Edward Erickson, an American military expert, argues that the US seeks to cultivate influence in Syria by creating "Kurdish enclaves" run by anti-Turkey forces.

A US special forces soldier (L) is seen wearing a YPJ -YPG's female armed wing- badge in late May 2016 when they were operating against Daesh in Syria’s Raqqa province. YPG is the Syrian wing of PKK which has waged an armed campaign against Turkey more than 30 years.
A US special forces soldier (L) is seen wearing a YPJ -YPG's female armed wing- badge in late May 2016 when they were operating against Daesh in Syria’s Raqqa province. YPG is the Syrian wing of PKK which has waged an armed campaign against Turkey more than 30 years. (Delil Souleiman / AFP)

As World War I ended with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, dividing the Middle East into several nation states, British and French forces claimed that the new order would bring peace in the region. A century later, however, there is no peace. Several wars fuelled by toxic ethnic tensions have plagued the entire region, even threatening the security of stable nations like Turkey.

In a two-part interview with TRT World , Edward J Erickson, a former US military officer and military historian who participated in Gulf War I and II, contextualised how the Middle East's conflicts are rooted in World War I, and why armed groups like the PKK and its allies pose a grave threat to Turkey's borders. 

[Part Two]

In northern Syria, PKK’s Syria wing, YPG, and its US-backed militia SDF control large territories. YPG calls those territories Rojava, which means Western Kurdistan. They’re mostly supported by the US in northeastern Syria. And the US recently said they’re going to continue supporting them, and they’re going to establish a border army out of YPG cadres. That makes Turkey very angry because the country sees the YPG as part of the PKK. How do you perceive this situation? 

Edward J. Erickson: Back in 2014-2015, the Iranians, the Russians and Hezbollah were very active helping Assad in Syria. The United States also wanted to be a player in Syria. We wanted to have a part in the future of Syria and we wanted to reduce the influence of Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. Our theory was: we can only do that if we have people on the ground who can help. So we started off trying to help these people called the Free Syrian Army. We dumped millions of dollars and weapons to this group, and we had training camps in Lebanon. And we trained up people and gave them a bunch of money. And then they all quit. They all just left and there’s nothing left.

So we wasted half-a-billion dollars trying to train these people, so then, that failed. So then, we’re looking around, who would take our weapons? Who’s fighting? Who can we help to be our puppet, our client? It was the Kurds in Northern Syria. And they’ll fight. So to give us leverage, to make us a player in Syria, our choice of partner was the Kurds – not because we wanted to encourage the PKK or Kurdish independence but because we wanted to play in the playground of Syria. And now we’re stuck with them. Once we started we can’t stop, it’s a mess, a terrible decision. 

American special forces escort a YPG unit in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria, late April 2017. YPG, PKK's Syrian wing, is the backbone of US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
American special forces escort a YPG unit in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria, late April 2017. YPG, PKK's Syrian wing, is the backbone of US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. (Rodi Said / Reuters)

Are there any better options? 

EE: America made terrible mistakes in the 21st century. First, we invaded Iraq. The second worst mistake was Obama’s support to the Arab Spring. Obama supported regime change in Libya and he supported regime change in Syria. And he supported democratisation in Egypt. And each one of those has led to the current situation. It was a mistake for the United States to encourage regime change in Syria. Assad, whether we liked it or not, should stay there. 

Assad is the only force who can govern that country, whether we like it or not. If Assad leaves and we try to create a democracy, it won’t work. It will be Iraq version 2  and it will be Afghanistan version 3. I think whether we like it or not we have to, my view is America ought to, cooperate with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah and empower Assad to put that country back [together] or at least assume control. And then, maybe later at some future date Assad leaves or we have some gradual transition to something other than one family running that country. But I think currently he’s the only guy who can run that country.

Does the US really want to divide Syria in order to create a Kurdish entity, preparing the ground for what the PKK calls Kurdistan? 

