A Sustainable United States Policy for North Syria, the Kurds, Turkey and the Syrian Government – by Landis and Barber

A Sustainable U.S. Policy for North Syria, the Kurds, Turkey and the Syrian Government
By Joshua Landis and Matthew Barber
Syria Comment – January 24, 2018

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?

YPG Command Nesrin Abdullah said they dedicated the Raqqa victory to Kurdish People’s Leader Abdullah Öcalan and all the fighters who lost their lives during the liberation campaign.

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 U.S. goes it alone by building a Kurdish state, incurring the ire of all neighbors

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.

Comments (23)

Orontes Guy said:

A very well thought out and informed analysis. The American policy in Syria hasn’t proven very coherent, much to the detriment of the region’s people. It was unfortunate to hear American officials state that they had no plans to help rebuild the areas liberated from ISIS.

The authors offer alot of possible paths for a resolution of Syria’s current predicament, and all of them depend mostly on how strongly the Kurds want their own state in the North of Syria. It is hard to imagine the Kurds willingly giving up what they have gained to accommodate the region’s powers.

January 24th, 2018, 5:47 pm


Eugene said:

Exactly how does the U.S.A, government become an “HONEST” broker after all this war and destruction that it has overseen? Looking around the MENA since 9-11, to the ongoing scenarios today, with no end in sight it seems, as pointed out in the post, at some point down the road, it will pull out, then what? If the Kurds are allowed to control the swath of land they hold, how will the rest of Syria recover? It might be doable if the U.S. was dealing from a position of economical strength at home, but the only strength is at the end of a gun barrel, one that it is having trouble maintaining. Perhaps if the U.S. retreated, quit trying to change other countries in its distorted image, left Israel/Saudi Arabia to float on their own without the U.S. Military, the wanted peace might be achieved along with other changes in attitudes. Regardless of what others want to say, Syria is at the crossroads because of failed objectives by outsiders.

January 24th, 2018, 8:27 pm


Juan P. de Gandt said:

“February 24, 2018”??? Not yet!

January 25th, 2018, 1:56 am


Matthew Barber said:

Thanks Juan. Not sure how two authors missed such an obvious typo.

January 25th, 2018, 3:40 am


Habib said:

Expect the US to do exactly the opposite of everything Landis recommends.

January 25th, 2018, 5:33 am


Marshalldoc said:

The obvious fly in this American Exceptionalist blueprint for the Mideast is that it relies on the assumption that the U.S. is justified for even being there. The U.S. involvement in the Mideast has, since 9/11 (and before) been illegal and in contravention of international law; not to mention based on lies. Boiled down, this essay reads: Let ’em all alone to sort out their issues with the U.S. withdrawing hegemonic sanctions and insuring unimpeded economic development; even assisting. Had we followed this plan, millions would still be alive, 10’s of millions would be living in their homes and pursing their occupations, and Europe would not be in chaos. Boiled down further it should read: The U.S. should get the f**k out of the Mideast. Naturally though, the degree of Zionist influence in our government and their adherence to the Yinon Plan and dreams of a ‘Greater Israel’, and the demands of the fossil fool industry, precludes rational actions. These are the issues to which this essay should be addressed.

January 25th, 2018, 3:07 pm


Willy Van Damme said:

This article is a great distortion of the facts.
First there is not something like ‘The Kurds’. Who in the first place is a Kurd? for instance what about those of mixed marriages?
Secondly and most important, Kurds are a very diversified people, whether by language, religion, politics, cultural and economically.
The PKK/YPG for instance has been liquidating other political parties in the region it controls. Joshua Landis always talks about ‘The Kurds’, while he should be speaking of the PKK/YPG.
The YPG is just a subsidiary of the PKK and this knowledge is needed to understand Turkish behaviour. Turkey knows pretty well the plan is to carve up Turkey as the endgame.
Third his advice for the US government is a laugh. Ever since the first settlements in America this colony/country has always been bullying and bribing its way to establish control.
Using brute force as way to achieve it if all others fail. And this by creating one genocide after another; in the US against the natives, in the Philippines, in Hawaii, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc…
His request is therefore like asking Hitler to save the Jews.
He also omits the fact the PKK is officially a US designated terror group and those aiding it, as the US government does, should be jailed. So this whole lot running Washington have to be thrown in prison.
Also the Us should be obliged to repair the damage done in the region. Those who break things should repair it. Very simple.

