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Cornell University Press

Constructing Allied Cooperation: The U.S.-Kurdish case

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In the fight against the Islamic State (IS), Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq were America’s most important coalition partner. Still only weeks ago, U.S. and Kurdish forces had been conducting as many as a dozen counterterrorism missions a day. Some 11,000 Kurdish soldiers died in the U.S.-led ground campaign since 2014. The sudden U.S. withdrawal from Syria put a hold to these cooperation efforts. Moreover, the Turkish offensive against the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) may result in serious harm to the Kurdish population in Syria. Many even warn that Turkey may commit acts of ethnic cleansing.

U.S. President Trump thus far does not seem too bothered by these developments.  “They didn’t help us with Normandy,” he asserted on October 9 during a press conference. “They were there [in the fight against IS], but they’re there to help us with their land. And that’s a different thing.” Relatedly, President Trump did not appear to be worried when asked whether the U.S. desertion of the Kurds would make the construction of future U.S. coalitions in the region more difficult. “No, it won’t be. It won’t be at all. Alliances are very easy,” Trump responded.

U.S. President Trump thus far does not seem too bothered by these developments.  

My book, Constructing Allied Cooperation: Diplomacy, Payments, and Power in Multilateral Military Coalitions, published in October, largely contradicts President Trump’s perspective.

My findings do suggest that many coalitions are the result of transactions. These practices date back to the Korean War, when Turkey, Greece, Thailand, Ethiopia, Colombia, the Philippines, South Africa, Greece, Australia and New Zealand received coalition compensation payments. During the Gulf War, the U.S. government was able to convince other countries (i.e., Germany, Japan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia) to pay for these payment packages. Overall, the United States collected more than $16 billion to be distributed to coalition members. More recently, the U.S. government spent roughly $9.4 billion on coalition partners serving in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2015. The Kurdish forces in Syria have received similar types of financial and military aid, for example, via the Counter-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria Train and Equip Fund.

My findings do suggest that many coalitions are the result of transactions.  

My research, however, shows that these allied payments almost never occur in a political vacuum. U.S. governments show a very strong desire to provide these payments to governments that they are diplomatically embedded with (i.e., where tight, good and plentiful political connections exist). In other words, the U.S. government strongly prefers to pay its friends than random strangers. Why? These networks provide an insurance policy: coalition partners might be tempted to pocket the cash or other incentives and then limit the coalition commitment to the absolute minimum. Such behavior is feasible for two reasons.

In other words, the U.S. government strongly prefers to pay its friends than random strangers.

First, it is hard for the United States to observe what is going on in the deployment theater at all times and places. Second, the United States faces punishment challenges, especially in environments in which coalition participants are scarce. Networks reduce these credible commitment problems to a certain degree: they increase the range of possible “retaliatory linkage” opportunities and thus maximize the costs of reneging on an agreement; they can also build affection and friendship leading to compliance.

These findings have a direct impact on the current situation in Syria.

First, the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria will destroy social and political networks that have been cultivated over the past decade and enabled successful cooperation against the Islamic State. By abandoning the Kurds – moral reasons aside – the United States is throwing away these decade-long investments. What is more, memories of U.S. abandonment will make it arguably impossible to ever reactivate those networks in future times.

By abandoning the Kurds – moral reasons aside – the United States is throwing away these decade-long investments.

Second, the United States does not possess any equivalent networks with any partner now operating in the region – thus putting in doubt President Trump’s claim that the construction of alliances is “very easy” – at least those that lead to successful cooperation.   

President Trump appears determined to leave Syria – though a complete abandonment is realistically impossible. Future coalition-building will thus without a doubt suffer the consequences of current U.S. actions. 

Marina E. Henke is professor of international relations at the Hertie School and Northwestern University.

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