A fighter from the Kurdish women's protection units (YPJ) attends the funeral of an Arab fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the town of Tal Tamr in the countryside of Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province on December 21, 2018, who was killed while fighting against the Islamic State group. Photo: Delil Souleiman / AFP

US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw his troops from Syria ripped through the country’s battlefield like a forest fire, raising questions about the fate and future of the country’s Kurdish population, concentrated mainly east of the Euphrates River, under US protection—and Turkish threat.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, were the only fighters in Syria still receiving American funds, arms, and technical assistance after Trump terminated support for other opposition factions in mid-2018. 

According to political sources in Damascus, the Syrian Army will not come to the aid of the Kurdish warriors but also will not join the Turks in their extermination. Rather, they will stand by and watch, waiting to see who collapses first, the Kurds or Erdogan. The policy resembles that of the Reagan Administration, which stood by and watched the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, hoping that it would either rid them of Khomeini or Saddam Hussein.

According to political sources in Damascus, the Syrian Army will not come to the aid of the Kurdish warriors but will equally not join the Turks in their extermination. Rather, they will stand by and watch, waiting to see who collapses first, the Kurds or Erdogan.

At present, talks are underway between Syrian authorities and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose largest contingent is the YPG. Last February the Kurds made a similar appeal to Damascus as Turkish troops were advancing on the city of Afrin, west of the Euphrates.

The Kurds offered to relinquish the destroyed eastern city of Raqqa, which they had liberated from ISIS, as well as the northeastern city of Hassakeh, in return for military support. Damascus said no, arguing that it was already in control of half of Hassakeh, and demanding that the Kurds surrender all cities—not just two—and their entire arsenal in exchange for government protection. The terms of the government also called for all SDF fighters to surrender their arms and join the Syrian military.

The SDF at the time rejected the offer, instead hoping for US support to migrate west, across the Euphrates. That never happened. 

The Kurds were squarely defeated in Afrin, amidst US disappointment at the mediocre resistance they put up against invading Turkish troops.

The Syrian government offer still stands. But this time, the Kurds are in no position to reject or set out their conditions.

Turkish trade-offs

The main SDF positions are currently in Arab cities like Raqqa or multiethnic cities like Hassakeh and Qamishli. Arab tribesmen in both could tear the Kurdish administration apart, once American protection is removed.

In 2016, the Turks carved out a safe zone along the border, occupying strategic Syrian towns like Jarablus and Azaz, and others further in the interior like Al-Bab.

The aim was to drive both the Kurds and ISIS from the border area, creating a buffer zone in which they can repatriate thousands of Syrian refugees (Arabs and Turkmen) who have been residing in Turkey since 2011, making sure that the Kurds never return to the borders. The objective of today’s operation is to expand that zone to include the towns of Manbij (west of the Euphrates), Kobani, and Ras al-Ayn. The Turks also aim to take Tal Rifaat, north of Aleppo, where they claim Kurdish separatists fled after the February attack on Afrin.

In exchange for compliance from Russia, the Turks are willing to evacuate their proxies from towns sought by the Syrian government, namely the Idlib localities of Maaret al-Nouman, Khan Sheikhoun, and Jisr al-Shughour. The scenario would be similar to when the Turks gave up east Aleppo in exchange for the border town of Jarablus in 2016, and more recently when they traded Ghouta for Afrin earlier this year.

All territory abandoned by the Americans would now come under command of the Russians, Syrians, and Turks—not the Kurds.

No country for Kurds

Before leaving his post last March, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had told his boss that he could not continue to court both Turkey and the Kurds. He had to make up his mind and it was far more crucial for US national interest to stand with the Turks, who were America’s historic allies in NATO, than with Kurdish warriors on the Syrian battlefield.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was unhappy with US support for the Kurds, and the longer it lasted, the more likely he was to inch closer towards the Russians—his partners in the Astana Peace Talks—threatening not only the US but NATO as well.

Trump hinted that he had made up his mind in March, saying that he would be withdrawing US troops from Syria “very soon.” Many argued that this was wishful thinking on behalf of the US President and that even if he wanted to walk out on Syria, neither the Pentagon nor Congress would allow him, so long as Iranian troops were still stationed on Syrian soil.

Senior officials quickly issued clarifying statements, saying that US troops would only leave once a political process started to the end the seven-year conflict—a diplomatic way of saying “indefinitely.”

When Trump this week made a sudden, resolute announcement to bring the troops home, Kurdish officials were dumbfounded. Just weeks earlier, the administration’s top Syria envoy had named the withdrawal of Iranian forces as a key condition for an American pullout. 

The US strategy on Syria has shifted greatly since Trump entered the Oval Office in January 2017. He parted ways with his predecessor’s calls for Bashar al-Assad’s unconditional resignation, surrendering to his Russian counterpart’s version of the Syrian endgame. 

What mattered to Trump were three things only: eradicating ISIS, empowering the Kurds, and clipping Iran’s wings in Syria. He saw the Kurds as brave warriors who had contributed fearlessly to the war on ISIS. But apart from arms there was very little he could give them since “autonomy” or “statehood” was a red-line that nobody in the neighborhood would allow—neither the Syrians, the Iranians, the Turks, nor the Russians.

It is not the first time the Kurds have suffered from US betrayal. In 1974, they were given arms in Iraq to go to war against the Baghdad government, but not to win. The Americans only wanted them to divert the Iraqi government’s attention and prevent it from coming to the aid of Syria against Israel. During the Watergate investigations, Henry Kissinger famously said that he had armed the Kurds to dissuade Iraq from “adventurism” but not to win.

What worries the Syrian Kurds today is an expected Turkish operation in the northeast, scheduled to start before the New Year and aimed at dismantling Kurdish positions along the border with Turkey.

Syrians in both camps of the conflict were wondering how the Americans would react to the Turkish offensive, due to their strategic relationship with the SDF. Trump was expected to protect the Kurds from harm and make sure that the Turkish operation was canceled or carried out with minimal damage. By announcing a pullout suddenly, Trump’s apparent message to the Kurds is that they are again on their own, and that the US president will not stick out his neck for Kurdish autonomy.

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