous.

Before going any further, it is important to stipulate several points. The U.S. relationship with the SDF, the core of which is the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), is an accident of circumstance. Given the choice of working with the second-largest military in NATO and a militia connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an officially designated terrorist organization, the United States would always prefer to work with Turkey. The problem was that Erdogan and other Turkish officials did not want to work with the United States. When then-President Barack Obama went looking for allies to mount the fight against the Islamic State in 2014, the Turks declared they would not sign up because the strategy did not include regime change in Damascus and, according to Erdogan, the Islamic State and the PKK were the same thing, indicating that his priority was the latter.

Both reasons were self-serving. Few remember, but Erdogan was a leading patron of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the mid-2000s, only to become the most forceful proponent of “Assad must go” after Syria became a killing field in 2011. It was obviously a morally defensible position, but Erdogan failed to convince the United States of the wisdom of marching on Damascus. Also, without diminishing the collective Turkish sense of threat from the PKK, it is not the same thing as the Islamic State. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers are engaged in a violent struggle to build their conception of Islamic society for which there can be no compromise. The PKK’s grievances are rooted in the problems of a minority in Turkey’s ethnonational state. One can imagine a resolution to these problems. Indeed, one of the tragedies of this current moment is that Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) did imagine it, but the hard realities of Turkish politics never allowed them to resolve the Kurdish problem.

Absent the Turks, the Obama administration turned to the YPG, a faction of Syria’s Kurds connected to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the PKK, to fight the Islamic State. To make it palatable to Turkey, which had previously negotiated with leaders of the PYD, the fighting force would also include Arabs and other groups and be called the Syrian Democratic Forces. In that fight, the SDF is reported to have lost 11,000 fighters; the United States has lost fewer than 100 soldiers in the war against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq. Now Erdogan, seeking to reverse his and the AKP’s flagging popularity, wants to push Syrian refugees back into their home country and shore up his nationalist support and thus has played on Trump’s long-articulated desire to end America’s involvement in conflicts in the Middle East. In their call, he reinforced that Trump’s contention that the Islamic State had been defeated and argued that that there was no need for U.S. forces to maintain their ties to the YPG. And then he offered that his country, a strategic partner, could relieve the American burden and take responsibility for Islamic State prisoners. It was an argument that Trump was inclined to believe despite its obvious cynicism.

So here we are, betraying the people who died so Americans did not have to. Syria is only the latest example in which Americans have leveraged Kurdish desperation for an international patron to advance U.S. goals, only to be discarded when those aims were achieved. In the 1970s, Henry Kissinger enlisted Iraqi Kurds to stir up trouble for Saddam Hussein, the principal regional rival to Washington’s then-close ally, the Shah of Iran. Yet the United States did not want the Kurds to be too successful or too powerful, lest their Iranian cousins follow their lead and challenge the shah. As a result, when Iraqi Kurds made gains against Saddam, the United States cut them off, and they were left alone to face the Iraqi Army. It did not end well for the Kurds. Then in March 1991, a day after a cease-fire went into effect bringing Operation Desert Storm to an end, President George H.W. Bush made a statement that Iraqi Kurds and the country’s Shiites interpreted to mean that there would be American support for an uprising against Saddam. They did rise up, but because the terms of the cease-fire permitted the Iraqi military to use helicopters and prohibited the United States from intervening, the Kurds and Shiites were again left to face a severely battered but not totally broken Iraqi military. Again, it did not end well for the Kurds.

More recently, Iraqi Kurds voted for independence in a referendum in September 2017. It was a bad idea driven by intra-Iraqi Kurdish struggles. The central government in Baghdad, the Iranians, and the Turks subsequently used force to forestall any Kurdish effort to actually secede from Iraq. The United States has a compelling interest in Iraq’s unity, but Washington stood by as the Kurdistan Regional Government’s much larger and more powerful neighbors bullied it. The whole episode was a major miscalculation on the part of the Kurdistan Democratic Party under Masoud Barzani, but the American reaction must have been galling to him and other Iraqi Kurdish leaders after they proved themselves to valuable allies during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

It has become a cliché to invoke Lord Palmerston, Charles de Gaulle, and Kissinger, all of whom argued that countries do not have permanent friends, only interests. It seems self-evident, which is why it is so odd that analysts and officials cling to the U.S.-Turkey relationship. The Turks believe that in its relationship with the YPG, the United States has abandoned Ankara. Meanwhile the Turkish government purchased Russia’s S-400 air defense system, helped Iran evade sanctions, demurred when asked to help fight the Islamic State, threatened U.S. soldiers in Syria, arrested Americans and kept them in jail for years as bargaining chips, detained Turks working for U.S. consulates in the country, and beat up Americans protesting Erdogan along Washington’s Embassy Row. The YPG fought the Islamic State, and for its efforts, the Trump administration has left it to the mercy of the mighty Turkish armed forces. Critics will say “but the YPG is connected to the PKK, and it is not so democratic” and so on. This misses the point. The Kurds are weak and will always come back to the United States because they have few other options.

Others around the world are not as weak and can recognize a pattern in U.S. foreign policy. In America’s eagerness to get out of so-called forever wars, allies now know that they are on their own and to take matters into their own hands. That is what Turkey is doing in Syria, and it is what Saudi Arabia has done in Yemen. There is more chaos to come.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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