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In Former Syria, U.S. Hurts Its Friends And Helps Its Enemies


“We’ve been very clear that we won’t recognize any kind of self-autonomous or self-rule, semiautonomous zones in Syria.” Thus, on March 18, did the U.S. State Department react to the joint declaration of former Syria’s three Kurdish cantons that, henceforth, they intend to act as a federation.

Three days earlier, The Wall Street Journal had reported that Kurdistan’s army, the Peshmerga, had not been paid in three months. Kurdish oil’s falling prices are one reason. But another is that the White House is blocking the Kurds’ application for loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Because the Obama administration—just like its predecessor—refuses to recognize former Iraq’s Kurdistan as a sovereign state, it also passes what little U.S. cash it sends to the Kurds through the Baghdad government’s Ali Babas.

The Kurdish people are one of Eurasia’s major, and growing, realities. The U.S foreign policy establishment’s insistence on denying that reality is another example of an incompetence so ingrained it overrides our national self-interest as well as the customs of our Founding Fathers’ diplomacy.

A Preference for Pretend Borders

The latter entailed recognizing governments that exist “de facto.” The Kurdish people, who stretch eastward from the Mediterranean along southern Anatolia to the Iranian plateau, have struggled for self-rule since the Ottoman Empire’s fall nearly a century ago. In our time, as Iraq and Syria dissolved de facto, the Kurds succeeded in establishing and defending islands of decency in a region of horrors.

While the Arabs, Persians, and Turks who surround them kill each other and collapse demographically, the Kurds are growing in number and prosperity. Each part of the Kurdish nation has its own army, as well as a common language. They fight to keep clear of others, and do so with notable success. Moreover, their interests coincide with ours. Why, then, pretend they are part of states—Syria and Iraq—that no longer exist de facto, and of ones—Syria, Turkey, and Iran—that mean America no good?

It is a measure of the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s incompetence that the emergence of Kurdish states in former Iraq and Syria—the only positive development from the past quarter-century’s ill-conceived and badly managed U.S. involvement in the Levant—was unintended. That is because our credentialed foreign policy professionals and professors willed to imagine that the borders drawn in World War I’s aftermath represented realities, and willed to believe that the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey—to name just a few—wanted to help America defeat terrorism.

None wanted any such thing. Our foreign policy professionals should have been looking out for our own interests. Instead, they let America be embroiled in and used by local potentates for their quarrels with one another.

Real Allies Pursue Mutual Interests

The Kurds took no part in these quarrels. As Arabs—Sunni and Shia, and Baathists and Alewis—slaughtered each other, as American officials dreamt of nation-building nonexistent nations, and as the terrorist menace metastasized throughout the Muslim world (its extensions in Europe and America included) the Kurds made lives for themselves in their homelands.

The Kurds, like other humans, fight only for their own cause, and their independence is the cause for which they fight.

The U.S. military recognizes that, of the Muslim world’s peoples, the Kurds alone—not the Turks, not the Saudis—have fought the terrorists of ISIS effectively. The Obama administration, like its predecessor, would like to see the Kurds serve as America’s infantry. It refuses to understand that the Kurds, like other humans, fight only for their own cause, and that their independence (or at least their autonomy) is the cause for which they fight.

The U.S. government’s categorical opposition to the former Iraqi Kurds’ independence and the former Syrian Kurds’ self-rule, combined with maximal military demands on the Kurds based on minimal military aid, have helped make America impotent in the region.

By contrast, Russia intervened in the region in ways that helped its clients actually achieve their ends. Russia’s operational objective—securing western Syria for people who would secure Russia’s own naval own base—required closing the Turkish border. That in turn required cooperating with the Kurds who live in the northwest sector thereof.

But the Americans deferred to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s ruler, who did not want the border closed and who fears Kurdish power. Hence, as Turkish artillery pounded the Kurds, the Americans did not help. The Russians, however, helped the Kurds in the crucial enclave with supplies as well as with diplomacy backed by force.

First, Stop Hurting America

Erdogan has undertaken a wide-ranging war against his country’s rapidly growing Kurdish population, the end of which no one can foresee—a war that already involves Kurds from beyond Turkey’s borders. Russia, Turkey’s historic enemy, may well take a semi-covert hand in that war.

Erdogan and his war are unworthy of our support, Turkey’s nominal status as a NATO ally notwithstanding. Nor, distasteful as Erdogan might be, is it in America’s interest to compete with Russia for Kurdish favor in Turkey’s civil war.

Serving America’s interest has to begin with ceasing to harm it. Acknowledging and working with the realities that the Kurds in former Iraq and former Syria have created would help prevent Russia from becoming the Kurdish people’s major international supporter and turning them into its client. The Obama administration’s response to these realities is further evidence of our bipartisan foreign policy establishment’s ruinous habit of dwelling in its own imagination, and of the need for replacing that establishment.