Preserve U.S. Interests in Syria by Backing the Kurds

How can the United States simultaneously limit the authority of the Syrian mass murderer Bashar Assad, press Russia for a Syria solution that removes Assad, and contain Iranian expansion, while averting an Islamic State resurgence and demonstrating resolve to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

There is a way: Strengthen support and, if necessary, provide protection for the Syrian Kurds in their northeast Syrian enclave.

Ever since ISIS began its Mesopotamian rampage, Kurds in Iraq and Syria have been on the front lines of the fight. When the Iraqi army crumbled in Mosul, it was the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga that first rallied to stop the ISIS advance. When ISIS began its genocidal campaign against the Yazidis and other minorities, Kurds protected and sheltered them. When ISIS laid siege to the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, and Turkey stood by, the U.S. stepped in, discovering just how effectively the Syrian Kurds could fight.

Indeed, Kurdish forces have been the tip of the global coalition’s spear against ISIS. And now, the energy-rich Kurdish-held territory in Syria’s northeast is one of the few areas in the country not dominated by Assad’s Iranian- and Russian-backed forces. Yet, the U.S. may abandon our Kurdish partners. No formal decision has been made, but in April, President Trump instructed the Pentagon to prepare to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. forces that support the Kurds in Syria.

The Syrian Kurds are preparing for this possibility, negotiating with Assad and exploring with Moscow, a former patron, what relationship may be feasible after a U.S. exit. But abandonment of the Kurds would severely undermine U.S. credibility regionally and globally, reducing the prospect that other local forces would work with us in the future. Moreover, it would lead inexorably to the return to the area of either ISIS or the Assad regime, the latter complemented by Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah, and other pro-Iranian Shiite partners. Either outcome would be tragic.

It would be especially morally tragic, after doing little to prevent the slaughter of over 500,000 people during the seven years of the Syrian civil war, were the U.S. to permit the mass-murdering Assad regime to reconquer all of Syria. And it would be strategically tragic as well.

Kurdish territory is the only obstacle to an unfettered stretch of Iranian-controlled territory from the Strait of Hormuz, across Iraq, all the way to the Mediterranean. Establishment of this “land bridge” would enable Iran more easily to transfer advanced weaponry and personnel to Israel’s and Jordan’s northern borders, except as impeded by Israeli military action. This would contribute to instability in Jordan and increase the already growing prospect of full-scale Iranian-Israeli war.

Therefore, the U.S. must aim to ensure that an autonomous Kurdish zone in northeast Syria endures after the Syrian civil war ends. If necessary, this goal can be reinforced by the 2,000 U.S. troops already in Syria, which should at least remain there until a negotiated solution takes hold, and by regionally-based U.S. air forces, hopefully supplemented by others from the anti-ISIS coalition. The U.S. should also continue to train and assist the multi-ethnic force, led by the Kurdish YPG, that currently dominates the area.

One challenge is legitimacy. Moscow asserts that, in contrast to the U.S., its presence in the country is at the invitation of a regime that is internationally recognized. Washington should make clear that a regime that repeatedly commits mass murder against its own citizens is itself illegitimate.

Another challenge is Turkey, a problematic NATO ally that vociferously protests, with some justification, that the YPG is an extension of its arch-enemy, the Turkish-Kurdish PKK, which both Turkey and the U.S. consider a terrorist group. The PKK has been fighting Turkey since 1984, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. We should seek to avoid further alienating the Turkish public, undermining our still-positive relations with Turkey’s military, or impeding our access to Turkish military facilities.

For example, we should continue ensuring that the relevant portion of the Turkish-Syrian border remains quiet; establish a separation zone between Turkish and Kurdish forces in the border area; and, most challenging, persuade the YPG and its cohorts to open up their politics, military, and territory to legitimately resident Syrian Kurds and non-Kurds of all political stripes. That won’t solve the problem with Ankara – Turks oppose Kurdish autonomy primarily because they fear its contagion effect on their own sizable Kurdish population – but it would help.

Although Ankara privately prefers that the U.S. remain in northeastern Syria for the sake of stability, Erdogan would publicly construe a U.S. departure as a diplomatic victory. The U.S. has no interest in giving him that propaganda gift, particularly now. That may be an additional reason to stay the course with the Syrian Kurds.

To constrain Assad, Iran, and Russia, and advance our strategic interests and regional stability, Washington should continue and strengthen its support for Syrian Kurds.

Originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on September 7, 2018.