Why John Kerry betrayed Syria’s Kurds, JFK and Woodrow Wilson in Geneva
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Speaking at a press conference in Geneva on August 26 US Secretary of State John Kerry was asked about Kurdish allies in Syria who have been fighting Islamic State alongside the US for the past two years. “We do not support an independent Kurd initiative,” said Kerry. “There has been some limited engagement, as everybody knows, with a component of Kurd fighters on a limited basis.” Kerry made sure to stress it was not like the US needing to “understand the sensitivities of our friends in Turkey.”
Thousands of Kurds have died fighting ISIS, dozens in the past weeks, and the best the US could cough up for its allies was “limited engagement.” In bureaucratic speak, or Washingtonspeak, this was a way of saying “we used them when they were necessary, now they aren’t, please stop asking about them.” To the Russians credit, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said “I believe that the Kurds should be presented in this process…should be part of the solution [to the Syrian conflict].”
The Bureauspeak of Kerry is in contrast to historic US policy that supported groups striving for rights and independence in the 19th and early 20th century. Consider the values expressed in the American declaration of independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”*
Does the government of Bashar al-Assad derive its powers from the consent of the governed? No. But for those groups like the Kurds who have attempted to carve out a federal structure within the Syrian state, while fighting against the most extreme threat to humanity embodied by ISIS, there is little support for them, either as a minority group, or a political entity. One has to conclude that if America had fought its war of independence today, those like Kerry would not have supported recognizing it. There are numerous groups in the world that seek independence and minority rights, in almost no cases does US policy mention them or notice them, even when they have been pro-American and sought American assistance.
This is part of the power politics and realism that American foreign relations experts are quick to emphasize. Values matter at home, the diametric opposite values matter abroad. If American foreign policy were to be guided by the same values that supposedly underpin America, as former President Woodrow Wilson felt they should, it would have to support democracy and self-determination. The view of policy-makers today is that supporting self-determination would lead to global chaos.
What is perplexing about US policy is not so much that it automatically and often betrays basic principles that it believes in at home, such as support for minority rights, but that it even betrays basic principles that would fall under realism and pragmatic power-politics abroad. In his 1961 inaugural address John F. Kennedy said, “let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” That may be a rhetorical flourish, but one almost thinks the current policy would be “work with any enemy, cast aside any friend.” This is symbolized by the US-Kurdish relationship. In Syria, American politicians seem reticent to mention a Kurdish role, in Iraq they focus on Baghdad as a source of stability, in Iran they ignore completely Kurdish rights.
“let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” – John F. Kennedy
In a fascinating lecture posted online with Major General Simon Mayall by the Royal Society Edinburgh details the US “surge” in Iraq in 2007 in which US forces attempted to defeat insurgents and terror. After examining the mass of casualties among US and British forces in Baghdad and elsewhere, clashes with the Shia Mahdi Army, with various Sunni terror groups, and the sectarian violence that led to thousands of terror attacks, beheadings and murders, the General remarks about the Kurdish region. “In the north [there was a] relation with Kurds, totally safe area, never had a single casualty since 2003.” Mayall detailed the goals after the surge: “We are trying to persuade Sunni governments around the region that a Shia dominated government in Iraq is not inimical to their interests, I believe their Arab identity will prove to be stronger than their Shia identity.” At the end of his lecture, the only other time he mentioned the Kurds, was to note that there was “Kurdish intransigence, they’ve got to have pressure on them to again feel they are part of Iraq.”
Mayall is a British officer but his views reflect clearly how Americans were also instructed to feel about Iraq in those years. While the Kurds created a secure and stable area in the north, virtually free from terror and where US troops and civilians could go without the military escorts and body armor they needed in Baghdad, the Kurds were seen only as “intransigent.” Not “thank you for creating a safe area,” but rather, “you are the problem.” Shia militias who were burning American flags, burning US political figures in effigy, were somehow less problematic. In the opposite, US policy was designed to get Sunni Arab governments to work with Iran’s proxies in Baghdad.
