Ilhan Tanir
Feb 14 2018

Washington sees the Kurds through a regional lens


From Turkey’s perspective, it is starting to look as though the United States has chosen a few million Syrian Kurds, who do not even have their own state, over its 70-year NATO partnership with Turkey.

But from Washington’s perspective, the U.S. alliance with the Syrian Kurds is not about U.S.-Turkey relations, but instead it is an important building block in the U.S. future in the Middle East.

Washington is angry that Ankara, which was expected to remain firmly in the NATO camp, has refused to work alongside the United States in the upcoming struggle against what U.S. officials see as their common rival, Iran.

But Ankara, failing to see its own interests in this regional competition, is engaged in a dangerous game of brinkmanship with the United States. This does not look like it will be resolved anytime soon.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is to pay a visit to Turkey on Friday. On Monday, the Pentagon announced its budget, which included $550 million in support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group dominated by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Forces (YPG). According to Ankara, the YPG is part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has been fighting inside Turkey for more than 30 years.

Of the funds earmarked for the SDF, $200 million has been allocated to establish and train a new border security force, even though only last month, Tillerson said no such border force was in the works.

With this budgetary decision, the United States has confirmed its long-standing commitment to the Syrian Kurds. According to London-based journalists Abdulla Hawez, an expert on Kurdish issues, the United States wanted to work with Turkey against Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, but did not find a willing partner.

Instead, Hawez said, Turkey saw ISIS as a means to crush Kurdish aspirations, and so the United States turned to the Kurds and now feels morally obliged to keep supporting them.

First, U.S. commanders drew a red line in the Kurdish-controlled Syrian region of Manbij last week when they announced they would not leave.

“We’re very proud of our positions here, and we want to make sure everybody knows it,” said Major  General Jamie Jarrard, the U.S.-led Special Operations commander in Iraq and Syria.

“You hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves,” Lieutenant General Paul Funk said.

Then with its budget, the United States announced the extent to which it will continue supporting the Kurds in Syria.

So why doesn’t the United States give up on the Kurds?

A report released in November by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) answers this question quite clearly.

The task force for the report is co-chaired by former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman and retired Air Force General Charles Wald, an expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center and other leading experts included in the task force.

JINSA is an important institute known for its weight and influence in Washington, especially over President Donald Trump’s administration.

The 15-page report, entitled “Countering Iranian Expansion in Syria” strongly advises the U.S. administration to support the Kurds in Syria in order to undermine Iran’s influence.

The report’s two-paragraph opening synopsis summarises its view on Syria policy:

“President Trump’s address last month on Iran policy asserted correctly that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is “unacceptable,” and that a comprehensive strategy is needed to counter Iran’s growing regional aggression. Yet rather than deciding whether or not to abandon the nuclear deal, American policymakers must focus first on rebuilding positions of strength by contesting Iran’s rising influence across the Middle East.

“Most urgently, and consistent with the administration’s stated intention of pushing back against Iran’s malign behaviour throughout the region, the United States must impose real obstacles to Tehran’s pursuit of total victory by the Assad regime in Syria. Time is of the essence, as Iranian-backed forces recently have retaken nearly all the country, save lands liberated from Islamic State (IS) by the U.S.-led coalition. These, and any further, strategic gains threaten to entrench Tehran as the arbiter of post-war Syria and consolidate its control of a “land bridge” connecting Iran directly to Lebanon and Hezbollah.”

The report’s final page contains these paragraphs explaining the SDF’s value to the United States:

“The United States and SDF – not Assad, Iran, Russia, Hezbollah or Turkey – have borne the battle against IS in Syria. Completing this mission, while vital, is more than an end unto itself. It should provide vital leverage in determining Syria’s post-war fate to the U.S.-led coalition and its Syrian surrogates, primarily SDF, who have already stated their opposition to Iranian-backed militias entering their territory. It will also interpose unmistakable physical hindrances to Iran’s land bridge.

“Simultaneously, U.S. forces would likely need to bolster their own presence and their train, advise, assist and equip efforts in Syria. These steps would be necessary to avoid diluting SDF capabilities as they retake ground, and to underpin U.S. declaratory policy against Assad-aligned forces.”

So what does this report tell us?

In the coming years, perhaps for the next decade, in order to hold the region and especially to undermine Iran, Washington sees the Syrian Kurds as vital allies.

It is from this perspective that we need to look at the half-a-billion dollars set aside for the Syrian Kurds in the 2019 budget. It is reasonable to assume the United States will also support Syrian Kurdish forces by other means and discretionary funds as well.

Since the United States started fighting ISIS in 2014 and in its proxy war with Iran, the most important actors have been the Syrian Kurds, who have earned the trust of U.S. generals. This will continue for at least the next three years of Trump’s presidency, or seven years if he is re-elected.

However, a significant portion of Turkey’s 80 million citizens are anti-American, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been humiliating, insulting, and imprisoning U.S. citizens since 2013, is understood to have played a major role in stoking these feelings.

If no big surprises emerge from the meeting with Tillerson and neither side makes a big U-turn, relations between Washington and Ankara will continue to deteriorate.

Although the United States has sold out Kurds in the region several times in the past, this time it appears to have every intention of continuing the partnership with them as a way of countering Iran.

In entering into a regional competition with Iran, the Trump administration is focused on U.S. national interests and goals and does not necessarily care much about Turkey’s sensitivities. Of course, there is also the thinking in Washington that Turkey does not deserve more as it pretty much turned its back on the fight against ISIS and has continuously targeted the U.S. presence in Syria

While Ankara sees this bilateral relationship with the Syrian Kurds as a betrayal, Washington sees the Kurds as supporting partners and a cornerstone of regional policy. Washington is making plans to mobilise and turn other countries against Iran, from Israel to Saudi Arabia and from Jordan to Egypt. The United States is trying to persuade Turkey to cooperate, but if Ankara refuses to join this anti-Iran coalition, Washington can continue with other regional partners.