The Pentagon certainly knows how to make US allies nervous.
The US State Department announced on Monday that it had “put under review” the process by which arms and military equipment are sent to Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Kurds fighting in Syria have been, and continue to be a major asset in the US-led fight against ISIS in the region.
According to Pentagon spokesman Col. Robert Manning, the Department is “reviewing pending adjustments” to the military and equipment support provided to the Kurds.
What exactly prompted this new hesitancy in the administration regarding their Kurdish friends?
Chances are that it has to do with commitments that may have been made by the president to Turkish leaders.
Donald Trump allegedly told his Turkish counterpart, Recep Erdogan, late last week that he will stop arming Kurdish fighting groups in the region, a move that many observers criticized as potentially destabilizing for the war-torn region.
Turkey on its part has been at war with its Kurdish minority for years. The fact that the US has maintained a relationship with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Turkey since 2014 has been a tremendous strain on relations between the two countries.
Although all Kurds share a similar ethnic and national identity, there are distinct organizations within the Kurdish people. Kurdish units within SDF operate in Syria. While they may not like Turkey for slaughtering their kin to the north, they are quite busy dealing with ISIS and other Jihadists in their own area.
Turkey, of course, does not make this distinction. Its demand from President Trump to cut off military aid to the SDF was for them an issue of diplomatic loyalty.
Here the US finds itself in a bit of a conundrum. Dealing with Turkey is hard enough considering that the country is constantly on the brink of being ostracized by the rest of the Western world. Turkey is regularly berated for its alleged human rights violations when dealing with enemies without and political opposition within, which understandably gives the country a sense of being collectively offended by its allies. Most recently, Turkey pulled out of a NATO exercise after coordinators accidentally placed the name of President Erdogan on the “list of enemies.”
Being an important friend of the US in the Middle East, providing important assets such as military launch points, the US would prefer to stay on Turkey’s good side. However, in the case of the Kurds, this may come at the expense of abandoning a loyal partner in the war against jihadism.
As mentioned, the Kurds have been vital in the fight against ISIS, having been on the front lines of some of the most important clashes over the past three years. More importantly, now that the major battles against the Islamic state have been won, the Kurds are seen as important players in rebuilding and restoring order to many of the devastated areas in Iraq and Syria.
This will be a long-term project. If there's one thing the US learned from its experiences in Iraq, it is the need to consolidate victories with a stable follow up. The Kurds are indeed the ones capable of bringing a lasting peace in the areas liberated by the coalition. But they’re going to need continued US support for that to happen, at least for the time being.
The American version of Trump’s promise to Turkey was significantly less specific. No clear commitment to stop all military assistance was made. This leaves room for the administration to maneuver a bit in catering to the conflicting needs of its friends. And maneuver it must.