Syrian Kurds: Allies or Friends or.....
Updated: Oct 25, 2019
What is an ally?
I often hear the mainstream media, pundits and politicians use the word ally when characterizing official US relationships with other entities. Since words matter in critical thought, what is the definition of an official US ally?
One group of official US allies are those countries through which we have a mutual defense treaty. NATO is probably the the treaty most of us are familiar with. This is the collective "attack against one is an attack against all" concept. In addition to NATO there are six other treaties of this type (https://2009-2017.state.gov/s/l/treaty/collectivedefense//index.htm). They are generally ratified by congress and the list is fairly static, although countries can be deleted and added with congressional approval.
The other group of allies are those that fall under the caveat Major Non-Nato Ally
(MNNA). (https://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=(title:22%20section:2321k%20edition:prelim)#referenceintext-note) This category was established by Congress in 1989 under Title 22. Countries in this category can be designated by the President who only has to inform Congress of the designation or removal from this list. Congressional approval is not required. There is no mutual defense treaty involved, but these countries can purchase arms from the US and obtain other benefits by being designated MNNA.
There are 195 countries in the world and the US ally list is around 60. All official US allies are countries.
Who are you?
So if a country is not on the ally list, what is their official relationship with the US? Friend? Enemy? Competitor? This is pretty undefined, and as you can imagine, quite dynamic. A friend one day can become an enemy the next (Iran, Venezuela). Are Russia and China enemies or competitors, or both. Who are the nation state US enemies? North Korea? Iran? I would say most countries that are not not allies should be referred to as friends of the US to make the distinction clear.
The Kurds are the worlds largest indigenous group without their own country. As such, they are often oppressed in the regions they occupy. The official US relationship with the Kurds has always been through the lens of Realpolitik...decisions based on pragmatic rather than moral or ideological considerations. In fact Realpolitik is pretty much the standard in which the US and other countries base their national security decisions.
In the 1970's, the Iraqi Kurds were our friends, as they were in conflict with Saddam Hussein's government, which was in the sphere of the Soviets. Iraq also happened to be at odds with our friend Iran. Realpolitik is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. After the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979, Iran became our enemy and Iraq a friend. Now the Kurds were our enemy because the enemy of my friend is my enemy.
In 199o Iraq invaded Kuwait and was again our enemy. The Kurds were again our friends. After pushing Iraq out of Kuwait and declaring victory, we did establish a no fly zone in Northern Iraq to protect the Kurds from retaliation from the Iraqi government.
The Syrian Kurds, also referred to as the YPG occupy a portion of northern Syria near the Turkish border. Their interests happen to align with the US in that the Islamic State (ISIS) is an undesired presence in Syria, but for different reasons. The US is at war with ISIS as it is a terrorist group and a threat to US security. The Kurds fought ISIS as they are rivals for Syrian real estate. Once the US declares victory over ISIS in Syria, Realpolitik would dictate there is no pragmatic reason for a US-Kurdish relationship. Moral? Not really, but reality. To confuse matters, there is another Kurdish group in Turkey known as the PKK that is a designated terrorist group. When it comes to the Kurds, Turkey does not really distinguish the difference, hence their Syrian incursion and establishment of a buffer zone.
Ok. So the Syrian Kurds are not our allies. They were our friends while we fought ISIS in Syria. The US says that ISIS in Syria is no longer a threat, so we reduce our presence and relocate our forces. Turkey invades Syria due to a perceived Kurdish threat. Politicians howl that we abandoned our Kurdish "allies". Pundits wag their fingers and bemoan loss of US prestige. Mainstream media piles on with outrage. Really? If anything the US position on this was no surprise to the Kurds or any other country that practices Realpolitik. It's the way things work. Unfortunately for the Kurds, they are at the base of the power structure. Were the US actions right in this instance? Who knows? Time will tell. I just wish this situation was more clearly articulated to the public so they can decide for themselves.