A Sustainable US Policy for North Syria, the Kurds, Turkey, and Damascus

YPG fighters in Raqqa in 2016YPG fighters in Raqqa in 2016

by Joshua Landis and Matthew Barber

This article is a “part-two” to the previous article “U.S. Policy Toward the Levant, Kurds, and Turkey,” which warned that the United State’s decision to back Kurdish nationalism in Northern Syria in an uncompromising fashion would provoke negative consequences. The push-back against this policy has begun. Turkey’s invasion of Afrin and campaign against the YPG—the U.S. backed Kurdish militia in Syria—is being launched to counter Washington’s decision to stay in Syria and arm and train a Border Guard for the emerging North Syrian state that the U.S. is sponsoring.

U.S. accomplishments in the region now stand thus: No regime change has been effected in Syria. Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq all have pro-Iranian governments and Iran has more influence in the Levant/Iraq than ever before. By promoting Kurdish nationalism to “rollback Iran,” the U.S. has pushed its ally Turkey into the sphere of Russian influence and caused Turkey’s interests to align with those of Damascus. And finally, even the sole partner the U.S. has in the area—the Kurds—are now upset because they’ve lost one of their important homelands in Syria. Such is the price of a policy based around an obsession with Iran.

Trying to play the game of making the Kurds into an obstacle to Iranian influence, the U.S. has now had to sacrifice Afrin in order to assuage Turkey’s ire; simultaneously, it has to convince the Kurds to exercise restraint and not to allow Turkey to provoke them into a strong reaction. If Kurds fight with Turkey in Afrin, it will give Turkey a pretext to attack and invade Kurdish areas further east; this may very well be what Turkey hopes will happen. The PYD will probably get a message from the U.S. urging them not to resist much in Afrin, but the problem facing the U.S. is not over, as Afrin may not be where Turkey stops.

The purpose of the previous post was to highlight several essential points regarding American interests in the region. The theme here is how we are now witnessing the (hopefully reversible) loss of an important U.S. ally, Turkey. After a long civil war that has ultimately boosted Iranian influence and distanced Turkey from the U.S., the U.S. must now think about what it can salvage in terms of its longer-term interests.

U.S. policy should focus on these objectives:

• Retaining Turkey within its orbit rather than losing it to Russian influence
• Fulfilling our responsibility to the Syrian Kurds in a way that ensures their safety and future while also assuaging Turkey’s concerns
• Positioning itself as a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia rather than going all-in on one side
• Promoting the recovery and rebuilding of the region, not keeping it broken and poor

How Far Will the U.S. Go in Supporting Kurdish Nationalism?

The U.S. has set up Turkey’s choices thus: either side with the U.S. and the Kurds against Iran and Russia—OR—side with Russia (and thereby Iran) against the U.S. and the Kurds. Of course, Turkey will never compromise on its national interests; the first choice is simply not an option from Turkey’s point of view and the invasion of Afrin underscores that fact. Turkey does not like Iran, but it is willing to throw in its lot with Russia (and by proxy Assad and Iran), in order to protect its own national interests. We are forcing Turkey into the embrace of Russia and Iran; this is the price of promoting Kurdish nationalism to this extreme.

Regarding Damascus’ perceptions, Syria does not want to lose the fertile and oil-rich territories in its northeast. It must rely on those resources to rebuild following this war. A U.S. policy that facilitates the complete secession of Syrian Kurdistan from the state poses a serious risk in the eyes of Damascus.

The U.S. has done the surprisingly unlikely in uniting two enemies against the U.S. itself. Turkey and Syria are not natural allies—they are opponents—yet the direction that U.S. policy has begun taking is driving them together through this shared concern. If the U.S. helps the Kurds take 25% of fertile and oil-rich Syria, we will drive Damascus and Turkey together and they will both oppose Kurdish state-building over the long-term.

In addition to losing our major ally, Turkey, to Russian influence, the fact that the Kurdish project will be opposed on all sides over the long term must be kept in mind. Will this really be the best thing for Syria’s Kurds in the long run? And continuing our current level of support for a Kurdish nationalist project will mean a minimal commitment of 30-40 years, very expensive, with an ongoing presence of U.S. military on the ground. Further, the U.S. will have to be prepared to respond to Turkey militarily if Turkey does not stop with Afrin and continues by bombing other Kurdish areas across the border.

This is a terrible policy and one lacking long-term vision.

What About Our Responsibilities to the Kurds?

The fact that the U.S. helped the Kurdish-led forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to conquer Arab-majority areas north of the Euphrates has created a dilemma. The U.S. cannot now withdraw from those areas without abandoning the Kurds.

Further, the Kurds were the most important ally in Syria in the fight against ISIS and the U.S. now has a duty to protect Kurds from revenge originating with Damascus.

Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds must be aided in coming to an understanding that will promote stability; the U.S. can broker this and help to guarantee it. In this arrangement, neither Turkey, Damascus, nor the Kurds will gain everything they want, but all three will get more than they now have. Already in places like Hasakeh province in northern Syria, the Syrian government and Kurdish authorities have worked out and respected revenue sharing deals for oil exploitation that have been in effect during the civil war.

The U.S. can help the Kurds make an advantageous deal with Damascus that protects their autonomy. A safe future for the Kurds means a federal region. Of course the Russians and the Syrian government will make demands of their own. Such demands are likely to focus on the economy and sovereignty. The Syrian government is eager to have the main road to Baghdad opened. The U.S. presently blocks it at Tanf in order to stop Syrian trade. The Damascus government will also ask that the U.S. facilitate the opening of the main highway between Damascus and Jordan, which is also blocked by U.S. and Saudi-backed militias. Damascus needs money to rebuild. The U.S. can use its leverage over Syria’s economy to get a good deal for the Kurds. It cannot use that leverage to drive Assad from power. The U.S. does not have enough leverage through control of 28% of Syrian territory to unseat the Assad regime; it does have sufficient leverage to provide security and a useful autonomy deal for the Kurds, who have fought so hard in partnership with the United States to destroy ISIS.

Assad fears and dislikes Turkey, which serves as the main home and advocate of the Syrian opposition. By promoting an understanding between Damascus and the Kurds, the Syrian Kurds would gain a level of autonomy that they did not enjoy before the war. The Kurds will also be able to renegotiate their share of income from Syria’s oil and water from a position of strength.

For its part, Damascus will gain back some of the oil, water, and agricultural resources it needs to rebuild the country and which the U.S. now denies it. It will also ensure the unity of country.

According to this plan, the Turks will gain assurances that the Kurds will not be an independent nation and will not be free to assist the PKK separatists in Turkey militarily. Turkey, for its part, would prefer to stay in the orbit of the U.S., rather than move to Russia’s; an agreement between Damascus and the Kurds that keeps Syrian Kurdistan “Syrian” will allay some of the Turks’ fears, reduce their perceived need to attack more areas inside Syria, and begin to restore Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. Ultimately, all of these approaches will serve the objective of a gradual reaffirmation of the integrity of international borders, which the U.S. has pledged to respect.

By using its leverage to make a deal between Turkey, Syria and the Kurds, the U.S. can maximize its interests in the region. It will guarantee security for the Kurds, promote its counter-terrorism agenda by helping to create jobs and tamp down conflict, and retain Turkey as an ally and friend.

The Alternative

The alternative is for the U.S. to trap itself in a “forever war.” If it decides to support the formation of an independent Kurdish state in North Syria with its own military, Turkey, Syria, Russia, and Iran will be forced together despite their usual rivalries in order to expel America and destroy the new state which threatens the interests of them all. The Kurds will be boycotted and kept poor, just as the US will sanction and boycott Syria in order to keep it poor and weak. Both sides will be losers; both sides will commit themselves to destroying the other; and both sides will destabilize and radicalize the region. America will play a divisive and destabilizing role, rather than a constructive and unifying role. This current policy erodes U.S. influence in the Middle East. Turkey’s invasion of Afrin is only the first salvo.

The consequences of the “rollback Iran” policy have now become evident. This policy will continue to be detrimental to long-term U.S. interests in that it will perpetuate the instability of the region. Maintaining the current approach of unrestricted support for a Kurdish nationalist project at the expense of the national interests of two large states (Turkey and Syria) will mean the loss of an important U.S. ally, ongoing sanctions, fragmented states, American troops in the Syrian desert for years, and so forth. This is a miserable, petty, and destructive path forward. This Iran-obsessed policy may serve Israeli and Saudi short-term interests—it may mollify Washington’s anger at failing to dislodge the Assad government—but it does not serve U.S. interests.

American interests are served by the reconstruction of the region. Promoting stability in Syria and Iraq will enhance long-term U.S. interests through preventing the return of ISIS and promoting the success of American counter-terrorism strategy.

What the region needs more than anything else is to revitalize its economy. But the U.S. must recognize that the only way to do this is to unleash the Iranian economy. Iran is indispensable for the restoration of the region’s economy and only Iran is capable of supporting the level of rebuilding needed after these years of war. This is why I said in the previous post that the unprecedented alignment of the governments of all four countries—Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran—presents a new opportunity for stability and recovery in the region.

The U.S. should help promote prosperity in the region, rather than working to inhibit it. Keeping the region fragmented and poor is a recipe for longer-term instability and extremism.