January 25th, 2018, 3:32 pm


Paris said:

A very interesting analysis as always.

I have a major objection though : it seems to me that all your article is based on a false assumption. You say that “Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds must be aided in coming to an understanding that will promote stability”.
I don’t see this any understanding coming from Turkey and, though to a lesser extent, from Damascus either.
1. Turkey refuses to recognize the Kurdish language in Turkey not to mention any form of administrative autonomy and it has been like that since the beginning of the Republic. Their refusal of any form of Kurdish autonomy in Syria or elsewhere is just an export of their refusal at home and it will stay like that, whether you have the Kemalists or the Islamists in power in Ankara.
2. As for Syria, the regime has to hide its Alawite core constituency behind a smoke of Arabism or Syrianism which makes it adamant in refusing any political recognition of the Kurds. Maybe the Russians will force Damascus to swallow some sort of Kurdish autonomy, but considering the criminal nature of the Damascus regime, who could trust them ?
The Kurds are in a zero-sum game with Turkey and it’s Turkey which has set this rule. At the moment, the Kurds can only rely on the American alliance to get the maximum of recognition of their legitimate national rights. Nothing will mollify Ankara, except a total political submission of the Kurds. But you’re right, Kurds have absolutely no certainty that this American support will last. They just don’t have any other choice.

January 25th, 2018, 5:32 pm


Willy Van Damme said:

One should consider the PKK/YPG to be bloody fools for following US requests. They were promised heaven and more on earth and will finally end up like Barzani with hardly anything. Serves them right.
How stupid must one be after all what’s happened in the Middle East to believe one word coming from Washington? Ever heard of what happened with the Sjah, Saddam Hussein, Saleh and Moebarak?

January 25th, 2018, 6:12 pm


Eugene said:

To WILLY V D , you forgot Gaddafi, especially after the U.S. got his Nuclear stuff.

January 25th, 2018, 8:44 pm


Ghufran said:

Turkey did not attack the Kurds until it received a green or a greenish light from Russia. When somebody has US support you can bet Russia will do anything to undermine that support. Damascus does not want Turkey in but it got nervous after seeing what the US was trying to do. The Kurds will be left in the cold unless they agree to attack Iran or do more for Israel. A huge miscalculation by the Kurds who are now asking for support from the Syrian army (!!), they, the Kurds, are not a match to the Turkish army but they can inflict damage on Turkey in and outside Syria which would be a desired outcome if you ask Assad. Keep in mind that the Kurds in Syria are mostly outsiders and as a group they have limited connection to Syria historically and culturally and their 5 folds increase in numbers as a % of the population in the last 100 years is mostly due to Turkey’s atrocities and illegal immigration. I agree that the US is unlikely to do anything constructive in Syria and may just leave the Kurds to fight a war they did not need.

January 25th, 2018, 10:37 pm


Willy Van Damme said:

Eugene, Kadhaffi never was a friend of the US. After

January 26th, 2018, 3:31 am


Willy Van Damme said:

Eugene, Kadhaffi never was a friend of the US. After taking power he chased out the US and UK and they never forgave him for that.

January 26th, 2018, 3:35 am


Eugene said:

To WILLY, I didn’t say he was, but then, the PKK is a terrorist designated group now, isn’t it? My point, the U.S. took the Nuclear stuff, because Kadhaffi didn’t want to suffer what Saddam did. Too bad he made that bet and lost, which the PKK/YPG should take notice of. Looking at the MENA today, how long can this destruction go on?

