The Syrian Kurds Need More Than Weapons—They Need Political Support

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By Patrick Lewis
October 10, 2016
In These Times

The Obama administration is considering a plan to further arm the Kurds—whom many in Washington call “our most effective partner on the ground” in Syria—in order to incentivize Kurdish participation in an upcoming offensive against ISIS in Raqqa. Two weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial endorsing this plan—the headline proclaimed this as “Step One” for “Fixing Syria.” And in presidential debates, including last night’s, Hillary Clinton has advocated a similar plan.

Expelling ISIS from Raqqa, the largest Syrian city under the group’s control and its self-declared capital, has been a primary U.S. military objective in Syria since the beginning of its intervention in 2014. Raqqa now carries (in the minds of U.S. political and military leaders, at least) great symbolic importance in the war on ISIS. So it’s no surprise when the Tribune declares that the many complications and dangers of sending even more arms to the Kurds can be brushed aside: “What’s important now is the ouster of the Islamic State from Raqqa.”

But in calling for more shipments of weapons to Syria without any semblance of a plan for a political solution to the 5-year conflict—nor the even longer conflict between Turkey and the Kurds—the Tribune is reinforcing the worst aspects of U.S. policy in the region. This policy remains overly focused on achieving short-term military victories at the expense of longer-term political settlements, without which a lasting peace is impossible. What’s more, this policy will almost certainly fail to achieve even the limited goals it has set out for itself, namely the capture of Raqqa.

What’s needed is dialogue around Kurdish demands for a federal system in Syria (with local autonomy for Kurds and other minorities); without this, simply delivering weapons will privilege a military solution over a diplomatic one. It will likely strengthen the most militant and hardline factions among the Kurdish leadership while continuing to sideline many of the political and civil society leaders most responsible for the ongoing experiments in radical participatory democracy that have inspired admiration from Western Leftists and liberals alike.

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