President Trump has apparently decided to make a major shift in Washington’s policy regarding the Syrian Kurds. Instead of opposing Turkey’s use of force to clear out Kurdish- controlled territory in northern Syria, Washington now seems willing to step aside. That move would be a rather cynical betrayal of the Kurds, but not a surprising one.
Until now, Trump had largely continued the Obama administration’s policy of regarding Kurdish forces as useful military allies in Syria’s violent, multi-sided internecine conflict. In particular, Kurdish militias were quite effective in inflicting defeats on ISIS and other jihadi forces in northeastern Syria. The United States provided funding, training, and weaponry to Kurdish units, and seemed willing to look the other way as the Kurds pursued their political goal of establishing a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria similar to the entity their brethren in Iraq have maintained since the early 1990s.
There was one awkward, increasingly troublesome problem with Washington’s approach, however. Turkish leaders regard Kurdish separatist ambitions in both Iraq and Syria as a grave threat to Turkey’s own territorial integrity, given the size of the restless Kurdish population in southeastern Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government charges that Syrian and Iraqi Kurds have ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has waged a sporadic secessionist war in southeastern Turkey for decades. Turkey’s resentment at U.S. policy toward the Syrian Kurds is not a minor concern to Washington, since the country is an important NATO ally.