U.S. policy in the region since 2003 has largely facilitated a shift toward Shi’i ascendancy. America has to recognize that Iran has now come out largely victorious in the proxy conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq—and it is the U.S. that has largely helped them win this victory. The U.S. has helped facilitate the emergence of a new level of Shi’i power and has seen Shi’i forces as the champion of American interests, including deposing Saddam Hussein, combatting al-Qaida, and destroying ISIS. Both President Bush and President Obama promoted Shi’i interests, arming Shi’is aligned with Iran to serve in these objectives. The U.S. Air Force pummeled one Sunni city after another: Falouja, Takrit, Ramadi, Mosul, and Raqqa. Now the Shi’is have largely won the battle for preeminence in the Northern Middle East—in no small part because of U.S. support. Washington has built up an army in Iraq that is commanded by Shi’is and is quite sectarian in outlook; consequently it looks toward Iran. It also distrusts Saudi Arabia, which has championed and supported Sunni Arab militias. This is not something that we can undo.

If this region is going to rebuild, the U.S. must recognize that Iran has won this war—and the U.S. must come to terms with the fact that it was its own policies that were largely responsible for that victory. The U.S. will do a disservice to the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon conflict zone if it simply sides with the Gulf States and Israeli interests without long-term foresight. The way forward is to follow the Obama policy of balancing Iran and Saudi Arabia. By doing this, the U.S. can protect Israel and limit any aggression of Iran toward Israel and the Gulf.

Lift sanctions on Iran and proceed with the Iranian nuclear deal. Work to engage Iran. Don’t pursue a policy that alienates our Turkish ally and requires a decades-long commitment for supporting an ethnic-nationalist project that will be opposed by every neighbor of the Kurds—this is a terribly high price to pay in order to gratify Israeli and Saudi interests and a price that Washington will eventually back away from. It will not benefit the Kurds in the long run. They are too poor to stand alone, without a U.S. no-fly zone or a military force paid for by Washington. These expenses are unsustainable. If the Trump administration absorbs costs upholding Kurdish independence that are too high, some future administration will abandon the Kurds, letting them down with a thump. The U.S. must not launch a “forever war.” The moral obligation to the Kurds can be fulfilled by making sure that they strike an advantageous deal with both Turkey and Syria for autonomy and get a healthy share of Syria’s resources. Working for a negotiated solution to Kurdish autonomy, rather than one that alienates the regional powers, isolates Washington, and beggars the Syrian people is in America’s interest.

Joshua Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. Matthew Barber is PhD student at the University of Chicago. Reprinted, with permission, from Syria Comment. Photo: YPG fighters (Wikimedia Commons).

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  1. Indeed, a foolish obsession with Iran explains the unwise course Trump apparently intends to proceed upon in Syria. In fact, the US should strongly support the territorial integrity of Syria.

  2. The Kurds’ leaders have been for decades and still are a bunch of desperate fools! The Kurdish leaders have been trying to establishing a Kurdish state since the Shah in Iran, Assad in Syria and Aref in Iraq were in power and the 3 powerhouses didn’t allow that to happen and since then the Kurds have been trying over and over unsuccessfully! The current regional powers, Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey won’t allow that to happen now either! It’s funny that the US is siding with the Kurds to overthrow Bashar-Al-Assad in Syria with the incentive to carve out a piece of land in Syria to establish a state! The other incentives are that they can be supported by the US politically, financially and militarily! In return the Kurds’s longer term promise to US would be to protect Israel and to decimate Hezbollah in southern Lebanon! How “fricking” naive this plan can be on the part of the Kurdish leaders and the US? One has to ask the Kurdish leaders if they had forgotten about the Mujahedeens in Afghanistan in 1980’s! After the Mujahedeens drove the Soviets from Afghanistan Reagan put a knife in their back and left them there to die! Of course the Mujahedeens didn’t die and with Saudis help they formed Al-Quida the rest is history!
    Once again someone ought to tell the Kurdish leaders that their new partner, the US, is an unreliable partner and once the Kurd’s have carried out the US wishes the US will be throw the Kurds to the regional wolves! Should this happen in the near future the regional powers won’t have any mercy on the Kurds and I don’t want to think about what possibly could happen to those poor Kurdish people!

  3. “The U.S. will do a disservice to the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon conflict zone if it simply sides with the Gulf States and Israeli interests without long-term foresight. . . Lift sanctions on Iran and proceed with the Iranian nuclear deal. Work to engage Iran. ” . . .Joshua Landis.

    “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” . . .Lewis Carroll

  4. A sustainable policy?

    How about: pack up, go home, and let the Syrians deal with something that is – and let’s be honest here – an internal matter for the Syrians to decide amongst themselves.

    After all, when the USofA was having its little tiff with its rebellious southern states did the British decide that this was a spiffing good time to “sustainably interfere” from Canada?

    Or even further back, did the colonial argy-bargy with their British overlords lead the French to decide that, hey, a little helping-hand is one thing, but what would be really nice is for this to become a “sustainable” presence inside some of those rascally American colonies?

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