Will the U.S. Abandon the Kurds of Syria Once ISIS is Destroyed? by Landis, Itani, Simon

Will the U.S. Abandon the Kurds of Syria Once ISIS is Destroyed?
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:

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…

Comments (32)


Eugene said:

All things being what they are, the current trend in thinking on this subject, from a U.S. citizen, enough is enough. The costs of the war on terror, continues its upward direction, robbing the infrastructure in the U.S. of its much needed rebuilding. Time to let the M.E. sort out the problems, without the U.S.A., that includes cutting off Israel too. After all, what better way to find out who your real friends are, then to let them be, especially with the new U.S.military base in the same area as the aging nuclear reactor that’s over the use by date. If there’s a melt down, or worse, oh well, that’s the price one pays for being sucked in.

October 1st, 2017, 5:39 am

 

ALAN said:

memo to 1- Jenya!
It is not objective that the subject of the Kurdish referendum and their situation in Iraq and Syria be subject to heretical talk about the costs of the war on terror & other scarecrows
I want to remind you that any military adventure against the Kurds will end badly for the aggressor and for the region.
be in touch..

October 1st, 2017, 10:51 am

 

Eugene said:

# 2 Really? And you speak for the citizens of your present country you reside in? Are we on the same page or are you being subjective?

October 1st, 2017, 12:44 pm

 

Majedkhaldoun said:

US support of the Kurds is anti Erdogan only, Erdogan is the reason why US abandoned the Rebels, US will block Iran from HA, by staying there , but I doubt US supports a Kurdistan state for long ,unless they give up on overthrowing Erdogan, so I doubt US will allow a state of Kurdistan.
We grew up considering the Kurds as pro Russia, Khalid Bakdash was Kurd, , Kurdistan is not like Israel, they have little foreign support , they are weak, with no coastal border, their enemies are three major regional power, but I do respect their will to have their independence just like Palestinians, because I support freedom first, the best way to get rid of hate of sectarianism is division, I am Arabic , but freedom comes first before religion , before nationalism. And in the long run Kurds are friendly country , not enemy, as we have a lot in common , just like I support Palestinians to split from Israel , I support the Kurds to split too, it is a matter of principle.

October 1st, 2017, 4:06 pm

 

Dierk Groeneman said:

Easy for me to say but I’m with Professor Landis too.

Kurds sense a huge opportunity for self-rule paid for with their courageous opposition to ISIS.

US needs a friendly proxy to help contain Assad and to game out ISIS 2.0 when and where it surfaces.

Even Israel is signaling support.

Biggest risk to this strategy is Kurds’ ability to be good neighbors with indigenous Arabs. Don’t call it Kurdistan and don’t exclude Arabs. Find a better name (Rojava?) and really mean it when you claim all groups are represented.

October 2nd, 2017, 2:13 pm

 

azem said:

Phenomenal to see a major super power jerked around and humiliated by a tiny foreign mafia like Israel. Something PROFOUNDLY wrong and disturbing about a citizenry that allows its country to be infiltrated & destroyed rather than risk being name called ,antisemite, for putting a stop to it. What a trade off: Yanks lose their now bankrupt country (broke funding zionist wars to bop Israels M.E. rivals)
— but the consolation prize is? they,re not ,antisemtic, ! its madness

October 2nd, 2017, 2:28 pm

 

Ghufran said:

The ethical case for a Kurdish state is stronger than Israel’s. Yes there is a lot of resistance to the idea of a Kurdish state which makes its creation difficult but not impossible. Another issue is the Kurds gradual dominance over oil-rich areas which is another obstacle but they have no real way to export the oil now. Kurds may be able to reach a deal with the regime in Syria and they already have Israeli support. What the Kurds need is US support, if that supports comes their chance will get much better. There are hundred of thousands of Kurds in Syria who have no Syrian roots but they now control areas inhabited by Syrians for centuries. Israel did the same thing in Palestine. A major threat to the Kurdish statehood dream is a possible marriage of covenvienc that may be coming between Syria, Turkey and Iran. Ironically, the Kurds rise provides another opportunity for the regime in Damascus, the question is at what price. Autocratic regimes need two things: to stay in power and to get cash. Public opinion is not a major factor in the decision-making process in governments that do not get elected by people. Yes freedom is the key but religion and freedom do not belong to the same sentence, religion can easily be a form of oppression. Kurds fought Isis and they treat women better than jihadists and Muslim Brothers, they see themselves as a second Israel especially after suffering for centuries from discrimination and oppression by Turks and Arabs.

