The Syrian Kurds, led by their military arm, the YPG, surprisingly now have the military initiative against the Islamic State. But flush with their small victory, they would be wise to think carefully not just about what would be a winning policy but also about what kind of policy would led to disaster. No matter how long a regime has existed or how powerful the state, overconfidence in one’s ability to implement bold steps and denial about the ease with which one can make obvious mistakes constitute an ever-present double-pronged threat.
A conceited policy-maker might dismiss simple modeling techniques for guiding one’s thinking during the process of planning a policy as “unnecessary,” and it is certainly the case that many professional policy-makers will carry out such evaluations in impressive detail with or without diagrams. On the other hand, examples of self-contradictory foreign policy steps are legion, suggesting that leaders frequently act on the basis of multiple, inconsistent goals and thus undermine their own policies. For example, the same week that Erdogan opened the border crossing to Syrian Kurdish refugees, he also warned against the potential danger to Turkey posed by Syrian Kurds, hardly a logical way to calm sectarian feelings and persuade Turkish Kurds that they can trust their own government.
If Ankara has not decided whether to alienate the Kurds once again or take the opportunity to step away from sectarian politics, the Kurds appear to have their own policy-forming issues. Even as they seize the initiative against the Islamic State by threatening its land links to Turkey (rather friendly “neutral” territory for the Islamic State), the YPG is being accused of sectarian crimes, threatening all the international good will they accrued in the high-profile battle of Kobani and feeding all the fears of Ankara that have for generations blocked the aspirations of Turkish Kurds for a nondiscriminatory multinational society. The additional fact that Turkey only opened the border after refugees cut through the Turkish border fence casts a further shadow over the delicate YPG-Ankara relationship. The YPG is winning momentarily on a remote battlefield with the help of other Syrian rebel groups and the U.S. while the Islamic State is in the midst of major military campaigns both in southern Syria and on the outskirts of Baghdad. Whatever reasons for confidence YPG may have, they certainly are not obvious. The fact is that the YPG is squeezed between the vastly more powerful Islamic State to the south and the vastly more powerful Turkey to the north, and if the Islamic State is defeated, the result is likely to be the resurgence of Assad, also no supporter of Syrian Kurdish aspirations for independence. The glory of the Kobani resistance and the roar of U.S. jets notwithstanding, Kurdish options in Syria could vanish like a desert mirage unless they play their cards very skillfully.
The danger for Kurdish interests of mistakes, perhaps made unintentionally as crisis-driven tactical responses to unanticipated provocations, may be easier to understand if only the Kurdish moves are graphed. The diagram “A Losing Strategy” illustrates a possible future series of YPG actions whose self-defeating nature should be clear. Indeed, one can hardly imagine a regime planning such a losing strategy, yet in the rush of events, regimes frequently do behave in this way. None of the possible responses by Ankara are included: is there any evidence to suggest that the Erdogan regime would tolerate such behavior?
If the specific conclusion is that the YPG is treading a political minefield, the theoretical conclusion is that in addition to calculating a desired policy, regimes should also calculate the policy it needs to avoid. In practice, avoid self-defeating steps is in fact likely to be more important than taking the initiative. Given the track record of most players in the Mideast over the last 20 years, “do no harm” shines brightly as a very skillful approach.
Whether the allegations of YPG ethnic cleansing are accurate reflections of the behavior of YPG forces, the result of careless U.S. bombing in civilian areas, or just extremist Sunni propaganda, for the relatively weak Kurds, the media battle may be more important than their military victories. The real war for the Kurds is not to defeat the far more powerful Islamic State; the real Kurdish struggle is to come out of the broader regional war against the Islamic State with the international image of a society ready for self-government.
Washington also should be taking these reports seriously, and indeed the State Department has expressed concern—at least about the accusations against the YPG. But Washington also needs to practice the human rights it preaches; it must not, if it hopes to stand as the symbol of a better life, allow the moral distinction between itself and the Islamic State be blurred. If the YPG cannot wrest away from the Islamic State even small towns like Tal Abyad without U.S. bombing of civilians, then it calls into question Washington’s whole strategy for defeating the Islamic State. Every Sunni civilian killed by U.S. planes constitutes a victory for the Islamic State by giving credence in the eyes of Sunnis worldwide to its claims to being their only hope for justice. Today, the Islamic State survives on the strength of 1) Sunni feelings that they have nowhere else to turn and 2) the perceived usefulness of the Islamic State as a hammer against Assad. Eventually, those regimes thus playing with fire will either awaken and extinguish the fire or get badly burned, and there is little doubt that the attitude of Sunni civilians will be a key factor in determining which possibility occurs. Those who do not wish for a conflagration that consumes the Mideast state system would be wise to avoid civilian casualties at all cost. Needless to say, such advice tends today to be dismissed with scorn in key capitals.