The reason why we can and should help the Kurds, while we have not figured out an effective way to help end the horrific bloodletting in Syria, is that the Kurds are fighting for nationhood, while Syria is a morass of Alawis, Shia, Sunnis, and Islamists fighting as tribes or as jihadis while, as in every civil war, the moderate are helpless and voiceless. Our great and not ill-placed fear is that munitions and training offered to moderates, or to any group fighting in Syria, will wind up being used against one of the region’s few decent governments, or strengthening violent bad actors including Hezbollah and ISIS.
By contrast with Syria, Kurds in the northern provinces of the former Iraq have governed themselves since 2003, in an autonomous region under one of the few relatively decent governments in the Near East. Kurdistan is a nascent nation state. Since 2012/3 Kurds in the northeastern corner of the former Syria have governed themselves in an autonomous region that is doing what looks to be a decent job of putting together a government. The status Kurds in eastern Turkey is, of course, still contested by the government of Turkey and Kurdish separatists. Kurds can be trusted with arms in a way that militias cannot, because they have a functioning national government already in place.
The world’s attention has been riveted on the Yazidi, a Kurdish religio-ethnic minority some 40,000 of whom were stranded in the mountains dying from lack of food or water after being driven form their homes and farms by ISIS, the self-described Islamic Caliphate. A Caliphate is not a nation state because it has no notional border. Even in the imagination of the most ambitious irredentist, a Kurdish nation state can extend only as far as the furthest Kurdish community. Jihadis and Islamists committed to the Caliphate would like it to expand to the furthest horizon.
Kurdistan is a nation, and because it is, America did have to not send in the Marines to rescue the stranded Yazidis. They were saved by the combined efforts of the pesh merga (the army of Autonomous (former Iraqi) Kurdistan), Kurdish fighters from Syria (People’s Protection Units), and Kurdish fighters from eastern Turkey (Kurdistan Workers’ Party – the PKK, a group better known for its resort to violent terrorism).
In 1776, Americans needed help to win independence from a great Empire, not an evil empire, just an Empire that did not recognize our right to self-determination. The Declaration of Independence was a splendid document, but it was only an idea. To make it effective we needed a lot of French money, a little Dutch money, big shipments of French munitions, and the French Navy.
The Kurds don’t need large numbers of American boots on the ground. They have the right to defend themselves and the right to retake Kurdish territory recently overrun by Caliphate jihadis. They need what we needed: money, munitions, and (not naval, but) air support. We should give it to them.