Over the years, theorists have come up with different schools of thinking to examine why events occur. Two of the main ones, explaining and understanding, examine events differently. In understanding an event, theorists focus on the “inside-story” or what is going on with the actors of the event. In explanation, a theorist only focuses on the explicit causes, which results in a very different explanation of the event. For example, the differences between understanding and explanation can be examined in the case of United States troop extraction from Syria. In order to understand why the US decided to stop backing the Syrian Kurds, it is necessary to examine the perspectives of the Syrian Kurds, Trump, and surrounding countries. To explain this event, it is only necessary to examine the clear causes of why the US would leave Syria.
The Kurd situation in Syria is very complicated. The United States had been involved with the Syrian Kurds since the 1920s when they encouraged the Sunni Muslims to found Khoybun, a Kurdish nationalist party (Minority Rights Group International). Between the years of 1958 and 1976 the Kurds were brutally repressed by the Syrian government and citizens (Minority Rights Group International). During the Syrian civil war in the early 2010s, the Kurds began taking over Taliban-run towns (Minority Rights Group International). The US has been explicitly involved in the conflict since 2014, when ISIS swept through the area and Barak Obama created a coalition, which later turned into a Kurdish militia, to fight the jihadists (Engelbrecht). After five years of the US supporting the Syrian Kurds, former President Donald Trump declared that the United States’ job was finished after the last piece of ISIS-held territory was recaptured (Engelbrecht). However, the US left behind a lot of unfinished business.
In order to understand the US deciding to no longer back the Syrian Kurds, theorists must look at the inside story. This requires theorists to examine the event as the “outcome of bargains among bureaucratic agencies,” (Hollis and Smith 9) meaning that the event is the result of discussions among different actors, with examination requiring a more in-depth look at how actors reacted to the event. There are many speculated reasons of why Trump pulled the United States’ support. However, according to a National Security Council member, Trump had been “out-negotiated” by Turkey’s president, Erdogan, and only agreed to pull the US’ troops out to “make it look like [the US was] getting something” (Willis) when they were not. Turkey had been anti-Kurd for many years and was “never thrilled about the US’s support for the [Syrian Democratic Forces]” (Willis), so when the United States announced it would not be pulling all troops out, Erdogan convinced Trump to change his mind and once again the US decided to pull its troops out entirely. Looking at this event through the lens of Erdogan allows theorists a more introspective view into what went on to cause the extraction and the resulting consequences.
To appreciate both perspectives going on within this story, the reactions of the Syrians Kurds must be examined. Many Kurds and Kurdish allies found Trump’s decisions to be “shocking and deflating” (Chappell and Gonzales). Specifically, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group that the US has supported for years, was deeply dismayed, and warned that the action could result in a new ethnic war breaking out (Chappell and Gonzales). Trump’s announcement threw Syria into “fresh chaos” and created uncertainty with the US and its European allies (Burns et al). After focusing on these different perspectives and attitudes about Trump’s decision, it begins to get easier to understand the event. Turkey had been pressuring the US government for years to leave Syria, while the Syrian Kurds continually demonstrated their need of support from the US. Though Trump himself had no interest in continuing to support the Syrian Kurds describing the Kurds as the “natural enemies” (Burns et al) of the Turks. The former president not only knew that Turkey was planning to attack the Kurds, but had the White House announce that “the US would get its troops out of the way” for the attack (Burns et al). By making the “individual choices” and perspectives of these leaders the key part of analysis (Hollis and Smith 9) it becomes more clear how the dynamic between Trump’s disinterest in the Syrian Kurds and his inclination to listen to Turkey’s president resulted in the Syrian Kurds being betrayed by the US, leaving them vulnerable to Turkish attack.
Explaining an event results in a very different way of viewing what occurred. To understand an event the inside story of several different actors must be examined. However, to explain an event a theorist must only look at the objective reasons of why the main actor made that decision. A theorist who explains an event “sees the state as a single agent responding rationally to its situation” (Hollis and Smith 9). In the case of the Syrian Kurds, Trump decided to leave because he was fulfilling a campaign promise. This decision came at a point in Trump’s presidency when House Democrats were moving forward with their impeachment inquiry (Burns et al). This prompted Trump to make himself look better by fulfilling campaign promises to the US people. Not only was Trump trying to put forth a better image, supporting the Syrian Kurds was also costing the US “massive amounts of money and equipment” (Burns et al). The United States had spent at least $40.5 billion in their military operations in Syria and the counter-ISIS campaign (Humud). Once the Kurds and the US had taken back the last remaining piece of Syria that had been run by ISIS, it no longer made sense for the US to stay and pay that much money on a war they considered won. In explaining the Trump administration’s decision through very clear and proven reasons, a theorist is deciding that “bureaucratic demands dictate individual choices” (Hollis and Smith 9). Why the state, as the main actor made that choice, not the individuals involved.
Both understanding and explaining can be helpful ways to examine different events in history. Understanding gives a very in-depth and complicated perspective; examining all the different perspectives and interpretations of the event. Understanding involves examining what the actors think and believe and how that influences their decision rather than solely the practical aspects of the event. Explaining, on the other hand, focuses directly on what led to the main actors’ decision. Explaining doesn’t focus on all the little things that lead to the nuance behind a decision in the same way that understanding does. Overall, they are both very useful but very different ways of studying how an event occurred.
“Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response.” EveryCRSReport.com, Congressional Research Service, 27 July 2020, https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/RL33487.html.
Chappell, Bill, and Richard Gonzales. “’Shocking’: Trump Is Criticized for Pulling Troops from Syrian Border.” NPR, NPR, 7 Oct. 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/10/07/767904589/shocking-trump-is-criticized-for-pulling-troops-from-syrian-border.
Engelbrecht, Cora. “The U.S.-Kurd Alliance in Syria Has a Tangled History.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Jan. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/26/world/middleeast/us-kurds-syria.html.
Hollis, Martin, and Steve Smith. Explanation and Understanding International Relations. Oxford: Clarendon press, 1992.
“Kurds.” Minority Rights Group, Minority Rights Group International, 6 Feb. 2021, https://minorityrights.org/minorities/kurds-5/.
Robert Burns, Lolita C. Baldor. “Trump Defends Decision to Abandon Kurdish Allies in Syria.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 8 Oct. 2019, https://apnews.com/article/donald-trump-syria-ap-top-news-international-news-politics-ac3115b4eb564288a03a5b8be868d2e5.
Willis, Jay. “Why Trump Abandoned the Kurds, Explained.” GQ, 7 Oct. 2019, https://www.gq.com/story/trump-erdogan-kurds-syria.