Thinking

The Military Case Against Abandoning the Syrian Kurds

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Kurdish fighters in Syria. Source: Maryam Ashrafi.

The US military has been previously asked to perform military operations on the northern Euphrates against ISIS. A future order to carry out military operations may be a variant of the ISIS resurgent scenario. In any case, it is prudent for the US military to prepare for such contingencies. Contingency planning demands force planning. Biddle is right that successful military operations against a skilled adversary like ISIS (with many veterans of Saddam’s special forces) require both command of the air and ground-force skill. In particular, untrained local auxiliaries may be enough to defend home territory but  ground-force skill is necessary for conquest; viz. ya cannot win and hold territory against a skilled adversary from the air with militias composed of doubtfully trained amateurs as your only allies on the ground. So who has the US military relied on to provide ground-force skill against ISIS?

ISIS’s conquests in 2014 reconfigured the orientation of the Syrian war which now became a transnational war in the central region. It was already a proxy war pitting Assad’s coalition (Iran, Russia, and the US and its Western allies as a relatively minor participant) against Turkey, Qatar, UAE, and above all Saudi Arabia. All were fighting ISIS; but one of these sides backed other salafi jihadists and the other fought against them while moderates continued to fight Assad (and the salafi jihadists) without furnishing any credible replacement. Superimposed on this were limited Israeli strikes against Hezbollah and Turkish interventions in northern Syria. But US intervention north of the Euphrates was triggered by the need to protect Yazidis of Sinjar from ISIS whose reading of salafism entailed their enslavement (including sexual slavery) that they were promptly carrying out.

US airstrikes on ISIS began immediately; joined by dozens of nations largely on paper. As the US looked for ground force partners the CIA attempted to train a few hundred troops. The attempt was abandoned after dozens of deserters were found to have joined ISIS. Henceforth the US relied on the Kurds to provide reliable ground-force skill against the caliphate north of the Euphrates and Iranian and Iranian-backed forces south of the  Euphrates.

The US military developed a close working relationship with its Kurdish partners on the ground in Syria and Iraq. Organic links grew over time as both US airmen (as well as special forces) and Kurdish ground units learned how to coordinate effectively in the course of the war against ISIS. The peshmerga (and perhaps the YPG) has been trained by the Israeli armed forces. Both the peshmerga and the YPG proved their effectiveness in ground combat and in synergy with US air forces. For gaining control of territory north of the Euphrates without “putting boots on the ground” US armed forces are exclusively dependent on the Kurds. Every competent general knows this. This is why Mattis resigned.

Abandoning the Syrian Kurds is a classic error arising from misguided economic nationalism and geopolitical calculus. Trump probably thinks that the US would gain economically by selling billions of dollars worth of missile defense systems, and geopolitically by preventing “the loss of Turkey” to Russia. He is wrong on both counts. The first is a drop in the bucket—the economic benefit of the sales are trivial. The second is superficial. The Turks have no interest in seeking Russian protection and abandoning what is left of the alliance with the US—they know it is a losing proposition. Any such move would leave them dependent on the Kremlin; an unacceptable position from their pov.

Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds to Turkish depredations has been (very reluctantly) embraced by Stephen Walt. He’s right that the move barely reduces the US military footprint in the Middle East. If it were a part of a strategic rebalancing or retrenchment, one would evaluate it as a component of the grand-strategy as a whole—there’s certainly a case to be made to free-up US resources and attention from the region. But that is decidedly not what is going on. And that brings us to the missing piece in his article. Is the fact that the United States is doing this to bend over backward for Turkey not relevant to the question of whether the move makes sense? Then why does Walt ignore it? And what happens to the rationale once you factor in the quid pro quo?

One has to ask whether the United States should be giving that much quarter to Turkey? (Or Israel or Saudi Arabia for that matter.) Walt agrees that it shouldn’t—indeed his position is that the US should play hard to get and basically end its special relationships. Well then, if the US shouldn’t let Turkey push it around and the withdrawal is not a component of a coherent grand-strategy of retrenchment or rebalancing, then the move is revealed for what it is—incompetent personalistic backroom dealing with little strategic rationale or regard to realities on the ground; a move whose main consequences are to fuck over the Syrian Kurds and reduce US military options.

Foreign policy realism doesn’t mean that ethics are irrelevant; it just means that they enter in the calculus after the options have been winnowed by the strategic filter so to speak. Walt or anyone else for that matter, has failed to demonstrate how any strategic logic trumps the military rationale for sustained partnership with the Kurds, the simple virtue of keeping your commitments, or the obvious ethics of the Kurdish question. Abandoning the Kurds is strategically-misguided, makes life more difficult for US forces, and is obviously ethically-challenged.

Anglo-Saxon powers have fucked over the Kurds for a whole century now beginning with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The Kurdish question came up immediately. The Iraqi campaign in 1920-1921 when Churchill and gang pioneered air control was actually aerial pacification of the the “mountain Turkmen” [Kurds]. Once Turkey (and much later Iraq) was roped into the Cold War project, it became classified as Turkey’s “internal problem”. During the late-1980s, Reagan had George H. W. Bush and Rumsfeld liaise with Saddam as he gassed the Kurds by the thousands—the Federal Republic supplied the dual-use chemicals.

A major reversal of Anglo-Saxon policy in the Kurdish Question began after Desert Storm. The Iraqi Kurds attained significant autonomy from Baghdad as a result of sustained air protection during the intermittent air war on Iraq during the 1990s (that no one has yet documented properly with the exception of Hersh’s New Yorker dispatches). This complicated things once Saddam was ousted and Iraq became a de facto American colony. Compromises were worked out that left the KRG as a de facto state. Meanwhile, the Turks had been crushing their Kurds for decades. But things had cooled and attained a sort of homeostasis in the years before the Syrian war broke out. In 2012, the Kurdish region was one of the first to become a de facto state. That generated panic in a Turkey already rent by factional struggles.

The past few years have been extremely convoluted. At times it looked as if US-Turkish relations would break down over the Kurdish question. The United States made very explicit promises to the Syrian Kurds, invested significantly in their capabilities, and shielded them from Turkish boot. This was a military necessity … the Kurds being practically the only cohesive armed actor in the war that the US could work with to attain its main politico-military objective of containing salafi jihadism that the United States’s Arab allies had bankrolled and armed to the teeth. By all accounts the Kurds delivered. ISIS was dispatched north of the Euphrates by a combination of Kurdish ground-force skill and close US tactical air support.

Now that they are superfluous again they can be thrown under the bus. Is there some deep geopolitical logic the reenactment of the Kurdish tragedy? Is it a precondition for working US-Turkish relations? I don’t think so. Imho, the United States goes too far to accommodate its odious Middle Eastern allies. In particular, Turkey may have been an important component of the US world position before ICBMs replaced strategic bombers as the main deterrent. But that rationale disappeared by 1970. One can even understand Turkish leverage until the Soviet capitulation. But in the unipolar world, all such rationalizations fall flat on their face. There is no geopolitical reason to trade Kurds for weapons purchases—what are the Turks going to do? become a Russian protectorate?

 

 

 

 

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