Jack Korcuska is a freshman at Tufts University.
Photo: Kurdish PKK guerillas in 2014.
Yes, it’s dishonorable to betray allies and partnered peoples. No, no organization’s interests are perfectly moral or compatible with anyone else’s. Still, on the world stage, strategies change as these interests do, and old partnerships become less logical even as new ones now make sense. In the case of the Syrian Kurds though, U.S.’s withdrawal from Northern Syria, allowing Turkish forces to move on the YPG (People’s Defense Units, a primarily Kurdish militia) not only tastes of the bitterness of abandoning former partners, but undermines the U.S.’s strategic interests in the Levant, and therefore more broadly in the Middle East.
Firstly, it’s important to emphasize the importance of the Kurds in the U.S.’s ability to perform ambitious and long term operations in the Middle East. All of our wars in the Middle East, from the Gulf Wars, to the invasion of Afghanistan have proven that the U.S.’s primary ground forces, those forces capable of occupying territory, have proven unable to promote long term stability in the regions and surrounding areas that they occupy. There’s also the cost of money and resources that comes with deploying a large scale invasion force to a distant and unstable region, not to mention the huge number of American casualties that come with mounting such an operation. It’s proven much more effective, both in expenses and in operation success, to partner with local groups. They can be relied on as the primary, occupying, ground force, while leveraging our advantages in air and artillery, intelligence gathering, and spec ops, and providing training to local partners and keeping them well supplied. Such was the case with the Kurds against the Islamic State.
In withdrawing forces from Northern Syria, the U.S. has given up it’s long term influence throughout most of the Levant, with the exception of Israel, and Israel, being a state actor (and being on shaky terms at best with most groups in the region), does not allow for the same efficiency or variety of U.S. operations. This long term loss of influence does not, as some contend, come from the fact that the Kurds now feel “betrayed”. After all, the Kurds would likely be willing re-partner as long as it remained in their strategic interests. More crucially, it stems from the fact that the withdrawal allowed Russia to assert its authority in the region.
The offensive by Turkey caused the YPG to align with the Assad regime, something that would have been impossible to imagine just a year ago. This thereby cemented Assad’s control over Syria now that ISIS is no longer a threat to the regime’s stability, and by extension, cemented Russia’s influence in the region. At the same time, Russian troops and mercenaries moved directly into new areas in Northern Syria, setting up new bases and re-garrisoning ones left by the U.S.’s token force. Russia’s new influence allows it to secure the Assad regime, an important partner, by ensuring they and the Kurds aren’t too much of a threat to one another. While a close relationship between Russia and the Kurds shouldn’t be expected (at least not in the foreseeable future) because of ties between Russia and Turkey, Russia’s new influence prevents the U.S. from seeking the support of the Kurds in future operations. It also gives Russia some sway over the future of the Kurds, particularly in terms of whether they decide it’s in their interest to bolster Kurdish or Turkish power in Northern Syria.
There is an idea, likely crazy and metaphorically wearing a tinfoil hat deep in a far-flung cave, that giving up U.S. influence in Northern Syria allows us to refocus and exert influence on a more important region. While possible, it’s not clear where such a region may be, and given the small size of our force in Northern Syria, refocusing to somewhere else would almost certainly cost more (by several orders of magnitude) than it would to keep troops in Syria. Now, if it were a choice between retaining U.S. influence in Northern Syria versus in Turkey, the withdrawal was certainly the right choice; Turkey is an important military ally, important economically for both Europe and the Middle East, and if they could be brought as close to the U.S. as the rest of NATO, the impact on U.S. influence in the region would likely be large. The issue is that Turkey has, quite frankly, been a really bad ally, what with purchasing Russian weapons, to say nothing of aiding ISIS and allowing it’s fighters across the Turkish border with Syria. Now, to be fair, about a week ago, Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Trump met and Mr. Erdogan agreed to halt the Turkish purchase of Russian S400 missile systems, with some pointing to that as evidence that perhaps Turkey is taking a step back from the Russian sphere. Yet, it seems that the geopolitical pattern has Turkey moving closer to Russia, and while the U.S.’s relationship with Turkey shouldn’t be given up on, letting Erdogan score domestic points by moving against the Kurds won’t make Turkey realign with us against Russia. All that’s happened as a result of this move is giving Syria to Moscow.
Finally, it bears analyzing who stands to gain from the new situation in the region. The Kurds obviously do not benefit, but it’s unclear what their long term future is; their position against Turkey could well be strengthened by Russian help and alignment with Assad. Russia and the Assad regime more obviously benefit; Assad’s stability in Syria is ensured, even if it means more Kurdish influence in the north, and as such Russia’s influence over the Levant is bolstered tremendously. As such, Putin also benefits, his main goal being to bolster Russian influence wherever he can. It’s not clear how much Turkey as a country benefits; yes, moving against the Kurds will probably hurt the PKK’s (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) power and hamper their ability to launch attacks in Turkey, but it could also motivate them to launch more attacks in the future. Though Turkey might not benefit, Erdogan does. Attacking the Kurds and harming the PKK greatly strengthens his popularity, even among many anti-government Turks. The U.S., as discussed in detail, does not benefit at all, but Trump does; by seeming to fulfill his mandate of pulling the U.S. out of “endless wars” (ignoring the fact that the U.S. presence was a small token force, not engaging in combat, only supporting our partners and ensuring our continued influence). With such “strongmen” benefiting most tangibly from the shift in policy, and subsequent long term positives to most countries involved difficult to discern, there’s probably some crazy tinfoil hat idea behind its coordination. But that would be crazy.