US Policy Toward the Levant, Kurds, and Turkey

by Joshua Landis

The State Department has turned the page on Turkey for it no longer views Ankara is a reliable US partner. Many argue that Washington will abandon Syria’s Kurds in order to assuage Turkish anger. I doubt this. Washington expects more anti-US actions from Erdogan. Many in DC believe that Turkey’s rising Islamism, hardening dictatorship, and worsening anti-Israel rhetoric will only increase in the future. They do not hold out hope that Washington can reverse this trend.

The US is increasingly falling back on support for Israel and Saudi Arabia. Trump has clearly set his course and reversed Obama’s effort to balance Iran and the KSA. Trump has thrown in Washington’s future in the Middle East with its traditional allies; it is moving to hurt Iran and Assad. It main instrument in gaining leverage in the region seems to be Northern Syria and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Washington is promoting Kurdish nationalism in Syria. Turkey had hoped that when the Islamic Caliphate was destroyed, Washington would withdraw from North Syria. This has not turned out to be the case. See my earlier article of Oct 2017: Will the U.S. Abandon the Kurds of Syria Once ISIS is Destroyed?

By keeping Damascus weak and divided, the US hopes to deny Iran and Russia the fruits of their victory. Washington believes this pro-Kurdish policy will increase US leverage in the region and help to roll back Iran.

Turkey is collateral damage. Washington recognizes that its pro-Kurdish policy is forcing Turkey into Russia’s arms but it is willing to risk this loss. Washington is willing to hurt Turkey in order to help Israel and Saudi Arabia.

It is not at all clear what good Erdogan can achieve by invading Afrin. It will not hurt or weaken Washington’s relationship with the Kurds in Eastern Syria. Most likely, it will do the opposite. Those in Washington who see Turkey as an unreliable and misguided partner will have their negative views of Turkey confirmed. The Kurds will be inflamed. The YPG and PKK will cooperate more closely to mobilize the Kurds of Turkey. For this reason, I believe Erdogan will not invade. He is trying to bring attention to his unhappiness, fire up his base, and prepare for elections that are approaching. But I doubt that he plans to occupy Afrin. He may lob cannon fire into Afrin, as he has done these past few days, but I suspect his ire will end there.

What about Syria?

America’s current Syria policy is designed to roll back Iran. This is short sighted. The PYD is a weak reed upon which to build US policy. Neither Assad nor Iran will make concessions to the US or Syria’s opposition in Geneva because of America’s support for the SDF; it will provide limited leverage. By controlling half of Syria’s energy resources, the Euphrates dam at Tabqa, as well as much of Syria’s best agricultural land, the US will be able to keep Syria poor and under-resourced. Keeping Syria poor and unable to finance reconstruction suits short-term US objectives because it protects Israel and will serve as a drain on Iranian resources, which Syria must rely as it struggles to reestablish state services and rebuild as the war winds down.

The US should be helping the PYD to negotiate a deal with Assad that promotes both their interests: Kurdish autonomy and Syrian sovereignty. Both have shared interests, which make a deal possible. Both see Turkey as their main danger. Both need to cooperate in order to exploit the riches of the region. Both distrust radical Islamists and fear their return. Neither can rebuild alone. Syria’s Kurdish regions need to sell their produce to Syria and to establish transit rights; Damascus needs water, electricity and oil. Of course, policing any deal between the PYD and Damascus will not be easy. Northern Syrians will look to Washington to help guarantee their liberties. But helping both sides to strike a deal sooner than later is important. Today, demands are not entrenched, institutions and parties are not established, and borders are not fixed. Tomorrow, they will be.

The US should allow the building of oil and gas pipelines that connect the rich fuel deposits of Iraq and Iran to the Mediterranean. Rather than thwart Syria’s efforts to rebuild, the West should support them. The only benefit to come out of the terrible wars that have waged in the northern Middle East is that today the governments of Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran are on friendly terms. This is the first time in a century that cooperation between the four countries is possible. Why not use this happy coincidence to promote trade and economic growth? Why not allow governments to criss-cross the region with roads, communication highways, trade, and tourism? Jordan is eager to re-establish its main trade route through Damascus to Beirut, which remains closed.Several rebel groups are holding onto the border region, over which Russia and the United States negotiated a cease-fire or “deconfliction” zone. The same is true for the main highway that connects Baghdad and Damascus. It is closed due to the US military zone established at the Tanf border crossing. This US position serves no purpose today other than to stop trade and prohibit a possible land route from Iran to Lebanon. Iran has supplied Hizballah by air for decades and will continue to do so. The Tanf blockade serves only to inhibit trade and keep the region poor.

