MESOP NEWS OUTLOOK: A FURIOUS DEBATE ABOUT FUTURE OF PKK/PYD IN SYRIA – Will the U.S. Abandon the Kurds of Syria Once ISIS is Destroyed? by Landis, Itani, Simon

1 Oct 2017 – by Joshua Landis, Faysal Itani, Steven Simon
For Syria Comment, 1 October 2017

Faysal Itani, a Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, questioned whether the United States would stand by the Kurds of north Syria, a prediction that I made in a recent interview with Avery Edelman at Syria Direct.

This is what Faysal wrote:

I read your Syria Direct interview today. Very interesting stuff, and I agree with most of it, though I have a couple of questions.

You seem very positive about the emergence of an effectively autonomous ‘Rojave’. Why the positivity? I don’t see the KRG analogy at play. The KRG is run by intelligent and savvy kleptocrats. The PYD are ethno-Maoist quasi-totalitarians, and as far as Turkey is concerned they are the PKK. They are excellent as light-infantry, and dominating rivals, but little else. I believe Turkey will snuff them out at the first opportunity, with regime help for that matter.

The only circumstance under which I can see Rojave surviving at all is behind an American shield. You present a compelling argument for why you think that will be in place – namely, balancing against Iran and Russia. But I can’t bring myself to believe we would stick around in the middle of an incredibly hostile environment such as Syria (McGurk and co. insist we will not, but they could be wrong or lying). Iran, Russia, and the regime would all have an interest in sabotaging it. And in this age of American small-timerism, are we going to defend the place? The idea of doing so just to push back on Iran seems a bit abstract…

I also couldn’t figure out whether you were sanguine about Syria’s future, or pessimistic. Or is that just a question of timeframe? 🙂 .  Take care, F

My (Joshua Landis) Response to Faysal:


Good questions. I have no real insight into the policy making of this administration – you are much closer to it than I — so everything you say could be correct and I haven’t appreciated the real impermanence of US ambitions. I have certainly considered the possibility that the US will simply pull the rug out from under the PYD after seeing them to the Euphrates, much as Kissinger did to the Iraqi Kurds in 1976.

My hunch – and it is only a hunch – is that the US will like what it has conquered once its begins to survey the land and once the Kurds begin to whispering in US ears about the beautiful relationship they can build together. The Kurds will also send up a hue and cry about being cut to pieces and abandoned by the Perfidious US. I think the Kurds are building a constituency in Washington. See the op-ed by Ron Prosor, former Israeli Ambassador to the UN in the NYTimes. Israel is certainly a backer, which still counts for something in Washington. Turkey is no longer a country the US can count on; although it certainly has more ballast and importance than the puny, start-up Kurds.

My bet is that it will become very hard for the US to withdraw from Syria in the future, despite McGurk’s assurances to the contrary. Every Washington think-thank is begging us to stay in Syria and thwart the evil Ruskies and Majousies.

We always seem to get stuck in these tribal regions of questionable strategic worth – witness Afghanistan or Somalia. Why in the world did we just double down in Afghanistan? I know you will tell me that our national reputation depends on it. Afghanistan was a MAJOR investment, unlike the Kurds, who are a sideshow. No president will want responsibility for losing Afghanistan, etcetera, etcetera.

But aren’t these the same arguments that will be resurrected to convince the US to remain in Syria? Washington think thanks will argue – and with some justification – Syria is inexpensive. We can just keep a few troops there to do the job (This is what Hassan Hassan and Weiss have been arguing). Assad is a paper tiger. His army is shot. He has no men. Only Iran and Russia keep him standing. (This is what Tabler is arguing). A few Ranger outposts will do the job. Keep a few US jets policing the line over the Euphrates. Anyway, we need to make sure that IS or something worse doesn’t rear its ugly head in the future. Most importantly we have to cut off the Iranian land bridge (ISW makes this argument) We have to stand up for our allies and punish our enemies (This is what Michael Doran and Smith argue).

And let’s not forget the human rights problem. “How can we allow the Kurds to be massacred by Chemical Bashar? Haven’t we thrown the Kurds under the bus too many times since Woodrow Wilson promised them autonomy? This time must be different.” All good arguments.

