US special forces, pictured in May 2016, are working with the SDF and Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Photo: Delil Souleiman / AFP
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are once again dedicating their manpower and resources to help the US-led coalition defeat the remnants of ISIS in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province with combined US and French air and fire support.
Operation Roundup is another testament to the successful SDF effort to rid Syria of ISIS. Consequently, when ISIS is finally defeated, the US should not abandon or throw them under the bus for numerous reasons – both morally and, in the long-term, their own self-interest.
The ‘Provide Comfort’ precedent
In late May 1991, then-White House Chief of Staff John Sununu predicted US forces would withdraw from the Kurdistan Region once Kurdish refugees who fled during the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War returned to their homes.
Sununu argued that the US had no responsibility to retain forces there to aid and protect these Kurdish refugees. “We're not there to deal with the multigenerational, internal civil strife,” he declared.
Najmaldin Karim, the former governor of Kirkuk who was a leading US-based Kurdish activist at the time, responded to Sununu’s assertion by insisting: “The United States cannot leave unless a situation is created where everybody is safe. It is the US responsibility to protect these people.”
Karim went on to predict US withdrawal would simply give Saddam Hussein free reign to massacre the Kurds and cause yet another refugee crisis. No withdrawal happened.
In the lead-up to the Persian Gulf War, US President George H.W. Bush made the moral case – dubious considering prior US policy in Iraq – for confronting Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait, instancing the Anfal massacres he carried out against Kurds.
Following the ceasefire that ended US military operations against Hussein on February 28, 1991, an ambiguous statement from Bush urging Iraqis to rise up against the Iraqi tyrant led Shiites and Kurds alike to believe the US would support them.
This didn’t happen. Baghdad, which US General Norman Schwarzkopf scandalously authorized to fly helicopters, immediately subdued the uprising with its lethal Russian-made gunships and drove millions of Kurds, who feared another Anfal-like atrocity, to flee en-masse to Turkey and Iran.
US fighter pilots could see the helicopters attacking Kurdish refugees but were unable to intervene owing to the ceasefire. Thanks to public pressure, stirred by the heart-wrenching images of refugees fleeing Kurdistan broadcast on CNN, and following a brief visit by US Secretary of State James Baker to assess the dire situation, Washington eventually responded by launching Operation Provide Comfort.
A no-fly zone was established preventing Saddam’s gunships from attacking Kurdish civilians and humanitarian aid was flown into the region. This aid and protection ultimately helped incubate today’s autonomous Kurdistan Region.
Despite the ensuing Kurdish Civil War and many missed opportunities in the 1990s, the US effort ultimately helped foster a stalwart ally. It later became the only stable region in Iraq with an openly pro-American population following the 2003 invasion and went on to afflict initial military defeats on ISIS in 2014.
The effort was certainly not in vain and ultimately amounted to a worthwhile endeavour on Washington’s part.
A similar commitment to Rojava today could yield the US similar benefits in the long-run.
The moral imperative
Since militarily intervening against the ISIS siege of Kobane in late 2014, the Kurds have proven themselves an indispensable ally to US anti-ISIS efforts in Syria. Airstrikes alone would not have defeated the militants but these battle-hardened Kurdish-led fighters bravely beat back ISIS’s genocidal onslaught and ultimately, last October, liberated its de-facto capital city Raqqa.
To protect Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava), the US simply has to retain a small number of troops on the ground and continue to use its regional airbases, or aircraft carriers in the vicinity, to deter any potential attacks on Rojava. This will amount to a relatively small commitment to preserve a valuable ally in the region.
The SDF’s commitment to fighting ISIS in Deir ez-Zor in the aftermath of Turkey’s incursion into Afrin is also a sign that the fighting-force is willing to help Washington achieve its military aims despite losing this west Rojavan exclave, which the US failed to prevent. For this reason they should be given some guarantees of protection post-ISIS for continuing to fight jihadists rather than trying to avenge Turkey’s advance on another front.
Being Rojava’s main protector could also potentially give the US more leverage in influencing domestic affairs, particularly the ruling Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD)’s suppression of the Kurdistan National Council (KNC/ENKS)’s political activities in the region. A recent meeting between Rojavan and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials indicates that headway may be made in resolving this hitherto political impasse.
Achieving all of this will only need a minimal but committed and sustained effort on Washington’s part, which will, more likely than not, prove more beneficial than it would costly.
Staying in Rojava would also give the US a sizeable foothold in Syria, without the need to maintain a large number of troops to hold and protect territory. This would give it more clout when it comes to negotiating an end to the Syrian conflict. Like Russia, they have a formidable military presence on the ground in the country that simply cannot be disregarded.
A complete US withdrawal, on the other hand, would be indistinguishable from throwing its Syrian Kurdish allies to the wolves. The destruction of the SDF at the hands of Ankara or Damascus (or both) would leave the US without allies on the ground to combat a potential ISIS resurgence, or similar Islamist threat, in that part of Syria. It may even be forced to commit large numbers of its own troops – something that would not be in its interests for obvious reasons.
Furthermore, Washington’s record in building proxy armies from scratch to fight in Syria, the train-and-equip program being the most salient example, left much to be desired.
Bush senior’s administration used the language of realpolitik to initially justify its failure to aid the 1991 uprising, despite its prior rhetoric comparing Hussein to a modern-day Hitler. However, its establishment of no-fly zones ultimately, for aforementioned reasons, yielded a much more positive result than leaving Hussein to again butcher hundreds-of-thousands of Kurds.
Likewise, President Donald Trump’s advocacy of self-interested realpolitik in US foreign policy will not be served by withdrawing from Rojava.