“They didn’t help us with Normandy,” President Trump said during an Oct. 9 news conference defending his decision to let the Turkish army attack Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria. The president felt the United States does not owe anything to the Kurds — who fought and lost some 11,000 soldiers in the U.S.-led ground campaign against the Islamic State in Syria.
Trump also did not appear worried when asked whether abandoning the Kurds would make it harder for the United States to construct future alliances or coalitions. “No, it won’t be. It won’t be at all. Alliances are very easy,” Trump responded.
Such transactional coalition-building is not new. But these transactions rarely occur in a political vacuum. The United States trained and equipped Kurdish forces for decades, and established deep political ties with the Kurdish leadership. All these investments are lost. Further, the Kurds are officially allying with the Syrian government, and Russian troops are patrolling where the United States withdrew from, between Turkish and Syrian forces. This might benefit some of America’s most serious foes: Russia and Iran.
The U.S. has sponsored transactional military coalitions for decades.
Much political science research finds key ingredients for successful military partnerships involve two things: convergent threat perceptions, meaning similar ideas among coalition partners about what crises merit attention, or common security identities, meaning shared norms and values about how to address these crises. Many scholars also argue that reliability and reputation matter greatly for military cooperation. That’s especially true for formal alliances, which are different from coalitions, as Mira Rapp-Hooper recently noted here at TMC.
But my research, published recently in my book and an International Security article, finds U.S. governments have repeatedly practiced transactional military cooperation. In other words, despite rhetoric about shared threats and common values, the United States pays countries to serve in U.S.-led coalitions.
U.S. governments generally dole out two types of payments. First are deployment subsidies, which include compensation for the costs the coalition partner incurs to conduct the operation such as transport, equipment, allowances and deployment bonuses, health, disability, and life insurance, and predeployment military training.
The second type of payment involves political side deals, which encompass many kinds of political bargains including debt relief, sanctions relief, loan or trade agreements, or military equipment deals. Coalition partners can use these assets to defray deployment expenses, but the U.S. government does not check whether this is done. Sometimes, these political side deals are not spelled out in detail. Rather, they take on the form of a promise: For example, if you join this coalition, we will support your quest for an independent state.
For instance, during the Korean War, the United States compensated Turkey, Ethiopia, Thailand, Colombia, the Philippines, South Africa, Greece, Australia and New Zealand. During the Gulf War, the George H.W. Bush administration was able to convince other countries such as Germany, Japan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to pay for much of these payment packages. Overall, the United States collected more than $16 billion to be distributed to coalition members.
For the George W. Bush administration’s 2003 coalition to invade Iraq, the U.S. government spent roughly $1.5 billion on coalition partners from 2003 to 2006, according to Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates. Further, the Obama administration subsidized forces supporting U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2015 by roughly $9.4 billion. Kurdish forces in Syria received similar financial and military aid through, for example, the Counter-Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Train and Equip Fund.
But even these transactional coalitions only work when there are ties that bind the partners.
The U.S. government doesn’t relate this way with just anyone. Since the Korean War, successive administrations have tended to offer these payments to governments with whom they have plentiful diplomatic connections. The U.S. government prefers to pay its friends and partners, not random strangers.
Why? These network ties provide an insurance policy. Without them, coalition partners might be tempted to pocket the cash or other incentives and then limit their coalition commitments to the absolute minimum. After all, the United States can’t watch what’s going on in the deployment theater at all times and places. And if a subsidized ally failed to deliver much support — especially in situations where there are few available coalition partners — the United States doesn’t have many options for punishing that failure.
Networks help with these problems. Ongoing ties give the United States more possible “retaliatory linkage” opportunities (i.e., the United States can manipulate exiting ties, for example, aid or trade ties and punish defection). That makes it more costly to renege on an agreement. Moreover, these ties over time can also build trust, leading to compliance.
Does all this matter for the situation in Syria?
Transactions are a normal part of building military coalitions. That is a reality of world politics.
But making them work requires having social and political networks in place to ensure the agreement is actually put into action. With the Kurds, the United States has cultivated ties over the past decade — resulting in successful cooperation against the Islamic State. By abandoning the Kurds, Trump is throwing away these decade-long investments. Further, memories of U.S. abandonment may well make it impossible to ever reactivate those networks.
What’s more important, however, is that the United States has no equivalent networks in the region. Technically, it has a formal alliance with Turkey through NATO, but U.S.-Turkish relations have been spiraling downward since Turkey refused to join the Iraq War coalition in 2003, a spiral worsened by the radical turn of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime away from the West.
President Trump appears determined to leave the region — though realistically, full abandonment is unlikely. The United States will thus likely feel the loss of its Kurdish partnership in the future — in Syria and beyond.
Marina E. Henke is professor of international relations at the Hertie School and Northwestern University and author of “Constructing Allied Cooperation: Diplomacy, Payments, and Power in Multilateral Military Coalitions” (Cornell University Press, 2019).