October 2nd, 2017, 9:14 pm

 

habib said:

The one thing that can unite Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq are uppity Kurds, and see what already happened: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/10/erdogan-rouhani-united-opposition-kurdish-state-171004124507138.html

The Americans don’t have as high stakes in this, and that is all that matters. They will be pushed out.

If the Kurds had sided with Assad, their chances would be better. But Erdogan will even make peace with Assad to stop the Kurds.

October 4th, 2017, 10:31 pm

 

ALAN said:

Listen to the Kurds failed neighbors. A decade of failure and confusion. Palestine did not gather them and not Jerusalem, but to stand against the Kurds. falling nations!

October 5th, 2017, 1:19 am

 

Jane Porter said:

“Time to let the M.E. sort out the problems, without the U.S.A., that includes cutting off Israel too” I agree completely with Eugene, and as well, their European Nato allies should follow this road.
The way the “West” is busy with “regime-change and “sanctions” and bombs, with the rest of the planet is absolutely indecent, vulgar and above all out of date.

October 8th, 2017, 7:44 am

 

Jane Porter said:

“Time to let the M.E. sort out the problems, without the U.S.A., that includes cutting off Israel too” I agree completely with Eugene, and as well, their European Nato allies should follow this road.
The way the “West” is busy with “regime-change and “sanctions” and bombs, with the rest of the planet is absolutely indecent, vulgar and above all out of date.

PS I try to submit my comment, but I get a message that I have already said that, which is not true. ???????

October 8th, 2017, 7:49 am

 

mjabali said:

The Kurds should think twice before trying to take a very fertile and rich land that is not theres.

Remember Arbil itself is an Assyrian town…check the name…

Also what the Kurds should think about is the many Kurds that are all over the place outside of Kurdistan.

Damascus has a part called Harat al-Akrad…in the coast we have Jabal al-Akrad…

My point is simple: The Kurds are intermingled with the rest of the people of the area, so if they want to separate they should take into consideration what is there land and what is not, and what is going to happen next.

Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq ( Sunnis, Shia, Christians and Turkmen) are unified by there desire to curb the Kurds ambitions.

The future of the area is nothing but confrontations and displacement.

October 8th, 2017, 12:44 pm

 

Jasmine said:

The word Kurdish in Damascus was used as a synonym to describe uncivilised manner of a person or an unfashionable lady dressed in shocking color,or for someone who is really mean.
This characteristic seems to be maintained through the years in a very persistent way,not to mention the historical role of Kurds in the Armenian and assyrian genocide in 1914 is very well documented.
I have no sympathy for land stealers,someone in my family has a part of his land stolen by them,when he failed to travel to look after it after while,and when he tried to claim it,he was threatened by death.
I assume that the whole land now is lost forever.
The American and British invasion in Iraq was a big mistake and the world will be suffering from its results for few more decades,ISIS,Terrorism,Kurdistan in Iraq,Kurdistan in Syria,Kurdistan in Turkey.
More excuse to Arm dealers to produce more weapons and destabilise more nations.

October 9th, 2017, 1:26 pm

 

ALAN said:

Take your gun, and go fight the Kurds better than trivial talk here, that does not equal the lines it occupies.

October 9th, 2017, 3:11 pm

 

Antoinetta III said:

“In the mountainous parts there is a race of people named Kurds, some of whom are Christians and others Mohometans. They are all an unprincipled people whose occupation it is to rob merchants.”

