Don’t throw the Kurds with the Baath water


One thing about Trump – he is consistent in his policies, or perhaps better call them political instincts. If not strictly speaking an isolationist, Trump has always believed that the United States is trying to do too much in too many places around the world at the expense (literally and into trillions of dollars) of tending to its own backyard and too often benefiting mainly ungrateful allies or even fortunate foes. Hence his ambiguity about NATO, where he sees preachy Europeans free-riding on American-guaranteed security. Hence also his campaign promise to disentangle and disengage the United States militarily from the seemingly never-ending commitments like Afghanistan and Syria. It’s a point of view that is easy to understand and even sympathise with. But while perhaps not completely wrong, it’s a too simplistic a proscription for a too complex a world, where America, on the account of its power, influence and role in the international system, has a large and varied range of interests in parts of the world that include some of the most remote and the most frustrating locations and circumstances.

Because Trump tends to stick to his guns, he does not respond particularly well to advice, however well meaning, from those broadly on his side, and conversely it can take but a little nudge from people he should not listen to at all to reinforce his convictions. Pretty much all of Trump’s very own security team has strongly urged him to retain the American footprint in Syria to continue prevent the resurgence of ISIS, yet all it took was a phonecall to Turkey’s Islamist leader Erdogan who threaten yet another offensive against America’s Kurdish allies to make up Trump’s mind to pull out completely out of the country’s civil war. Consequently, Defence Secretary Gen “Mad Dog”¬† Mattis and the administration’s special envoy to the anti-ISIS international coalition have resigned citing their disagreement with the President’s stance.

The civil war in Syria has been for all practical purposes won by the Baathist government of Assad Jr, with invaluable assistance from Iran and Russia – both far more extensively involved in the conflict than the United States ever was. Through internal and external attrition, the opposition to Assad has over the years become more and more extreme in political and sectarian terms; if there were any moderate, democratic good guys in the beginning of the uprising, at the end it was pretty difficult to wish anyone victory (at least the Assads have generally protected minorities, including Christians, from Islamist extremists through their decades of rule). ISIS has been largely defeated militarily, though not with any great help from Assad and Putin, who were too busy fighting the main opposition; the Caliphate can easily revive if the pressure and attention is taken off them. Pretty much the only good guys in Syria – as in the neighbouring Iraq – are the Kurds, one of the most persecuted communities in the region, seen as a great threat to the established order on the account of their very strong – and very justified – aspirations to statehood. Largely friendless for the same reason, the Kurds are the most moderate, secular and pro-Western element in the Middle East. Independent Kurdistan – however unlikely in the face of bitter opposition from Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – would be an oasis of normality in the region on par with Israel, with which the Kurds are also reasonably – if covertly – friendly.

The American withdrawal leaves the Syrian Kurds in the lurch and at the mercy of both the reinvigorated Assad and the vengeful Erdogan who seeks to diminish Kurds everywhere in order to diminish his own Kurds in Turkey. In addition to being friendly to the United States, the Syrian Kurds have been the most effective internal and on the ground force against ISIS. America cannot afford to lose this sorts of friends and allies.

Since Trump has already rolled the dice on the withdrawal, it is absolutely essential that the United States provides the Kurds with every assistance into the future short of the boots on the ground. This, first and foremost, means weapons and military equipment, which the Kurds¬† need to maintain parity with and protect themselves from their more powerful and better resourced neighbours. This protects America’s local friends without the more expensive and risky direct involvement, keeps pressure on ISIS, keeps America’s enemies and frenemies, from Assad to Erdogan, off balance, and keeps them occupied and therefore with less time and opportunity for mischief. At least in this, I hope, Trump will have a sense to listen to advice.