President Donald Trump's announcement last Sunday of a U.S. redeployment of forces from positions along the northeastern Syrian-Turkish border has been panned by a wide swath of the foreign policy establishment as a betrayal of Waahington's Syrian Kurdish partners. The anger in the Beltway is palpable: members of Congress are demanding an explanation; senior lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are calling for testimony; and editorial writers are bemoaning the internal chaos within the administration that led up to the decision.
It's not surprising why so many are upset about the Trump administration's decision. The Syrian Kurds have been Washington's most effective counterterrorism partners against the Islamic State. Nobody else in Syria comes close. But just because the anger is boiling hot at the moment doesn't necessarily mean it's justified. There is a lot of misinformation percolating in the ether. It's time to correct the record.
First, it's important to remind people about what the U.S.-Syrian Kurdish partnership is—and is not—about. Washington invested in a relationship with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces for a very specific reason: to chip away at the Islamic State's territorial caliphate to the point where the terrorist group was no longer capable of holding dominion over a wide swath of territory. The combination of U.S. air power and Kurdish ground forces proved to be extraordinarily effective, so much so that the physical caliphate is now in the ash heap of history. The national security objective the United States sought to accomplish—the demise of ISIS as a territorial force—has in fact been accomplished.
At bottom, the relationship between the United States and Syrian Kurdish fighters was one steeped in pragmatism, mutual interest, and a mutual enemy. Those who believe U.S. troops should remain in Syria's northeast indefinitely in order to deter a Turkish military incursion into the area are misrepresenting the fundamental glue that held the U.S.-Kurdish partnership together and broadening its purpose far beyond its original intent. Indeed, this argument is a perfect illustration of mission-creep, in which U.S. policy in Syria becomes increasingly detached from the core objective in favor of those that are more ambitious and unattainable.
As difficult as it is for many in Washington to accept, the United States is not responsible for Syria's internal politics—nor is the U.S. obligated to support or defend the political aspirations of the Syrian Kurdish community. To do so would likely create even more problems, putting the U.S. smack-dab in the middle of a decades-long Turkish-Kurdish rivalry and further deteriorating a U.S.-Turkey relationship that is already suffering from a number of disputes. Bluntly put: serving as the Kurds' external protector in perpetuity is not what U.S. troops signed up for when they were first deployed to Syria years ago.
If there was any sin committed by the Trump administration, it was an unwillingness to support the Syrian Kurds as they sought to strike their own political accommodations in Syria. Instead, Washington gave the Kurdish leadership false hope that the U.S. military would maintain a long-term security presence in Syria's northeast. Rather than speak frankly to Kurdish officials early on about the transactional nature of the partnership, the U.S. remained ambiguous and in fact openly opposed Kurdish attempts to reconcile with Damascus. For the U.S., isolating the Assad regime diplomatically and economically took precedence over accepting the reality that Assad—as loathsome as he is—was here to stay.
In the days since President Trump's announcement, Syrian Kurdish officials have suggested that talks with Damascus may be the only opportunity to forestall a Turkish military offensive deep into their territory. Discussions would likely center on something close to the pre-war status-quo in northeastern Syria, where Damascus retakes control of the Syria-Turkey border and the Syrian Kurds are reintegrated back into the Syrian state with the same rights and prerogatives as any other Syrian citizen. Such a proposal would hardly be ideal. But yet again, a search for the ideal is a lost cause and a waste of valuable time which could otherwise be used to stabilize the situation before it descends into yet another armed conflict.
If talks are indeed possible, the Trump administration should get out of the way and permit Kurdish representatives to do what is in their own best interest. For Washington to make these discussions any more difficult than they already are would be to commit the same mistake twice.
With Ankara on the eve of an incursion and Syrian Kurdish fighters preparing for what could be a bloody battle, the next days and weeks will be filled with a significant amount of tension. President Trump has not helped himself by the way he rolled out his decision last weekend. That many members of his own administration were caught off guard is a damning indictment of just how haphazard the national security policymaking process has become.
None of this, however, should obscure the big picture. U.S.-Kurdish security ties were never meant to be long-term, let alone permanent. U.S. leverage in Syria was always extremely limited, even with a few thousand U.S. troops sitting in the middle of the desert. And despite loud protests about American betrayal, core U.S. national security interests in civil war-ravaged Syria were always narrow and specific: destroy the Islamic State's physical caliphate.
Syria's politics will not be determined by the United States, but rather by stakeholders who have much more at stake.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.