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The Kurds: Seeking Their Yorktown
As the Peshmerga retreats in northern Iraq, two American foreign policy experts answer questions about America’s relationship with the Kurds.
In September I had the opportunity to interview Robert Ford and Charles Lister, both senior fellows at the Middle East Institute (MEI), on issues pertaining to Kurdish self-determination. This was before the Iraqi Army move on Kirkuk and the subsequent chaos that has engulfed the Kurdish region. The interviews were done via e-mail, as I am based in Hawaii.
I originally intended to build this conversation into a larger piece on the topic of Kurdish independence. However given the rapid changes on the ground, Small Wars Journal is publishing the interviews as a stand-alone discussion about America’s broader priorities in Syria and Iraq.
These men are of interest precisely because neither’s work is principally concerned with the Kurds. Robert Ford is the former United States Ambassador to Syria, and he’s most well-known for his efforts to organize the early Syrian opposition to Bashar Assad. Charles Lister is a scholar at the MEI, and he has an extensive knowledge of Syrian opposition politics.
Both men were frank in their answers, and I found the exchange refreshing. What follows is our interviews, combined and edited lightly for the sake of clarity.
JD: Ambassador Ford, Foreign Policy wrote an article a couple years back that has you quoted extensively. In one place you advise Syrian Kurds (this was in 2012) to enter into an Arab led opposition movement. I'm including the relevant passage below.
On some points, the U.S. position was less than prescient. In December 2012, Ford pressured the KNC to join the opposition without any guarantees on Kurdish rights, because Assad "would be gone soon" and "commitments about rights would mean little if the Kurds were too isolated within a transitional government to ensure that the commitments were implemented." Ford acknowledged the presence of extremists in the FSA, but encouraged the KNC to reach out to the "moderate elements, of which there were many."
Please talk me through what American diplomats understood about the Syrian conflict at that early stage. If you had Cassandra-like powers and knew then what you know now, would your approach to the Kurds have been different?
RF: It was important for the KNC to join the Syrian Opposition Forces Coalition for [a few] reasons:
1. The SOFC was going to be the lead in the negotiations, and to get a strong Kurdish viewpoint at the negotiating table the KNC needed to be in the SOFC.
2. The issue of self-governance in NE Syria is a separate issue from a negotiated peace deal between the opposition and the Syrian government that was to lead to a transition government. Emphasis on the word "transition." Self-rule is not a transition issue, and what the KNC and other Kurds wanted would have required changes to the Syrian constitution. Renegotiating the Syrian constitution while there was fighting going on would have been exceptionally painful; you negotiate a constitutional clause change while your buddy shoots at the buddy of the person you're negotiating with? That's why Geneva 1 put the order as (1) transition government set up and (2) then negotiate new constitution.
3. No guarantee of Syrian Kurdish rights could have been made to stick long-term until the constitution was finalized under a transition government, and real negotiations [began] about a new or amended Syrian constitution. Example: Suppose the Arabs of the opposition and the (predominantly Arab) Syrian government both quietly agreed not to extend self-rule during the transition government stand-up negotiations. How would anyone have made them change their minds? America wouldn't have launched bombers to defend the Syrian Kurds in 2013 or early 2014. The best guarantee was to get the KNC in those transition talks so that they could protect/push their concerns themselves directly. But without a transition government committed to a new constitution and a real constitutional negotiation there would be little chance the Syrian Kurds would have gained greater long-term respect for their rights anyway. I doubt Assad will be prepared to offer and adhere to greater respect for Kurdish rights now. And I strongly doubt that the USA is going to fight a war with Assad, Iran and maybe even Russia over the rights of Rojava. (Remember: Russia has always said that no foreign country has the right under international law to enter another sovereign state's territory and push for change in that sovereign country's domestic politics.)