I wrote only a few months ago that I did not think that the US should rush into easter Syria, but should instead limit the expansion of the PYD and SDF to Kurdish majority regions in order not to complicate the map of Syria and to suck the US into the swamp of ethnic and religious battles that is sure to rage in the future. I recommended letting Assad and the SAA do the job of killing ISIS in the Arab parts of Syria. Every Washington pundit attacked this view – save for a very few. Even those who spoke up to support this view (such as Sam Heller) were timid in expressing such a “real-politic” and seemingly heartless view. I think it is less heartless than building up expectations that cannot be met, which the US has done time and again in Syria.

Anyway, Washington hasn’t followed this policy. It announced a “no go zone” for Syria north of the Euphrates, even though much of that land is majority Arab. McMaster has been talking about how it has been a mistake for the US to have allowed Assad to make the progress that he has made. McMaster recommends the pocketification of Syria and standing by rebel militias, even if they serve no strategic purpose other than to simply weaken Assad.

As for the philosophical and ideological prejudices of the PYD –  “The PYD are ethno-Maoist quasi-totalitarians, and as far as Turkey is concerned they are literally PKK. They are excellent as light-infantry, and dominating rivals, but little else.” Their totalitarian Marxist roots don’t bother me. Everyone in the region has some sort of totalitarian upbringing. The Kurds are doing a fine job or rebranding themselves as liberal, women liberating, egalitarian democrats who support town councils and civil society when they aren’t saving minorities.

I know you might say that such propaganda is only window dressing and might warn about the true nature of xenophobic nationalism that will express itself as soon as the Kurds get a chance to drive out Arabs, Assyrians, etc., and steal their land. You would probably be right – but I don’t expect many in Washington to actually express such commonsense truths very loudly, as they would quickly be accused of being Kurd haters and Assad lovers.

Again, I don’t know what the US will do in the future. But ever since we jumped into Kobani in defiance of Turkey and in support of the Kurds, I believe that we have been building a new strategic position in the region that will be very difficult to back away from. It has a logic. Turkey clearly sees that logic and has gambled on its permanence, causing it to move toward Russia and Iran in order to counter the US.

This move away from NATO and the US only reinforces the logic of US support for the Kurds. If we cannot trust Turkey, we must stick with the Kurds. What other partner does the US have in the region? Not Baghdad? Not Damascus? Do you really think that the US will crawl back into bed with Erdogan? My hunch is that it won’t. We are building bases in northern Syria. They will look better all the time. Once people own things, they get attached to them and can find a hundred reasons not to relinquish them over to their enemies. Best, Joshua

Steven Simon (National Security Council Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa from 2011 to 2012, is the John J. McCloy ’16 Visiting Professor at Amherst College) weighs in:

I think both you and Faisal are absolutely right.

Well, what I mean is, it’s too early to call, although I’m inclined to your interpretation.

That reminds me, the US did not double down in Afghanistan. If only you had read my recent Foreign Affairs essay (with Dan Byman) you could have spared yourself this very public error in judgment.

Here’s what I think. If you read what the administration is saying about Iran (cf., Nikki Haley’s AEI speech) and the administration’s unconventional definition of compliance with the JCPOA, the U.S. seems increasingly committed to rollback. (I suggest you read my Survival mini-essay about this.) What the US is thinking about doing in Iraq to achieve this, I really don’t know. Options are very limited. But Syria and Yemen offer opportunities. Syria in the northeast and on the Golan and Yemen in terms of support for the UAE and Saudi. The Israelis are quite important to this in the Washington context. Presumably, however, you’ll have noticed the announcement of the first permanent US base in Israel. Relatedly, Dennis Ross has been in the NYT subtly reinforcing this trend by recalling the bad old days of the “anti-semitic” State Department, when US diplomats disregarded Israeli interests in favor of Arab desires, etc etc.

So on balance I’m on the Landis side.

Yes, it’s an important and timely topic. So you need to organize a small roundtable at Bellagio to get to the bottom of the issue. I’ll start packing…

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