The Syrian Kurds Need More Than Weapons—They Need Political Support

By providing weapons without diplomatic backing, the U.S. risks exacerbating tensions in both Turkey and Syria.

Patrick Lewis

The U.S. wants to further arm Kurdish fighters in an offensive against ISIS. The Kurds, however, want more. (Kurdishstruggle / Flickr)

The Obama administration is considering a plan to further arm the Kurds — whom many in Washington call our most effective partner on the ground” in Syria — in order to incentivize Kurdish participation in an upcoming offensive against ISIS in Raqqa. Two weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial endorsing this plan — the headline proclaimed this as Step One” for Fixing Syria.” And in presidential debates, including last night’s, Hillary Clinton has advocated a similar plan.

Not only would Turkey be unhappy if the Kurds received more U.S. weaponry, but there’s no evidence the Kurds want to take the deal either.

Expelling ISIS from Raqqa, the largest Syrian city under the group’s control and its self-declared capital, has been a primary U.S. military objective in Syria since the beginning of its intervention in 2014. Raqqa now carries (in the minds of U.S. political and military leaders, at least) great symbolic importance in the war on ISIS. So it’s no surprise when the Tribune declares that the many complications and dangers of sending even more arms to the Kurds can be brushed aside: What’s important now is the ouster of the Islamic State from Raqqa.”

But in calling for more shipments of weapons to Syria without any semblance of a plan for a political solution to the 5-year conflict — nor the even longer conflict between Turkey and the Kurds — the Tribune is reinforcing the worst aspects of U.S. policy in the region. This policy remains overly focused on achieving short-term military victories at the expense of longer-term political settlements, without which a lasting peace is impossible. What’s more, this policy will almost certainly fail to achieve even the limited goals it has set out for itself, namely the capture of Raqqa.

What’s needed is dialogue around Kurdish demands for a federal system in Syria (with local autonomy for Kurds and other minorities); without this, simply delivering weapons will privilege a military solution over a diplomatic one. It will likely strengthen the most militant and hardline factions among the Kurdish leadership while continuing to sideline many of the political and civil society leaders most responsible for the ongoing experiments in radical participatory democracy that have inspired admiration from Western Leftists and liberals alike.

Aldar Xelil, a member of the executive committee of TEV-DEM (an umbrella organization coordinating civil society groups in Rojava), made a similar point in a recent interview. When asked about Clinton’s pledge during the debates to arm America’s Arab and Kurdish allies in Syria, Xelil responded, Of course it is important to give support to Kurdish forces. However, this support cannot be limited to military aid. Any support that will be forthcoming must be provided in all areas; that is to say it must be political, diplomatic, economic and social support as well.”

Xelil cites the consistent exclusion of the PYD — the dominant Kurdish party in Rojava — from the Geneva peace talks on Syria as one area in particular where the U.S. has failed its declared partner. An increasingly common perception in Rojava is that America has repeatedly blocked the PYD’s participation in these talks out of deference to its NATO ally Turkey. (The PYD is a close ally of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state in the country’s Kurdish-majority Southeast.)

In late August, the U.S. gave its support to Turkey’s cross-border incursion into Syria, to go after ISIS as far south as Jarabulus. However, it is widely acknowledged (including by Turkish President Erdogan himself) that the Kurds and their autonomous cantons in Rojava were also a primary target. Thus it was hardly a surprise to anyone that within days of Turkey’s intervention, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were fighting with Turkish soldiers south of Jarabulus.

The Tribune argues that Turkey can be consoled by a U.S. pledge that the Kurds wouldn’t be getting heavy artillery, just small arms and ammunition.” This is entirely nonsense, and as insulting to the intelligence of the Syrian Kurds themselves as it is to Turkey. More weapons without diplomacy in Northern Syria risks further inflaming tensions in both the Syrian conflict and Turkey, where the government has been waging a new dirty war” on its own Kurdish population. Tens of thousands have been displaced and entire neighborhoods left in ruins while the American government has remained largely silent.

The renewed fighting in Turkey came after a multiyear peace process between Turkey and the PKK fell apart last summer, in large part due to tensions over Kurdish gains in Syria. This is partly the fault of the United States, which failed to see how its policy of military support for the SDF was destabilizing the peace process in Turkey.

Not only would Turkey be unhappy if the Kurds received more U.S. weaponry, but there’s no evidence the Kurds want to take the deal either. As long as the United States is unwilling to push Turkey toward a comprehensive settlement with Kurdish parties in both Turkey and Syria, it is entirely unreasonable to expect the Kurds to send their fighters into Raqqa (where hundreds could be killed) solely in exchange for small arms and ammunition.”

In fact, at the end of August, Asya Abdullah, the co-President of PYD, announced that there would be no Kurdish-led operation against Raqqa as long as Turkey’s incursion into Syria continued.

Likewise, just last month, Polat Can, the official representative for the YPG (the dominant group within the SDF) in President Obama’s Global Coalition to Counter ISIL,” explicitly ruled out the group’s participation in such an operation as long as the U.S. and its Western allies continued to deny recognition to the Kurd’s political project in Rojava. We are not some paramilitary group,” he told Washington-based journalist Mutlu Civiroglu. We cannot say to our people let us go and fight, sacrifice so many of [our] young men and women [and] then not have the right to speak. Our people will not accept this and no one would accept this.”

And after a recent visit to imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan — one of the major influences and symbolic figures behind the recent political developments in Rojava — Ocalan’s brother announced that Ocalan thinks current U.S. policy toward Rojava aims to weaken both Turkey and the Syrian Kurds by playing the two against one another.

If the United States hadn’t wanted [Turkey] to” go into Syria, Ocalan is reported to have said, Turkey would not have gone into Jarabulus.” In Ocalan’s estimation (and in the estimation of many within the Kurdish leadership in Rojava), the U.S. is more than content to use the Kurds as a bargaining piece in their attempts to control the Erdogan government and strengthen their own position in Syria, all the while deploying Kurdish fighters to score much needed publicity points in its battle against ISIS. 

Regardless of its real intentions, America’s double-game in Syria isn’t fooling anyone. It cannot continue to back two warring parties through a myopic focus on its war on ISIS. If it cannot find a political solution to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict — a conflict it has ignored for decades — further military successes against ISIS will become virtually impossible.

Absent a serious diplomatic effort to bring Turkey and the PKK back to the negotiating table and real steps toward some form of recognition for the Kurds’ political project in Rojava, the crisis in northern Syria will only deepen further, opening the door to an even wider regional conflagration. The United State must not pour more gasoline on the fire.

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Patrick Lewis is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Chicago who works in Turkey and Kurdistan.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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