By allowing Iran and Iraq to build pipelines across Syria to Tartus or Tripoli, the West will ensure that the European Community has gas & oil. The United States would ensure that the Levant looks toward Europe in the future. Europe would gain a much needed energy source to compete with Russia. Most importantly, by building trade, the Levant countries and Iran could provide jobs for their young. Nothing is more important for promoting stability and regional health than jobs and a brighter economic future. It would help America’s counter-terrorism goals more than any other single endeavor. All analysts are unanimous in pointing to poverty and joblessness as causes of the Arab Spring uprisings and radicalism. A revitalized economy in the Levant would encourage refugees to return home. The burden on Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey of hosting so many millions of refugees would be alleviated. Rather than become embittered as did the Palestinians, Syria refugees could rebuild their lives and see light at the end of the tunnel.

It seems clear that the present US administration is not ready to pursue such a policy. I simply propose it because it makes senses and seems so obvious. The US hopes to gain leverage against Assad by stopping trade and hurting his military. By allowing for economic growth in both the Levant & Iran, the US would provide jobs and hope, not just to these countries, but also to their neighbors that depend on regional prosperity. Such a policy would promote moderates over hard liners. The present anti-Iran and anti-Syria policy will produce more bitterness and years of turmoil, without achieving American goals. It will not cause Assad to break his relations with Iran or to transfer power to the Syrian opposition. It will hurt the US in the long run, as surely as it hurts the people of the region.

Ultimately, the promotion of wealth and a strong middle class in the Middle East is America’s best hope. This principle was once the mainstay of US foreign policy; it won the US respect around the world. Today, sanctions and military intervention have become the mainstay of US policy. Free trade, the rule of law, and respect for national sovereignty have been pushed aside. Democracy promotion has become a codeword for hurting US enemies and an cynical instrument of regime-change. Rarely does the US promote democracy to friendly potentates. U.S. foreign policy has slipped its moorings.

Only by returning to the simple truths that prosperity will advance U.S. interests will the US begin to put an end to terrorism, promote democracy, and attenuate the flood of refugees that pours from the region. Democracy, moderation, and the acceptance of liberal values will only come with education and economic growth. There is no quick fix to the regions problems. Ensuring that Syrians and Iranians remain poor in the hope that they will demand regime-change is a bad policy. It has not worked despite decades of sanctions. It has brought only collapse, war and destruction to the region. Dividing Syrians and keeping them poor may ensure short-term US interests; it please some of America’s allies; but in the long-term, it will ensure failure and more wars. Only by promoting growth and unity can the United States advance stability, the rule of law, and liberal values.

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  1. Very good analysis and suggestions Mr. Landis. I hope those bureaucrats in the state department are reading. As many other analysts have noted the problem for the West is Turkey with its Brotherhood driven expansionist policies. Not Iran.

    US needs to support the full autonomy of Kurds in Turkey.

  2. “prosperity will advance U.S. interests”
    No, US interests (as fully demonstrated) are for instability and war. That’s where the money is. Then Washington can claim allegiance to a “rules-based” policy which translates to US rule. In the Middle East this means strong affinity for Israel and death to Iran.

  3. the perspective changes when you support the 99%…the US agenda is to support the 1%, the same in the World as it is in the USA…support the 99%, the 1% is able to support themselves…

  4. “The US is increasingly falling back on support for Israel and Saudi Arabia.”

    So what could possibly go wrong?

    Oh, wait, yeah: it could if Israeli/Saudi interests are at cross-purposes with USA national interests.

    Not that this is an insurmountable problem, of course, not when a very significant and influential portion of the USA policy-making elite appear to prioritize the former over the latter.

  5. Mr Landis knows a lot about the region but is far too kind to the USA, which HATES freedom, democracy, sovereignty, cooperation…. and thrives on interfering and destroying countries, helped by its “allies” Israel and Saudi Arabia.

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