During the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, moderator Martha Raddatz asked former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about Syria:
You advocated arming rebels, but it looks like that may be too late for Aleppo. You talk about diplomatic efforts. Those have failed. Cease-fires have failed. Would you introduce the threat of U.S. military force beyond a no-fly zone against the Assad regime to back up diplomacy?
Clinton started out weakly, declaring “I would not use American ground forces in Syria,” even though there already are US forces in Syria, a discrepancy that neither Raddatz nor her co-moderator Anderson Cooper seemed to catch.
What followed was pretty standard: Clinton argued that she would target Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:
I would specifically target Baghdadi, because I think our targeting of Al Qaida leaders — and I was involved in a lot of those operations, highly classified ones — made a difference. So I think that could help.
That is important, though to capture him and show him weak and cowering might have greater resonance if the US goal is to delegitimize the ideology which he espouses.
Clinton also said she would increase US support for the Kurdish peshmerga. “I would also consider arming the Kurds. The Kurds have been our best partners in Syria, as well as Iraq,” she said. There is nothing controversial about arming the Iraqi Kurds. Clinton may be unaware that the US government already generously provides weaponry to them, albeit through Baghdad. This is no big deal, however. Under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, there has been neither delay nor diversion of equipment allocated to the Iraqi Kurds. The problem there has been on the Kurdish end, where Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masoud Barzani has warehoused equipment to bolster himself against internal rivals rather than dispatch it to the front.
The most interesting part of her answer—and a break with conventional wisdom—was the conclusion of her remarks:
And I know there’s a lot of concern about that in some circles, but I think they should have the equipment they need so that Kurdish and Arab fighters on the ground are the principal way that we take Raqqa after pushing ISIS out of Iraq.
Her mention of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital in Syria, suggests she seeks to arm the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Syrian Kurdish units close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), designated by both Turkey and the United States as a terror group. Once again, neither Raddatz nor Cooper seemed to realize the significance of what Clinton proposed, although the Turkish government certainly has.
On this issue, Clinton is right. The Syrian Kurds have not only been the most successful group to fight the Islamic State, but they have also governed the territory under their control with more competence and tolerance than any other group in Syria. The argument against arming the YPG directly rests more on diplomatic courtesy: Turkey opposes it and they have close ties to the PKK.
To defer to Turkey on what constitutes a terrorist group makes as much sense as to defer to North Korea on what constitutes economic liberty.
Perhaps it’s time to step back, however, and ask: so what? The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arms and supports the most virulent terrorist groups — the Islamic State, Nusra Front, Hamas, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and perhaps even Boko Haram. To defer to Turkey on what constitutes a terrorist group makes as much sense as to defer to North Korea on what constitutes economic liberty. Indeed, it is long past time to reconsider the PKK’s terror designation.
The PKK is far from perfect, but the United States need not endorse the group to work with it. The PKK does not live up to its democratic rhetoric, its insurgency is violent, and its left-leaning economic philosophies would hamper rather than promote development if it is ever in charge of a free Kurdistan. In these flaws, however, it really is no different than the Talabani family’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or Barzani’s KDP. And, frankly, there is now more freedom under the PKK than under Erdoğan.
Had the Obama administration been more foresighted in its support for the Syrian Kurds and ignored Secretary of State John Kerry’s desire to please Turkey, the fight against the Islamic State inside Syria might already be over. The Syrian Kurds deserve direct US support, now and in the future.