January 26th, 2018, 5:52 am


Willy Van Damme said:

Eugene. Of course you’re right. Well this destruction has to do with the zionist wishes laid out in the Odet Yinon plan and the fact the US works under command of Israel. So who knows how long. But they are losing big in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. To end on a positive note.

January 26th, 2018, 6:17 am


carlo said:

Good article, as usual.
One small disagreement on the USA’s interests. Prof. Landis argues that the USA is interested in peace in the region. The recent history shows that, either the USA government does not know where its interests lie, or it knows perfectly well where its interests lie and that they lie elsewhere.
My guess is that this second option is right. The USA’s interests, as they are expressed by this and the past governments are in the destruction of the Middle East, in order that the two only survivors of this massacre, Israel and Saudi Arabia rule supreme in the region. An additional interest of the USA government is in the sale of weapons, and that is achieved by a forever war better than by peace. So, preventing Syria and Iran from rebuilding, fanning conflict with the Kurds and keeping everyone, except for Israel and Saudi Arabia poor and discontent is in the USA’s interest — as interpreted by the USA elites.

January 26th, 2018, 6:54 am


Noel said:

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

Remember, we’re talking about the US. With due consideration of its past, it’s clear that:
1. won’t happen, US is not good at friends maintenance
2. won’t happen in a thousand years
3. won’t happen in a thousand years
4. won’t happen in a thousand years

January 27th, 2018, 9:58 am


Ghufran said:

Rebels have just created another enemy to serve the interest of erdogan and turkey with the hope that they will be given permission to establish a mini government in areas that fall under Turkish control, this strategy, if you want to call a strategy, will further alienate those rebels who now decided that going to Russia is not in their best interest as long they find support for their effort to keep this war raging until something is changed in their favor. Short term gains, assuming that those gains can be sustained, wil be inadequate unless erdogan outmaneuver Putin which is a big gamble. The outcome of this new adventure will be largely decided by the price Russia will get for allowing turkey to stretch its military muscles. Assad is not saying much about this because he is not in control and he is not ready to open a new front until the Kurds take off their us-made uniform and follow Damascus orders. Russia sees no benefit of supporting the Kurds who are seen by the Russians as US agents today. It not certain who will prevail here but it is very likely that the biggest losers will be the Kurds who overestimated the willingness of Trump to stand by them.

January 27th, 2018, 6:00 pm


ALAN said:

Landis! You crossed with your choir an acute angle to the Turkish camp / practice chameleon/against the Kurds just because you become know that Donald Trump is about to turn victory over ISIS into defeat just because he has business dealings with Erdogan,ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliate, that US intelligence services are concealing.

January 28th, 2018, 1:55 pm


Neal Coates said:

Thank you for the thoughtful article.

What about long-term interests of multiple countries of interrupting the Shi’a Crescent toward Hezbollah? That is a huge distortion of territorial sovereignty and great threat toward human rights and peace in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.

Thanks, Neal Coates, ACU

January 29th, 2018, 6:48 pm


Pam Ho said:

Well I guess America has 4 options:

1. Do as Joshua and Matthew advise or the “Adults in the Room” measure.
2. Do the bidding of the Israel/Saudi bloc and invade Syria outright.
3. Make a stand and face down Turkey in the hopes that they won’t dare cross certain lines in the sand if for nothing else to make a statement about “Who’s The boss.” Losing face because of threats from a second rate power is “a non-starter.” They will defend their plan.
4. Pull out support for a Kurd dominated region in Syria.

I pick an extremely likely door number 2. With a possible but unlikely number 3.

January 30th, 2018, 6:07 pm


Ali Alwahsh said:

It’s good to see Joshua and Matthew actively participating in the discussion. This thread reminded me of the first two years of the Syria war when this site was buzzing with all sorts of participants from all backgrounds, ideologies, sects, views, and secret service agencies.

I honestly hope that 2018 is the year to stop this war.

February 1st, 2018, 12:55 am


Peter Mikhailov said:

“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. ”

This is exactly what will happen.

February 2nd, 2018, 12:43 pm


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