One gets the feeling that increasingly for US policymakers today the only countries and groups that are respected and liked in the world, and where the US wants to foster relations, are those places that hate America the most, that burn the most flags, that openly encourage murdering Americans. Pakistan, where Osama Bin Laden was found relaxing in a villa near a Pakistani military academy in 2011, is a close US ally. It is also a country where 80% of the people have an unfavorable view of the US, according to a Pew survey. Saudi Arabia, where almost all the 9/11 hijackers came from and whose policies have exported religious extremism, is a close US ally in need of constant mollification.
The US administration of Barack Obama has worked the hardest to “reset” relations with Russia, has of sought to bridge gaps with Cuba, where the US is seen as an imperial evil, and has done the deal with Iran, where desecrating the American flag and burning Obama in effigy is state policy.
Turkey, where the US was openly accused in mass media of supporting the recent coup attempt and where 70% have an unfavorable view of the US, is a close friend. American policy is like the sad kid at the playground, where the more he is teased and disliked, the more he wants to be your friend. American allies are taken for granted in this worldview because when policymakers look to assuage feelings and beg for approval, those countries and groups that support the US are seen as weak and not needing of support in return. They are almost viewed as pathetic. Where did this US policy come from? It’s roots are not in Woodrow Wilson, not in John F. Kennedy and not in Richard Nixon’s embrace of realism and détente.
The basis for these policies is a profound insecurity among US policymakers who came of age in the post Vietnam era and for whom US policy had been responsible for the ill-will people have for the US. There is nothing wrong with their attempt to reset relations with numerous countries who have an officially anti-American stance. It’s worth a try, since America’s long-time “allies” have often proven problematic. The embrace of Bureauspeak and lack of empathy for groups like the Kurds is an unfortunate result.
In Hillary Clinton’s November 2015 speech about ISIS to the Council on Foreign Relations she discussed the importance of US no-fly zones protecting Kurds in the 1990s and supported working “with Kurds on both sides of the border” in Iraq and Syria. She also mentioned the need for “viable Sunni opposition groups,” in Syria.
The future US policymakers should go beyond that and embrace Kurds as a viable group, and reduce their reliance on groups that have proven time and again to be anti-American and harmful. They should stop being wedded to failed paradigms of the past, such that they have to navigate between Tehran and Riyadh for answers on the Middle East.
It is understandable that the failures of US policy in the past have created timid souls who fear loyalty to groups or upsetting the status quo. The Kurds in Syria deserve more than a tacit recognition of their “limited engagement,” when they have sacrificed so much against ISIS, just like the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq deserves constant praise for the work it has done to create a stable, peaceful area. Adlai Stevenson once said “what counts now is not just what we are against,, but what we are for. Who leads us is less important than what leads us – what convictions, what courage, what faith – win or lose.” The problem in America is that foreign policy leaders have left behind convictions, courage and faith in favor of generalizatons and unwillingness to speak truth, but rather to constantly prevaricate. They smile with Iran’s extremists, while being unwilling to even meet with allies. They constantly subject allies to criticism, while being fearful to criticize those “authentic” anti-American voices who they fear they might offend. They denounce human rights violations only among the allies they know to be democracies who respect human rights, while being unwilling to denounce them amongst dictatorships with the worst records. Don’t offend Pakistan. Don’t offend Saudi Arabia. India, Israel, that’s fine. They won’t do anything about it. The more a country threatens to burn a US embassy, the more it must be embraced and free from criticism.
America wanted allies in the war against ISIS. Kurds became the central and more effective fighters against ISIS. But rather than stand with them, the official US stance in Syria is almost embarrassed to be seen with them. This must be reversed and America should stand by its avowed historic traditions of supporting friends and recognizing rights to self-determination, rather than relying on states that abuse their citizens and have proven to be unreliable.
*The values expressed in the US declaration of independence were not adhered to by its own framers, however it provided the source for those who later sought to provide rights to groups denied them in early America.