JD: One thing that strikes me as problematic (and maybe fatally so) with our Mideast policy is the seeming contradiction between support for human rights as an abstract position and advice like that (quoted in Foreign Policy) above. Why was the United States telling groups like Syria's Kurds - who were facing a very real threat of genocide - that they should subsume themselves into a larger coalition of Sunni Arabs?
RF: I think the above answers that question. Please remember that in any political/policy implementation, when the problem is complicated and difficult, the easiest way to approach it is to cut it into segments. Obviously it would be great if everybody agreed on everything at once: Full Kurdish rights AND an end to the civil war AND a transition government. Often it is hard to get a big bang deal right up front. In Syria, it has proved impossible to get a deal even on individual segments, unfortunately.
JD: Given the apparent failure of unity policies in Iraq and Syria, do you think it's wise for the United States to persist in trying to keep these countries together as centrally-organized polities? How do we explain to Kurds that Americans have the right to self-determination (after being taxed on stamps), but Kurds should remain part of Arab states that have engaged in ethnic cleansing?
RF: Kurds obviously do have a right to self-determination. I have never questioned that. However, I do question 2 things: (a) Their right to have it immediately without negotiating it in advance and (b) The wisdom of the United States providing its military muscle to ensure Kurdish independence if regional states are against it. Please note that in the case of American independence, Britain refused to negotiate it with the Americans seriously prior to Yorktown in 1781. The Americans had to fight. I hope that Erbil, Baghdad, Teheran and Ankara will be able to negotiate so as to avoid as much bloodshed as possible. Negotiated and agreed interim steps and gradual transitions are sometimes the best way to avoid bloodshed today.
JD: I was hoping you could offer a broader perspective on the role and scope of American diplomacy in the Mideast.
Something striking to me is the extent to which Kurds and Americans seem to talk past one another. Kurds are frustrated about things like unexplained delays in visa processing. They care about the impoverished state of their hospitals. State department workers have little to say about that. Their presence in Sulaimania, where I worked, was almost zero. One told me that after Benghazi, security concerns increased, and leaving secure compounds is discouraged.
American military officers have a different view, and a few have grumbled to me about this mindset. Do you think there's a broader need to reform the American diplomatic mission? In particular, are we hampering our diplomacy by allowing people to hunker down? Should we be giving them more leeway and more responsibility for solving non-military problems?
RF: On the visa processing for Kurds, there is a law on the books that says that if you are a member of an organization trying to overthrow the sovereign government, you are classified for visa purposes as a potential terrorist and you need special permission from Washington to get a visa. The KDP and PUK are classified as organizations that tried to overthrow Saddam. The Iraqi Kurds, very understandably, are upset by this. After all, the Americans worked with the Kurds to rid Iraq of Saddam. I am not justifying the law; I am simply saying it is on the books and visa officers have to work under its requirements. In a perfect world, congress would change the law and the president would sign the change.
On the part about assistance to the Kurdish economy, we could write a book about it. In short, I understand the desire of the Kurds for greater and faster assistance. Countries on other continents make the same kinds of demands and there are never enough funds to satisfy all. Of course, the best thing is for sustainable private investment to come and help develop economies, not just government aid monies.
On security and diplomats: I am on record many times as saying that it is harmful to keep American diplomats bottled up in embassies unable to go out and meet/influence contacts and see developments on the ground. There will always be some risk in the job and good diplomats know how to balance risk vs. potential gain. Chris Stevens, the ambassador in Libya, was a colleague and we all deeply regret his death. Knowing Chris, however, the last thing he would have wanted is for his murder to make it even harder for American diplomats to do their jobs.
JD: The next few questions are for Charles Lister.
There are orthodoxies that inform much of the conversation people have about Iraq and Syria. One example is "Iraqi unity," which has been a central tenet of American policy since 2003. Is there a point at which it will be in America's interest to abandon the unity rhetoric and start emphasizing the rights of Iraq's Kurdish minority?
