The USA must urgently seek a negotiated political settlement in Syria incorporating its Kurdish allies, top US military commander General Joseph Votel has said. General Votel is the former overall commander of the US Army’s CENTCOM, or Central Command, which has overall responsibility for the Middle East and neighbouring regions.
His comments came at a panel discussion on Tuesday organised by the Kurdish Peace Institute and New Lines Institute for Strategy, two Washington-based think-tanks. The event, ‘Turkish Elections and Opportunities for De-Escalating the Kurdish Conflict’, brought together expert panellists for a discussion on Turkey’s upcoming elections and their implications for U.S. policy on the broader Turkish-Kurdish conflict in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
General Votel played a key role in developing the USA’s relationship with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which proved a highly effective partnership in the fight against ISIS but led to a crisis in US-Turkish relations.
Addressing the event, General Votel said: “I’m very happy to be here, and speak in support of our Kurdish and SDF partners. Many of you are aware of how our relationship with the SDF started, literally with their backs to the Turkish border, and surrounded on all three sides by ISIS.” He described the “existential” threat faced by the Kurds in Syria, meaning the Obama administration authorised the provision of limited aid to the Kurdish YPG and YPJ (People’s and Women’s Protection Units) during the siege of the Syrian Kurdish city Kobanê.
“We were successful unlike any point before in the global war against terrorism,” he said. “This was a model that could be replicated, and led to a serious consideration that the YPG and YPJ could be our partners on the ground in the fight against ISIS.”
General Votel was the first senior US military commander to visit Syria and the USA’s Kurdish partners on the ground. He recalled the SDF’s desire to continue fighting against not only ISIS but also the Syrian regime, but that despite this divergence of opinion the two forces were able to find ways to work together, saying: “I never experienced a better relationship with any partner I ever worked with. They were not only extraordinary fighters, but they did a lot to foster stability in Northern Syria. They installed a political leadership which wasn’t perfect, but sufficient to the needs. They coordinated with us on matters of strategic importance, and they sacrificed mightily on their behalf, and of course on ours.”
General Votel then explained how Turkish military operations against Kurdish regions of northern Syria “significantly affected” his country’s anti-ISIS efforts.
“Turkish interference was not limited to military invasion. We contended with multiple Turkish proposals to replace the SDF with a force of their proposal, which they were unable to prove actually existed.”
The Syrian Kurds were also promised participation in the political process for a new settlement for Syria, a promise which remains unfulfilled, the General said. He described a failed political, diplomatic and military effort to “deliver on our promise to the Syrian Kurds” to bring them to the official negotiating table, despite the fact that the SDF had “never given any cause for concern” that Turkey’s claims they posed a threat to Turkish territory were justified.
He therefore advocated for a political solution for the ongoing crisis in Syria, arguing that the US had failed to follow through on promises to the Syrian Kurds, losing prestige in the region in the process. “A political solution would also provide a platform for dealing with foreign ISIS fighters and family members,” he added. A negotiated settlement in northern Syria could be a model for resolving the Kurdish issue in other countries, he added.
A political settlement would allow the US to see stability grow in northern Syria and amend its relationship with Turkey, said the General. But such a settlement currently appears unlikely. Arab countries are normalising relations with the Assad government, while the US is reducing the number of anti-ISIS operations it conducts and its foothold in northern Syria, Votel said.
General Votel’s keynote speech was followed by a panel discussion, putting his call for a negotiated political settlement in Turkey in the context of Turkey’s crucial upcoming elections and ongoing military operations against Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq. The first round of the elections will take place on 14 May, and represent a watershed moment in the country’s political history.
Incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been in power in the country for over two decades, has ruled with an increasingly authoritarian approach marked by cross-border attacks against Kurdish regions in Iraq and Syria and the repression of the Kurdish political opposition in Turkey. But it now appears likely that President Erdoğan may be unseated, with his main challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu hoping to take over the presidency thanks in large part to the support of the pro-Kurdish, progressive opposition led by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Panellists emphasised that there was the possibility of some de-escalation of domestic and foreign attacks on the Kurds under a potential Kılıçdaroğlu presidency, But they also emphasised that Erdoğan’s grip on power remains strong and the election too close to call, while the fact each side in the election has used accusations of links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as an attack line indicates that Kılıçdaroğlu’s approach to the Kurds is unlikely to mark a radical break with Erdoğan’s own aggressive attacks on the Kurds on the pretext of spurious accusations of terrorism.
The event was moderated by Myles Caggins, the former spokesperson for the US-led International Coalition to Defeat ISIS, along with the KPI’s Meghan Bodette, Bilal Wahab of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Sinan Ciddi of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.