The Travels of Marco Polo
by Marco Polo
New American Library, Signet Classics, 1961

Polo passed through the Kurdish areas in 1272. So it seems the reputation of the Kurds goes back a long way.

Antoinetta III

October 9th, 2017, 7:46 pm

 

Habib said:

No one here wants to fight the Kurds, Alan, war is just the inevitable outcome of their independence aspirations, and they won’t have the American air force to protect them, as when ISIS attacked them.

October 10th, 2017, 9:06 am

 

ALAN said:

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” Abraham Lincoln
The world has reached its capacity for getting involved in various fights of freedom & independence and then being blamed when it doesn’t finish with everyone dancing around merrily!

October 10th, 2017, 3:00 pm

 

Ali Alwahsh said:

Re: #9 JASMINE

“ot to mention the historical role of Kurds in the Armenian and assyrian genocide in 1914 is very well documented. I have no sympathy for land stealers”

Well said. They are next of the list of SAA.

October 13th, 2017, 3:26 pm

 

ALAN said:

The Kurds in the ranks of the Syrian Arab Army are the bravest and fiercest fighters. They were also among the most courageous Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon @ 1980s and brought martyrs there. Kurds are always able to underline epics against the hot heads. there is no need for any list. You have to go ahead, why do you talk so much?

October 13th, 2017, 4:48 pm

 

Willy Van Damme said:

American strategists at work. Pity Syria and its neighbours, except of course Israel. And no one even mentions the illegality of interfering and occupying another country. Sickening.

November 15th, 2017, 5:36 pm

 

Willy Van Damme said:

Here it is mentioned by Joshua Landis of: ‘Chemical Bashar?’
It makes me wonder about the work of Joshua Landis. From a forensic point of view there is not one shred of evidence pointing these chemical attacks towards the Syrian government. Sure, there are claims but they all come from Salafist groups and their sponsors in France, the US and elsewhere. Looking in detail at the file one can see that statements as those recently made by the UN and the OPCW are nothing but a pack of claims not based on any scientific evidence. For instance they state they had no control over how the ‘evidence’ got to them. If so then their analysis of this samples is worthless. And they know. In fact all it does is pointing at the other direction. Joshua Landis must know this. Why then this talk of ‘Chemical Bashar’? This story is just another Iraqi WMD. It’s a stain on the work done by Landis.

November 16th, 2017, 3:38 am

 

Eugene said:

# 21 Willy, you make sense with the questioning of the “so-called evidence” that the “UN & OPCW” cite, are questionable due to the “chain of evidence”. As for Joshua Landis work, his bringing to print the different points/characters in this “ugly sad drama” that the “idiots” are playing in Syria, especially from the beginning, from his/others perspective, can be interpreted differently or
subjectively depending on ones viewpoint. I’m not defending any part of this history, but I have to give him credit for bringing to light, the different players, which I haven’t seen elsewhere. Just as yours, mine, other commentators, are subjective/opinions hopefully gleaned from information that’s available to cause such, they are just that.

November 16th, 2017, 5:23 am

 

Willy Van Damme said:

Eugene: In many ways Joshua Landis does an interesting job.
But as far as is known to me he never mentioned the official DIA report dated I guess 2013 on Syria which proves the whole West supported ISIS and wanted them to create a caliphate and invade Iraq in order to further destroy this country. What ISIS afterwards did!
This report also stated al Qaeda were there on the ground in Syria from the beginning in March 2011.
Never mentioning this is a very serious matter when doing research on the subject. And then there is ‘Chemical Bashar’.
Taken together this makes me wonder very much about what he’s up to. Any researcher should stick to the facts, certainly when they are key to understanding the conflict. Not doing so is a mortal sin.
And these latest reports on sarin are one big joke. It’s laughable and from a scientific point of view a huge scandal.