CL: From a policymaker’s perspective, maintaining the territorial integrity and unity of a nation state will always be a foremost priority until doing so is truly untenable. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that point in Iraq, though the prospects of enhanced Kurdish rights does not in any way contradict broader U.S. interests in that country, so there’s no reason at all to oppose that. Kurdish independence in Iraq, however, does of course bring with it the potential for secondary destabilizing consequences, which we all know from experience is something all should avoid in Iraq. The Iraqi state as a whole, including the KRG, sits in a particularly pivotal time right now, in which securing long-term stability and prosperity for all portions of the country is of existential importance.
JD: Another orthodoxy (and one that has taken a beating in the press) is the faith in "moderate Sunni Arabs." In Syria we counted on Sunni Arabs to be our allies against both Al Qaeda and the Ba'ath Party. But that hasn't gone well. Problems with the train and equip program are well documented. In northern Syria the Turkish-backed rebels that Joe Biden supported in 2016 are now shooting at American soldiers. What happened? Were there fundamental problems with a strategy that relied on an explicitly Sunni Arab-led opposition force?
CL: One big problem here is the constant reference to forces in sectarian terms - does this do more to strengthen extremists or moderates, one must ask? Syria’s opposition is and was much more complex than a “Sunni Arab” force, both in terms of its basic makeup and in terms of its political identity. Moreover, I’d also question to what extent the U.S. ever truly “put its faith in moderate Sunni Arabs.” When was a truly serious initiative put into place to make such a force dominant in Syria? The only such effort one could put forward was the CIA’s Title 50 program, which was initiated two years after Syria’s opposition formed and proliferated (i.e. too late to have intended effect) and which was never provided the kind of resources necessary to meet its explicitly anti-Assad objectives.
To stress that: U.S. support to “Sunni Arabs” in Syria was focused on anti-Assad objectives, not in fighting terrorism. The one U.S. initiative to establish a large “Sunni Arab” force to fight terrorism was the DoD’s Train & Equip program, which was fatally flawed in its design from Day 1. Even the men who led the effort knew that at the time, but they obviously couldn’t say it publicly.
To recruit “Sunni Arabs” to fight ISIS in 2015 meant a heavy recruitment effort targeted at the anti-Assad opposition, which for clearly obvious reasons at the time, were overwhelmingly focused on their anti-Assad mission. For the U.S. to offer them money on the condition that they ceased all anti-Assad operations in order to be redeployed to the other side of Syria to fight ISIS was a fantasy.
The U.S. relationship with the PYD/YPG on the other hand, benefited from the fact that the PYD had a largely ambiguous relationship with the Syrian government. The YPG did not have another - in their eyes more important - war to be fighting. In fact, for the YPG, ISIS was then and there an occupier and direct threat. For Syria’s opposition at the time, ISIS had ceased being a direct threat since its expulsion from their areas in 2014. This subject requires an honest examination of the situation and on-the-ground dynamics from the players involved.
JD: The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have managed to attract Arabs to their organization. It's reasonable that Arabs who are willing to work with Kurds (as well as the other minorities that fight alongside the Kurds) are more likely to be "moderate." Should we have insisted on this kind of inclusive approach - rather than some poorly defined "vetting" - back in 2012 and 2013?
CL: I’m not quite sure I understand your point here. Any vetting that began in late-2012 was intended solely for anti-Assad purposes, which the PYD was entirely uninterested in at the time. The two cases you’re using here don’t compare.
Moreover, I can from personal experience tell you that virtually every single opposition group in northern Syria have and did have within their ranks members of minority communities, including Kurds and Christians. Their antipathy to the PYD/YPG is based on politics, not on ethnicity/creed. I can also speak from personal experience that the U.S. and European states were insisting on inclusivity within their anti-Assad partners in 2013-2014 (when their efforts became more serious), but for demographic reasons, this was only of most relevance in portions of Syria's north.
JD: Thank you both for your time and thoughtful answers.