Should Washington Save the Kurds?

Washington has only one ally in Syria: the Kurds. Should Washington protect or abandon its ally?

U.S. Syrian policy is in disarray, with NATO ally Turkey and Russia now both openly attacking the only “ally,” “friend,” or “partner” that the U.S. has in Syria: the Syrian Kurds. It seems to be decision time in Washington: either abandon the Kurds once again or actually protect them. Betraying the Kurds is easy; been there, done that, over and over. But the obvious alternative appears to be walking away from the Mideast. Such a step, given the appalling failures of the last generation, deserves serious consideration: let the Russians take care of the Mideast if they are so eager. And yet, the idea of putting our money where our mouth is also deserves consideration.

This time is different. The Kurds are not just a repressed and marginalized minority this time: they actually have a functioning autonomous region, and its accomplishments are very impressive in comparison with those of Baghdad. Shouldn’t they be rewarded for creating and defending a region of stability with a regime supported by the people and a policy of nonaggression?

As for the Syrian Kurds, who are there only because of long-time Turkish ethnic discrimination that drove them across the border from their homeland, they have also demonstrated an unusual ability to defend themselves and an unusual willingness to fight the Islamic State. Should such behavior not be encouraged?

These two questions are admittedly set-ups. It would be hard to snarl a flat “No!” to either. The real question concerns the cost of saying “Yes.”

Military Cost. If the U.S. is going to support the Kurds and not end up looking like a wimp or an idiot, it will have to provide them with effective air cover against its Turkish NATO ally and against the Russians.

Economic Cost. “Support” must also entail a long-term commitment to enabling Syrian Kurdish society a self-sustaining entity. Maybe it will evolve into part of Iraqi Kurdistan; maybe it will be so open-minded that other Syrian ethnic groups will flock to join it; maybe it will evolve into a province in a new democratic Syria. But in the meantime, it will need food, medicine, arms, trade options, sources of energy.

Political Cost. Can Washington make a persuasive argument to Ankara that a U.S.-protected Rojava is better for Turkey than a mass of angry Kurds looking for revenge against Erdogan and/or independence from Turkey? Can Washington make a persuasive argument to Tehran that Kurdish autonomy is consistent with an Iranian sphere of influence in Syria? Can Washington make a persuasive argument to Moscow that neither its naval base nor its diplomatic position as a Syrian decision-maker will be threatened? Can Washington persuade Ankara and Moscow that it will actually shoot down an attacking plane inside some very well defined region?

These costs are real and will probably be fairly high, but the other side of the coin is the gains. Is either the U.S. or the world better off if the U.S. remains involved in the Mideast? Given recent history, the answer is not easy, and the question needs to be considered carefully. If future policy emphasizes civil society over military attack, then perhaps so, but that seems a very high barrier for impatient America to jump.

Would deserting the Kurds enhance the stature of the U.S.? Can the U.S. design and implement a policy to support the Kurds that will enhance the stature of the U.S.?

If the first question is easy to answer, the second is hard, for creative diplomacy seems a lost art, and yet, the president who prevented war with Iran might just be able to pull another rabbit out of his hat…as long as he starts by clearly articulating to the American people the necessity and morality of finding a positive-sum compromise to the Syrian disaster, one that offers security to all the ethnic groups and leaves both Russia and Iran as players. It’s a long shot, but rather than running for the sidelines or pouring gasoline on the flames, perhaps making an example of the Kurds might be a better option.

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