Donald Trump Wants to Defeat the Islamic State—So He's Arming the Kurds

It was a necessary decision. But it could also cast a shadow over U.S.-Turkey relations for years to come.

Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) stand near a U.S military vehicle in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria, on April 28, 2017.
Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) stand near a U.S military vehicle in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria, on April 28, 2017. (Rodi Said / Reuters)

After much debate, the Trump administration has decided to support Syria’s Kurds with weapons and training as part of the offensive on Raqqa.

This is a dangerous if perhaps necessary decision that could have far-reaching long-term effects on the U.S. relationship with Turkey as well as the shape of post-conflict Syria. And although I support the decision, let me first lay out—as best I can—the argument against it.

First, bluntly speaking, the YPG is a foreign terrorist organization. Despite protests to the contrary, there is no hard distinction between the YPG and the PKK, a group that has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state. Some have argued that the U.S. should offer to delist the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization in exchange for support against the Islamic State, and this argument has some merits. But for now, directly arming the YPG will require a waiver from the Trump administration essentially notifying the Congress that we are about to arm people we consider to be terrorists because we think it’s in the best interests of the American people.

Second, for the reasons above, arming the YPG could have a toxic effect on U.S. relations with Turkey. We have labored, for two years now, to see if there was a way we could arm the YPG while somehow buying off the Turks with more military and intelligence cooperation, and at the end of the day, there is no deal to be had short of delivering U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen in handcuffs on the tarmac of Ankara Esenboğa Airport. So whoever arms the YPG will eat the consequences with the Turks, which could involve them shutting down U.S. access to the strategic airbase at Incirlik. That’s why Susan Rice told Mike Flynn that we would make the decision in the waning days of the Obama administration so that we could take the blame for the decision and Trump could start with a clean slate. Flynn, who was a paid agent of the Turkish government at the time, declined her offer.

Third and finally, arming the YPG amounts to a kind of defeat in the fight against the Assad regime. Some of the people in the U.S. government most against a closer relationship with the YPG are those who have spent the past five years working with the Syrian opposition groups. To the Syrian opposition groups, the YPG are collaborators. Indeed, in 2016, as the Assad regime and its supporters laid siege to East Aleppo, Syrian Kurds—albeit not the ones with whom the United States was working—more or less fought alongside the regime for periods. That led to alarmist stories like this one, which, while incorrect, were understandable if you weren’t following the details closely. As the head of the Pentagon’s Middle East policy shop at the time, I remember how difficult it was to get our aid and development workers to work with the Kurds in the city of Manbij after it was liberated from the Islamic State. The Syrians and Turks with whom our aid workers had been collaborating for the past five years were telling them that aiding the Kurds was tantamount to aiding Assad himself.

Nonetheless, toward the end of the Obama administration, we reached the conclusion—as subsequently reported by The Washington Post and others—that we would need to provide arms and training to the Syrian Kurds. And upon leaving the administration, senior administration officials have not been shy about laying out the logic of why they thought arming the Kurds would ultimately be necessary.

The debate over whether to arm the Kurds within the Obama administration was intense. It didn’t break down along the usual departmental fault lines, either: Within both State and Defense, officials responsible for safeguarding the relationship with Turkey—a NATO treaty ally—were often at odds with those whose primary responsibility was to defeat the Islamic State.

Both sides, I believe, argued their cases in good faith: Our able ambassador to Turkey among others repeatedly warned Washington about the effect arming the YPG would have on the U.S.-Turkey relationship, while our uniformed military commanders and others stressed they could not see a way forward to seizing Raqqa in 2017 without arming the YPG—absent the introduction of large numbers of U.S. troops in direct combat roles, something no one wanted.

Animating our sense of urgency was a desire to carry out assaults on Mosul and Raqqa simultaneously, something we were ultimately unable to do but which could have further stretched the Islamic State’s ability to defend itself. But what it really came down to—and what carried the day in the Obama administration and what seems to have finally carried the day in the Trump administration—is this: You’re simply not going to be able to seize Raqqa anytime soon without arming the Kurds with more powerful weapons than the ones they have now. In Iraq, we armed the Iraqis to the teeth before we sent them into Mosul. In Syria, we need to do something similar—albeit on a smaller scale—in order to go to Raqqa.

Donald Trump wants to defeat the Islamic State. So Donald Trump is going to arm the Kurds.

I cannot imagine what the fallout from all of this might be. On the one hand, Turkey has been frustrated for years by its own impotence in Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, the northern portions of which many Turks still consider theirs, Turkey has watched as the Kurds have used three decades of conflict and U.S. occupation to create their own semi-independent state. Ironically, relations between Erbil and Ankara are quite good—but mainly because Turkey is relying on the ruling party of Iraqi Kurdistan to be a bulwark against both Iranian designs as well as the other Kurdish factions in Iraq and Syria which are more hostile to Turkey.

In Syria, meanwhile, it has dawned on Ankara that Bashar al-Assad is not going away anytime soon. The Turkish campaign to oust him failed. But worse, Assad will never be strong enough to exercise anything that looks like pre-2011 sovereignty over Syria, so the creation of another Kurdish statelet along Turkey’s borders now looks like an inevitability. Syria’s Kurds want the same thing Iraq’s Kurds want: semi-independence backed by a strong commitment from the United States. That political relationship between the United States and Syria’s Kurds is, I believe, what the Turks fear most. So Turkey is left fighting a campaign in Syria that is, as smarter analysts than me have noted, often in contradiction with the goals of the United States and the broader coalition, of which Turkey is a member, to defeat the Islamic State.

In both Syria and Iraq, Turkey cannot get its way. But that doesn’t mean it cannot play spoiler, making everyone’s lives miserable in the process. It also doesn’t mean that this decision will not cast a shadow over U.S.-Turkish relations for decades to come.