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With one of the tweets that have made his administration infamous, US President Donald Trump has re-ignited tensions in the Middle East and thrust US-Kurdish relations back into international headlines.
In a December 2018 tweet and video, Trump announced that US forces would be withdrawing from Syria, ending a deployment supporting the Kurdish-led forces battling Islamic State (IS). The US has provided the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with significant assets, including airstrikes, special forces and artillery. These have not only allowed the SDF to push aside IS but have also protected it from aggressions by Syrian, Russian and Turkish forces. With Trump’s decision, US-Syrian policy appears to be up in the air and the Kurds’ future with it. Understandably, the Kurds of northern Syria have not taken kindly to the announcement.
They have reason to be suspicious. For decades, the Kurdish community (but mainly the Kurds in Iraq) have repeatedly put their faith in American friendship and patronage only to have their hopes dashed when their interests no longer aligned with Washington’s. President George Bush encouraged the Kurds to rise up against Saddam Hussein, only to leave them unprotected from Baghdad’s military might. Years later, in 2017, after battling IS with US air support, the US refused to back a Kurdish referendum on independence from Baghdad. Any immediate US withdrawal from Syria would surely constitute another betrayal for the Kurds.
Trump has made no secret of his desire to pull US troops out of conflicts abroad, and it should come as little surprise that he has chosen to fulfil this campaign promise. His confrontational, unrepentant governing style matches that of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who may have played a role in the decision.
The Kurds: Pawns in a Chess Game?
In recent years, the US has had a fractious relationship with Turkey, with tensions stemming from Obama-era concerns over human rights following the 2016 attempted coup, Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism, the apparently baseless detention of a US citizen and several others of Turkish descent, the detention of US consular staff, the presence of accused failed coup leader Fethullah Gulen in the US and a New York prosecution of a Halkbank executive behind a multi-million dollar Turkish-enabled evasion of US sanctions on Iran.
Although tensions have been more muted since the release of Andrew Brunson, one of the US detainees, there are still concerns around Ankara’s Syria policy and Turkey’s determination to buy a Russian-made S-400 missile system, in violation of NATO conventions. So it was with some surprise that Turkey watchers heard that Trump’s Syria pull-out decision apparently came about during a phone call with Erdogan. When Erdogan pressed Trump on US policy in Syria, Trump reportedly questioned why US forces were still there anyway, offering Turkey free reign in Syria (ostensibly to finish off IS) as a bargaining chip – a major win for Ankara. This withdrawal constitutes a U-turn of established US practice in Syria, namely backing foreign partners to crush IS.
War of Words
There is little doubt that Trump’s announcement would have been music to the ears of the Turkish leadership. Erdogan welcomed the move and offered to take control of security in Manbij, one of the key towns in Kurdish-controlled Syria. More broadly though, Turkey has long promised to expand its operations against Kurdish groups in the area west of the Euphrates to the Kurdish-held territory east of the river.
The principal obstacle to this has been the string of US outposts in the Kurdish areas, demarcating a red line for Turkey. Even if Turkish-US cooperation has become more amicable in recent months, with joint patrols even starting on the edges of Kurdish areas, the Turkish government is still keenly eyeing an opportunity to neutralise the Kurdish threat along its southern border. Turkey considers the Syrian-Kurdish YPG militia to be an affiliate of the PKK, the Kurdish insurgents who have waged a low-level guerrilla war in Turkey for decades.
As a result, Trump fired back at Ankara, promising to “devastate” Turkey’s economy if it attacks the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish response was understandably outraged, with the Turkish opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, accusing the US of acting like a “school bully”. As of early 2019, the Turks have not moved back into northern Syria, no doubt waiting to see when or if the US withdrawal occurs. Yet, ironically, in the same tweet as his threat of economic devastation, Trump made a vague reference to a ‘20-mile safe zone’ that Ankara has proposed for years and which Erdogan once again pushed for in January.
The Real Question
But the real question is, what will the Kurds do? Initially following Trump’s pull-out tweet, an SDF alliance with the regime of Bashar al-Assad and Russia seemed most likely. There were early signs of the SDF reaching out to both parties and protesting the US move. Within days, pro-al-Assad forces were reportedly moving into areas previously dominated by the SDF.
There is a precedent for a Kurdish-al-Assad alliance. Throughout the entire battle and siege of Aleppo, the Kurds held a central quarter of the city, and when the city finally fell, al-Assad’s troops were allowed to pass through the Kurdish areas to attack the Syrian rebels from the rear. Likewise, throughout much of the war, loyalist and Kurdish forces have lived cheek by jowl in Hassakeh province. Al-Assad has seemingly allowed this Kurdish autonomy as a means of avoiding adding another group to the long list of regime opponents.
No News is Good News?
However, with alarm quick to spread across the American political spectrum following Trump’s decision, and a toning down of what at first appeared to be an immediate withdrawal, a Kurdish move away from the Americans seems to have been put on hold. That said, Trump has stuck to his guns, even as his defense secretary, ex-General Jim Mattis, resigned.
For obvious reasons, the Kurds would favour American patronage over Russian or Syrian. Syria’s Kurds have already seen how Iraq’s Kurds obtained autonomy and arguably de facto independence by using American (and Western) military muscle to protect themselves from Saddam-era abuses and also to isolate themselves from Baghdad’s sovereignty.
While the US has refused or been unable to implement a no-fly zone like it did in Iraq in the 1990s, the presence of US forces east of the Euphrates has so far halted Syrian or Russian forces from reclaiming the territory for Damascus. As a result, Kurdish forces have been able to implement an autonomous territory, replete with its own form of governance, flag and name.
Siding with Russia inextricably means siding with al-Assad, likely ruling out the possibility of future autonomy. Furthermore, Russian forces have proven willing to directly challenge Kurdish control of oil-rich areas of north-eastern Syria, only stopped by US firepower. While there is no sign of Damascus pushing for control of these Kurdish-run regions yet, once (or if) al-Assad quashes the rebels in Idlib, the main bastion of anti-al-Assad Arab resistance, he is likely to turn his attention to the Kurdish areas.
Furthermore, the death in January of four US personnel in a suicide bombing in Manbij, purportedly by IS, has refocused US attention on its mission in Syria. Although Trump’s announcement of the future direction of US policy in Syria has thrown new uncertainty over the country’s north-east, the pull-out has so far been largely in name only.
Until boots on the ground begin disappearing, this ‘pull-out’ may mean nothing but another layer of complexity in the war in Syria.