EE: Some people think that a country like Syria or Iraq could follow the Swiss model. In the Swiss canton system, there are German-speaking cantons, French-speaking cantons, and Italian-speaking cantons. And somehow they all get along. If we form an enclave in northern Syria, then assuming the war stops, then, what you will have is something like the federate Kurdistan in northern Iraq. It’s stable, but it’s going to its own direction. I think forming of a northern Syria enclave means exactly there’s something like a federate Kurdistan in northern Iraq. It looks like a democracy, it looks stable, but the Talabani and Barzani families run it. So if you form a Kurdish enclave in Northern Syria who’s going to be in charge? It won’t be a democratic system. It will probably be a strongman or a tribal leader or a family. 

The PKK?

EE: The PKK, yeah. Who runs the PKK here? I don’t know. I don’t know today. [Abdullah] Ocalan [the PKK founder] has been in jail for so long. I don’t know if there’s a single person or if it’s a little cellular five or six guys or some women. I don’t know. But whatever it is, it won’t be a democracy. Who knows?

So what’s the US's strategy now in northern Syria regarding the Kurds? 

EE: There is a Kurdish enclave of some sort east of the Euphrates. West of the Euphrates, the Turks are there. I don't think the Turks will leave anytime soon. So we’re really talking east of the Euphrates for a possible Kurdish enclave. There’s not much out there. South of the Turkish border, it’s mostly uninhabited areas. There’s a few towns but that’s it. 

A possible enclave would have to be supported by the United States. We would have to have financial aid, economic aid to it. It can’t exist without American dollars, which I think won’t be there in the long-run. After Afghanistan and Iraq, we’re spending and haemorrhaging money. And we’re running out of money. We can’t afford these things. I don’t know what will happen. I think somebody has to govern this space whether it’s the Russians or the Iranians or the Assad family or whether it’s the United States funding enclaves of Kurds. I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows. There are dozens of experts out there they say you should do this or that. But the situation is not all clear. 

Note: YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said it took over control of Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of Daesh, in mid-October with US assistance. General Joseph Votel, the top commander at US Central Command, visited Raqqa last month. "We’ve been here for a long time right beside them in the fight against ISIS [Daesh]. As so we remain – we remain very, very committed to that," he assured SDF command.

It seems the US wants to rely on Russians, Iranians or even the Assad regime for stabilisation of Syria. Why not Turkey? 

EE: I think if you ask the average American, they’d be very happy letting Turkey stabilise northern Syria. But the problem is the United States military has been very close to the Kurds since 1991. In 1991, we established Operation Provide Comfort in southern Turkey for the Kurdish refugees. And then, in 2003, we became very close to Talabani and Barzani after the invasion of Iraq. If you said to the average American general who would you rather work with, Kurds or Turks, this is my personal opinion, the average American general would say I’d rather work with the Kurds and the reason is the Kurds are very slick. 

They speak English. They know the idioms. They know what buttons to push when they talk to the Americans. Look at Barzani’s son. He’s slick. He speaks better English than I do. And he knows how to behave. Americans are very naive in a way. If somebody speaks good English, Americans think “They’re like us. They understand democracy and they understand capitalism.” The Kurds understand that fluency in English and especially American idioms knowing what to say to an American that makes them comfortable and very effective.  

They’re better at it than the Iraqis. They’re better at it than the Turks. They’re better at it than almost anybody. And they’ve learned since 1991 how to work with Americans. They’ve learned what buttons to push when they want. They’re slick. They can work with us in a way that Turks can’t. 

So you are saying Turks don't know how to be 'slick' after being in NATO for so many years? 

EE: Turks are Turks. They resist. It’s very difficult for a Turk to say no. They won’t quite say yes either. But when you read their thinking, you think that they are going to do this. After a while, they will lay back and say no. Greeks and Turks are famous in NATO for not cooperating fully. 

Part I of the interview is here.

Melis Alemdar contributed to this article.