Originally published: https://nationalinterest.org/feature/us-kurdish-relationship-after-october-7-207343
Washington’s strategic relationship with the Kurds must reflect changes in the regional balance of power.
18 Nov 2023 | The National Interest, Giran Ozcan
The tragedy that has been unfolding since October 7 in Israel and Palestine, among many other things, has led to a tangible reversal of an Obama-era policy called the “pivot to Asia.” While some on the right say Biden was complicit in Hamas’ actions, claiming his policies led to the attack, the administration has acted swiftly to make sure everyone knows it is fully supportive of Israel’s “right to defend itself.”
The destruction and civilian death toll caused by the conflict so far have been horrific. There is, however, a potentially more devastating scenario that many Middle East watchers hope won’t occur: a regional conflagration. Since October 7, the United States and its allies have been concerned that Israel’s response to Hamas’ attack could prompt outside forces to join in the fighting. The Israeli ground operation into Gaza was reportedly delayed so that the U.S. military could prepare for retaliatory attacks by Iranian proxies across the wider region.
The Biden administration has verbally warned Iran against any such escalation and increased its deterrence force posture by sending not one but two carrier strike groups to the region. However, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, believes an expansion of the war in Gaza is “inevitable.”
Initially, many thought a second northern front was likely to be opened in Israel if and when Lebanese Hezbollah entered into the fray. This has not materialized as recent skirmishes between Hezbollah and the Israel Defence Forces have generally been deemed to be within the pre-October 7 rules of engagement.
According to a statement from the Department of Defense, since October 17, fifty-six U.S. personnel have been injured in attacks carried out by “Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and affiliated groups.” Two American F-15s subsequently conducted a “self-defense strike” on a weapons storage depot in eastern Syria.
This, by no means, can be classified as a significant surge in violence from past engagements. Iranian proxies have hit American bases before, and American fighter jets have always retaliated. Even after the assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force Commander General Qasem Soleimani in 2020, Tehran was hesitant to escalate.
There is another country that has been perturbed by the unavoidable pivot back to the Middle East: Turkey. No regional leader reacted as angrily as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to its NATO ally’s deployment of carrier strike groups to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Iran’s chosen form of escalation and Washington’s chosen form of retaliation focus the pressure on northeastern Syria, where Washington is partnered with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) forces as part of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. If left unchecked, this spiral could create optimal conditions for a Turkish ground invasion of northern Syria—a catastrophe that could have repercussions in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and beyond.
Turkey opposes the existence of the SDF and its affiliated civil administration, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which governs nearly one-third of Syrian territory and is responsible for a population of about four million people. As its practices in areas of Syrian territory that it has invaded and occupied have shown, Ankara’s objective is to destroy the SDF and AANES militarily and politically and remove the Kurdish communities that support them from the region.
Turkey’s chosen tactics have made the region more vulnerable to Iranian influence. In turn, Iran’s tactics benefit Turkey. They provide the SDF—already outsourced and outnumbered when countering Turkish threats—with another security challenge, dividing their attention and resources. They challenge the shaky but real attempts at Kurdish-Arab power-sharing and coexistence that have made AANES governance an imperfect but promising future for places like Raqqa and Manbij, aiding in Turkey’s goal of political collapse.
Most importantly for Washington, Iran’s actions raise the cost of the U.S. presence in the region and change the coalition’s priorities. When the United States is more focused on tit-for-tat strikes on Iran-backed groups than engaging diplomatically to counter Turkish threats or promoting stabilization and economic recovery, a Turkish ground invasion or significant regime-backed campaign of internal subversion is more likely than ever before.
That’s likely not a coincidence. Ankara and Tehran are threatened by the fact that the AANES and SDF hold one-third of Syrian territory out of their respective spheres of influence. Both want to remove the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS from Syria, viewing its support for the SDF as a threat to their own respective regional ambitions. Most importantly, both have seen the AANES’ successes inspire the estimated twenty million Kurds in Turkey and the twelve million Kurds in Iran in their own struggles for self-determination and challenge the fundamentalist, nationalist beliefs at the heart of both states’ political projects. While Erdogan has joined the Ayatollahs in threatening the end of Israel, a video of the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, from the early 90s in which he says both Palestinians and Jews have a right to live in the region has been circulating on social media.
If the AANES can survive, it will benefit regional security and stability and provide the only chance of a post-war Syria that does not return to the pre-2011 status quo that caused a decade-long civil war and a worldwide rise in extremist activity. If it is crushed by Ankara, Tehran, and their extremist proxies, it will likely open up a second regional war, with repercussions in the four states in which Kurds live and beyond.
It’s within U.S. interests to help prevent that second outcome, and time is of the essence. There are three things Washington can do right now to increase northeast Syria’s resilience to Turkish and Iranian attacks and promote long-term peace.
It’s in the U.S. interests to help prevent that second outcome—and time is of the essence. The partnership with the SDF is essential for preventing an ISIS resurgence, denying one-third of Syrian territory to Iran or Turkey and their respective extremist proxies, and preventing Russia’s preferred outcome to the Syrian war—a full Assad victory. This is not nation-building or the creation of yet another frozen conflict. The AANES is ready and willing to do the hard work of building stable local governance itself, requiring assistance primarily in the form of economic resources and diplomatic support.
First, the United States can help the SDF respond to Iranian and Turkish drone attacks g against northeast Syria’s security forces, economy, and society. The SDF deserves the capability to defend its own military bases, political institutions, and critical infrastructure from Turkish and Iran-backed militia strikes. This would be viewed as less escalatory than direct American retaliation against these actors—the SDF would be defending their own interests with their own resources. Countering unmanned drones does not harm military personnel, meaning it would not amount to the United States supporting or condoning any form of military action against a NATO ally’s forces. This also decreases the likelihood of a U.S.-Iran confrontation that would have devastating impacts on both countries and the entire region.
Second, the United States can focus on stabilization and economic recovery. Rebuilding the infrastructure destroyed in a recent round of Turkish strikes should be an immediate priority to ensure that more people are not made dependent on humanitarian aid and that Iran, Assad, and ISIS cannot capitalize on economic devastation to advance their interests.
Third, Washington should apply the lessons of the current regional crisis to Turkey, Syria, and the Kurdish issue before it is too late. The Israel-Hamas war shows that frozen conflicts can thaw quickly. Washington must work to pressure Ankara back to the negotiating table with the PKK to remove the danger that Turkish-Kurdish escalation in the near term poses to the interests of all parties.
The U.S.-Kurdish relationship took on a whole new significance after an inhumane organization calling itself the Islamic State threatened the peoples of the world. The current threat to the international order is also great, and the strategic relationship with the Kurds must reflect that.
Giran Ozcan is the Executive Director of the Kurdish Peace Institute. He has previously worked with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in its overseas representative offices and was the HDP Representative to the United States of America between 2017-2021. He graduated from the University of Warwick with a sociology degree and worked at the Centre for Turkey Studies in London between 2011 and 2016. He was a founding editor of The Region, an online news outlet covering the Middle East.