With Friends Like These: Biden’s Kurdish Problem

Matthew Petti, Columbia University:

The heckling of Vice President Joe Biden by Robert Rênas Amos, an American citizen who fought in Syria as a volunteer, was yet another bizarre incident of the 2016 presidential election. It also served to expose problems with US foreign policy far deeper and longer lasting than the current slate of presidential candidates. Amos was a volunteer in the People’s Defense Units (YPG) of Syrian Kurdistan, a group supported by the US government at the time. He later complained that America “betrayed” the YPG in demanding its forces’ withdrawal across the Euphrates River in order to placate Turkey. While Biden claimed that “the deal,” presumably that between the US and the YPG, included this withdrawal from the beginning, his administration managed to simultaneously alienate two US allies.

Turkey joined the growing list of countries with ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria on August 22 when Turkish tanks crossed the border at Karkamış (Carchemish) in support of Free Syrian Army militias. The terrorist group Islamic State (ISIS) had previously withdrawn from a large section of the border near the Euphrates River, and it was a race between the various combatants in Syria to reclaim that land. When the YPG and its allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces rushed north, they clashed with Turkish and Free Syrian troops. (Turkey considers the YPG an extension of Kurdish groups fighting the Turkish state from within.)

The situation was entirely absurd; through its coalition to fight ISIS, the United States government supports both Turkey and the YPG. The Turkish military, a member of NATO, suffered its first fatality in Syria, not by fighting ISIS but in attempting to stop the advance of a militia trained by the US government. Although clashes seemed to have stopped, with rumors of a ceasefire enforced by American special forces, they have brought two major actors to the brink of war.

The past week’s events were the culmination of processes a long time in the making. Since nearly the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, the US has supported groups and operations with contradictory goals. This is not even the first time American allies have shot at each other. During clashes in March, Syrian opposition groups used an American-supplied TOW missile to destroy a YPG pickup truck north of Aleppo. In some cases, the contradiction is due to interdepartmental rivalries; the CIA supports the Syrian opposition while the Pentagon supports the YPG. In some cases, however, US policy goals are utterly irreconcilable.

Domestic pressures and President Obama’s desire for a legacy in Iraq have forced the administration to prioritize the destruction of ISIS, at least ostensibly, in its Middle East policy. However, the US government is unwilling or unable to commit to any side in the Syrian Civil War. Despite its support for regime change in the Syria, the US has not intervened decisively on behalf of the opposition and has made overtures to Russia. The result is that neither side fully trusts America. Half-measures such as the TOW missile program and the quixotic search for a “moderate rebel” group more focused on destroying ISIS than the Syrian state (which the opposition correctly sees as a greater threat to its existence) have only caused further bloodshed without furthering any productive goal.

When the YPG, which has a fragile truce with the Syrian state but does not cooperate with Iran, formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance to combat ISIS, it appeared to finally fulfill the requirements for a US ally in Syria. However, what seemed too good to be true turned out to be just so. Turkey, which has the second-largest army in NATO, has been fighting a decades-long insurgency among its long-repressed Kurdish minority; the Turkish state fears any independent Kurdish polity that it cannot control. With its links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its admiration for the anarchist-inspired philosophy of jailed PKK leader Abdüllah Öcalan, the YPG is Turkey’s worst nightmare, now in control of a significant portion of the border regions.

As the US supported YPG/SDF offensives, first in eastern Syria and later on the outskirts of the ISIS capital of Raqqa, Turkish policymakers watched with concern. However, the last straw seems to have been the Battle of Manbij. Turkey had considered the YPG crossing of the Euphrates River a red line, but the US encouraged the SDF to capture the city of Manbij, which is west of the river, from ISIS. American policymakers reassured Turkey that the YPG elements of the SDF would withdraw after the battle, and continue to insist that such a withdrawal will happen. Whether or not such a deal was actually made, as Biden claims, the YPG is unlikely to honor it to Turkey’s benefit. Hundreds of YPG fighters, some of them friends of Mr. Amos, died to secure the city, and the YPG does not intend to cede land to militias vowing to invade Kurdish territory.

The resulting situation is lose-lose. Having shed blood for US policy goals, Syrian Kurdistan was rewarded with a hostile invasion by a US ally. Turkey has found the US unwilling or unable to enforce the agreements it has brokered, worsening tensions caused by the US government’s perceived reluctance to extradite alleged coup plotter Fethüllah Gülen. America must learn that it cannot enforce a perfect outcome in Syria, and such attempts only worsen a tense situation. As analyst Sam Heller argues, America must be willing to absorb serious costs to pursue an effective policy on Syria.

But to what end? With no coherent goal or clear benefit, perhaps it would be beneficial to question what interests Americans have in a war halfway across the world.


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