U.S. Should Arm the Syrian Kurds

The very people that have sustained the brunt of the Islamic State (IS) attacks have been ignored in the Obama administration’s request to arm and train the Syrian opposition. The Kurds have been the only force in Iraq and now in Syria to successfully face IS in combat. Moreover, unlike the uncertainty surrounding the Syrian rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the Kurds in Syria -- in particular, the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria (KNAS) -- represent a democratic and western-oriented body willing to fully cooperate with the West against the Islamists. KNAS President Dr. Sherkoh Abbas is pleading for Kurdish unity, and for President Obama to recognize the Kurds as the most reliable and effective weapon against IS.

The Obama administration’s request from the U.S. Congress to arm and train Syrian Free Army recruits to fight the Islamic State (IS) was approved in a Senate vote (78-22). The House of Representatives voted 273 - 156 to approve the president’s request. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, appearing before Congress, testified that the new rebel “train and equip” program will train around 5,000 rebels per year. There are to be two planned training bases, one in Saudi Arabia and the other in Jordan, each expected to train 1,800 rebels per year. President Obama, in a complete reversal, announced that portions of the Free Syrian Army were now vetted enough to help the U.S. fight against IS.

Some members of Congress were skeptical about the reliability of the people the president claimed had been vetted.  According to the New York Times (Sept. 17, 2014),

U.S. Representative Duncan D. Hunter, a California Republican who fought with the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, joined others in questioning how the military could be sure the rebels of the Free Syrian Army could be trusted with United States arms and how suspect Saudis could host the training. “We need to crush ISIS and not work on arming more Islamic radicals,” he said.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin III (D-WV) suggested that “our past experience, after 13 years, everything that we have tried to do has not proven to be beneficial, not proven at all.” He added, “So what makes you think it’s going to be different this time? What makes you think we can ask a group of Islamists to agree with Americans to fight another group of Islamists as barbaric as they may be?”

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) had this to say: “I think it’s very hard to sort out the moderate rebels from the extremists, and I have a real worry that once we send these rebels back into battle space, there is very little we can do to prevent them from locking arms with al Qaeda or elements of ISIS.”

There are two main questions regarding the Syrian rebels. The first is: do we know whether or not they will indeed fight against the Islamists? Perhaps they will join with them against the West. Secondly, even if some of the rebels were vetted and found to be trustworthy, they won’t be able to join the fight against IS for at least a year, and their numbers will not suffice to present a serious challenge to the IS.

According to Aliza Marcus, an analyst who has studied the Kurds for a long time, “The Kurdish groups from Syria and Turkey reject radical Islamism. They are secular nationalists and natural American allies.” Marcus added, “If Mr. Obama really wants to ensure no boots on the ground, he will have to rethink America’s policy toward Kurdish nationalism, and recognize the Kurds, and not only Iraqi ones, are his main ally against the IS.”