Supporting Kurdish forces in Syria means trouble

The agenda of Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria — controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG — is no mystery: They wish to establish an autonomous enclave where they can run their affairs without outside interference. This aspiration pits them against the Turkish government, which views the Kurdish forces in Syria as close allies of a Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey and considers both as terrorist organizations; the Assad regime, which seeks to reassert its control of the resource-rich areas under Kurdish control; and Iran, which also faces Kurdish separatists at home and fears that Kurdish autonomy in neighboring Syria might embolden these forces to seek independence.

The relationship between U.S. troops and the Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria was always a transactional and tactical marriage of convenience. America had no other reliable local partners to destroy ISIS and has used Kurdish fighters for this purpose. The Kurds were using U.S. military and diplomatic support to strengthen their self-defense capabilities against their foes and to gain leverage over the Assad regime to secure a more favorable position. The U.S. has never committed to help the Kurds establish an autonomous zone in northeastern Syria. This contested area is a witch’s brew of Syrian, Turkish, Iranian, local Arab tribes and the remnants of ISIS. The longer the U.S. maintains its military cooperation with the Kurds, the greater the risk that U.S. forces get sucked into these feuds and potentially come to blows with NATO ally Turkey.