November 16th, 2017, 6:23 am

 

Eugene said:

Willy, points well taken, though I’ve been following this column since before 2011, will agree that at times, there is a bias involved. That said, presenting a view that is absent in the U.S.A. on a continual basis, gives readers a choice in which they can interpret what is pertinent to their own viewpoint, not just the official P.R. handed out by the U.S. Government. At least you point out the faults in the reports, but when one considers the picture presented by the various media outlets, said bias rears its ugly head as being one sided. Whether or not you like the coverage, it is up to the individual to make his/her own rational opinion. If you drink the koolaid, what difference does it really make?

November 16th, 2017, 6:52 am

 

Willy Van Damme said:

Eugene:
Making a good analysis of this war is very difficult but one should consider the main facts that are established to be true. Knowing in wars like this there is so much propaganda, innuendo, distortions and outright lies.
But for instance the question of international law and the legality/illegality of this doesn’t in this debate above come to the forefront. No one of these three mentions it. Isn’t that to say the least very strange? Pointing again to the same bias.
But I agree, this blog is much more interesting then a decade of the NYT on this subject.

November 16th, 2017, 8:57 am

 

Eugene said:

Willy, the elephant in the room, “International law and the legality/illegality” of this war, as with the others in the “MENA” will never be brought to fruition due to who the partners are. We can debate/argue until the cows come home, but will still be at a stalemate. 50 years from now, if humanity is still breathing, that is, but that’s another argument that doesn’t make up for the death & destruction that has occurred in the so-called war on terror. As for the U.N./NATO, yes, there is some good, but they have been corrupted to the extent of being out of date useless organizations. The real unanswered question that everyone should be asking/demanding: “who is going to rebuild Syria”? That goes for the rest of the countries that are members of “The Mother of all C-F’s” history has known to date. I realize I’ve ventured astray here, but restraint on the subject does seem impossible.

November 16th, 2017, 12:21 pm

 

ALAN said:

/The real unanswered question that everyone should be asking / demanding: “who is going to rebuild Syria”?/
Before Moscow asks this question, it has to explain what Syria means, what geography is it talking about, Syrian Grozny or Syrian Belgrade?

November 17th, 2017, 1:59 am

 

Eugene said:

Alan, why single out Russia? There’s enough blame to go around, isn’t there? Perhaps Saudi Arabia should pony up that $800 billion the young “King” in waiting, wants to use building a new mega-city in his homeland? After all, those other royal members that are residing in the luxury hotels, having had their bank accounts frozen/seized – ill gotten gains – would make a nice down payment in the rebuilding department. Of course, the profits that the construction companies would incur in the process, should add to the pot, wouldn’t you say?

November 17th, 2017, 5:14 am

 

Willy Van Damme said:

Eugene: Big countries have big ambitions and big guns. Therefore they usually act like elephants in a shop of china ware. But in the case of the US this might also because the history of the US. One which was bases on random violence against the inhabitants and an endless list of broken promisses towards those people.
And regarding rebuilding, there is a basis principle: Those who break the china ware should pay for it.

November 17th, 2017, 5:36 am

 

Eugene said:

Points taken. Promises broken, that’s the new way of doing business from the U.S. Government today. To say the U.S. might be out of control, perhaps is an understatement when one considers the homeland environment in the U.S. today. Incompetence in the planning department due to overconfidence of abilities and underestimating the opposition, like a cancer, plagues the aggressors. At the present time, we can expect more of the same.

November 17th, 2017, 6:19 am

 

norman said:

If the US stays in Syria without a UN mandate and a Syrian government approval it will be considered an occupying force and will be the target of more Jihadists , it is not our problem to protect the Kurds that are illegal immigrants in Syria from Turkey , a decentralized system with equal rights to all and anti discrimination laws in housing and employment should be our advice and goal for Syria

November 23rd, 2017, 6:17 pm

 

ALAN said:

November 23rd, 2017, 6:17 pm
Your accusations about “Kurds” are Nazi and the Kurdish people will force Nazis like you to consider them as the first masters of 1/2 of pre-2011 Syria and the mentioned iranian proxies /Jihadies/ will be deterd with their customer as well.

November 24th, 2017, 1:13 pm

 

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