Stealth Commitment: How the Syrian Kurds Became US ‘Allies’

It’s bad enough when the U.S. government takes on unwise security commitments through the signing of formal treaties as required in the Constitution. The "pactomania" frenzy during the early Cold War, beginning with the decision to join NATO in 1949, led to a host of similar alliances. In the years that followed, Washington concluded so-called mutual defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, Nationalist China, and other countries, saddling America with burdensome and dangerous obligations. Perhaps even worse has been the addition of new (often vulnerable and militarily useless) security dependents in Central and Eastern Europe during the post-Cold War decades – a provocative step that expanded NATO to the Russia’s western border. The wisdom of all of those actions was highly questionable, but for better or worse, they were undertaken through proper constitutional procedures. The US Senate debated and approved those agreements.

There are other obligations, though, that have emerged without a congressional vote or even a meaningful debate. A recent commitment of that sort stands out because the approach was especially covert. Without any serious discussion of possible adverse consequences, much less a formal congressional vote, Washington has made Kurdish fighters in Syria de facto military allies of the United States

The obligation first became apparent in 2019 when President Donald Trump withdrew a small contingent of US troops from northern Syria rather than risk having them be caught in the middle of a Turkish military offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces. There had never been congressional authorization to send US forces to Syria for any purpose, much less to back Kurdish separatists in that country. Yet, somehow, the Kurds had apparently become crucial US allies entitled to Washington’s military support.

Critics of Trump’s decision for a limited withdrawal treated it as the worst betrayal of a "democratic ally" since Britain and France sold-out Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler at the Munich Conference in 1938. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) argued that Trump’s pullback of forces betrayed the Kurds, and undermined Washington’s credibility with allies throughout the Middle East and beyond. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi likewise accused Trump of "deserting our Kurdish allies." She added: "This decision poses a dire threat to regional security and stability, and sends a dangerous message to Iran and Russia, as well as our allies, that the United States is no longer a trusted partner." Hawks in the president’s own party echoed the argument that it was imperative for Washington to give knee-jerk support to the Kurds.

The global interventionist contingent in the media featured similar assertions. The Atlantic’s Peter Wehner accused the president of shamefully "putting faithful American allies in harm’s way." Unsurprisingly, CNN managed to shoehorn the Russia factor into the story, contending the partial withdrawal was a "gift to Putin and Assad." Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin even asserted that Trump’s action warranted impeachment. "In one feckless phone call, President Trump abandoned our loyal Kurdish allies," she fumed. Despite all of the allegations that Washington was abandoning the Kurds, the Trump Pentagon actually sent additional US troops to northeastern Syria in September 2020.

No one has identified precisely when the great national decision about making an insurgent faction in an already murky, multi-sided Syrian civil war an essential US"ally" or "partner" took place. Proponents just blandly assume that the commitment now exists and must be honored. Indeed, both the existence and the merits of that commitment are now deemed to be beyond dispute. That myopic policy is unlikely to change. The infamously pro-interventionist Foundation for the Defense of Democracies boasted that Joe Biden would be the most pro-Kurdish US president ever. Biden’s previous statements as both senator and vice president lend considerable weight to the FDD’s assumption.

However, backing that ethnic faction has more than a small potential for trouble. The long-standing desire for an independent Kurdish homeland animates Kurds not only in Syria, but in major regions of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. The governments of those countries vehemently oppose that ambition and are determined to prevent its realization. Washington has already created tensions with Baghdad and Ankara by backing the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Implicitly supporting a similar development in Syria risks provoking even greater animosity.

Indeed, the United States now in the awkward position of backing a secessionist movement in Syria that an official US treaty ally, Turkey, regards as a serious threat to its own security and territorial integrity. To have adopted such a reckless policy after an extended congressional debate and vote on a formal agreement would have been bad enough, but to do so without those procedures is utterly irresponsible.

There is inherent duplicity in undertaking such obligations without following the required constitutional process. If officials believe (however absurd the assumption might be) that it is important to the security of the American republic to have a defense commitment to the Syrian Kurds, they should at least have the integrity to conduct a public debate followed by a congressional vote. They likely suspect, though, that the American people might be wary of entangling the United States in another Middle East war. Rather than risk rejection of their policy, Washington’s political elite shows its contempt for the rule of law and bypasses the requirements set forth in the Constitution.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.

Author: Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. Dr. Carpenter held various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato institute. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).