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U.S. withdrawal is a tragic blow for Syria's Kurds

Donald Trump’s apparent capitulation to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the fate of Syria’s Kurds risks paving the way for ISIS to renew its strength in the region, while adding to the growing murkiness of the Syrian conflict’s endgame.

By Kareem Shaheen

Kurdish fighters in Northern Syria, October 7, 2014 (Kurdish YPG fighters/CC BY 2.0).

Kurdish fighters in Northern Syria, October 7, 2014 (Kurdish YPG fighters/CC BY 2.0).

Even by Syria’s standards, the chaos of the last few days has been dizzying.

On Sunday evening, following a call between Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the White House issued a statement announcing that the United States would not stand in the way of an impending military operation by Ankara in northeastern Syria. The target of the incursion is Syria’s Kurdish militias, who were allied with the U.S. and led the ground campaign against ISIS. American troops in the area would withdraw from forward positions.

The American decision was condemned as a betrayal of Washington’s Kurdish allies, who also happen to be the Syrian wing of a separatist terror group that fought the Turkish state for decades. Ankara watched with increasing fury as the militias expanded their zone of control near the Turkish border with U.S. backing, and eventually launched military incursions to curb that expansion.

Trump faced mounting criticism for capitulating to Erdogan’s demands, including from people like Liz Cheney and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who are usually his most loyal allies. Trump responded to the onslaught of criticism with an increasingly unhinged series of tweets in which he seemed to be having a public argument with his alter ego. He threatened to destroy Turkey’s economy, then pointed out that it is an important trading partner and a member of NATO — as well as a strategic partner of the United States.

On Wednesday, Ankara announced it was going ahead with the operation, which it named Peace Spring, the latest in a series of Orwellian names for regional military operations. This bewildering series of events, which has precipitated another major military confrontation between the Kurds and Turkey, was inevitable.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a NATO summit in Brussels, July 11, 2018 (NATO/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a NATO summit in Brussels, July 11, 2018 (NATO/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Let us first survey the state of play in the Syrian conflict. After more than eight years of conflict, half a million dead and with half the country’s population displaced, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has won the war, thanks to the unwavering support of Moscow and Tehran. Government forces, backed by the Russian air force and pro-Iranian militias, have clawed back most of the country from rebel forces.

Only three areas remain outside of state control. The first is the province of Idlib, which is home to most of the displaced opposition activists and rebels who remained inside the country along with three million civilians, and is controlled militarily by the extremist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the latest iteration of the former al-Qaeda affiliate in the country.

The second is a region along the northern border with Turkey, which is held by the so-called rebel national army, an alliance of opposition brigades whose training and salaries are provided by Turkey, and which has won campaigns against both Kurdish militias and ISIS. This army will spearhead the new campaign.

The third area is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S.’s partner in the campaign against ISIS. The grouping includes both Kurdish and Arab fighters, but the former are by far the most influential faction. It includes parts of eastern and northeastern Syria, with the latter region facing an imminent assault. The SDF patrols the areas that have been liberated from ISIS, such as Raqqa city, the former capital of the ISIS caliphate, and administers camps like Al-Hol, where many survivors from its last days still dwell.



Turkey, the second-largest army in NATO, considers the SDF to be a terrorist group. The Kurdish militia that forms the backbone of the SDF, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is an offshoot of the separatist militia that fought against the Turkish state for decades. Kurdish aspirations for an autonomous region spanning large swathes of northern Syria, enabled by American air cover, was an intolerable provocation for Ankara. Still, Turkey acquiesced for years to Washington’s marriage of convenience with the Kurdish militias.

Turkey argued that the Arab rebel groups that were fighting the Assad regime were best suited to fight ISIS, which had emerged as the narrowly-focused obsession of the Obama administration. Because it prioritized the defeat of ISIS, the previous U.S. administration decided against taking punitive action when the Assad regime committed flagrant abuses of international law, as when it used chemical weapons against civilians. But rebel fighters saw ISIS as a symptom of the Assad regime’s extreme violence and insisted on fighting to overthrow both the Syrian dictator and the terror group. The U.S. rejected this tactic.

Kurdish allies of the U.S. have reacted publicly to Trump’s announcement by calling it a stab in the back. This betrayal was, however, only a matter of time. The inherent contradictions in the American pact with the SDF were always going to undermine it, simply because Turkey, the second-largest army in NATO, is a more important strategic partner, even if it has drifted toward the Russian orbit in recent years.

The immediate outcome of a Turkish incursion will likely be a major retreat by Kurdish forces, who are now without the protection of American air cover. This withdrawal will mean fewer counter-measures to limit the movement of ISIS fighters, who have gone into hiding in nearby areas. It also raises the risk that militant prisoners will escape amid the chaos. It leaves unanswered the question of who exactly will be responsible for hundreds of detained ISIS fighters who were captured and imprisoned by the SDF. The Kurds have for months been lobbying western states, with varying degrees of success, to repatriate those among the imprisoned fighters who are their citizens and try them in their own courts.

Kurdish fighters in Northern Syria, December 16, 2014 (Kurdish YPG fighters/CC BY 2.0).

Kurdish fighters in Northern Syria, December 16, 2014 (Kurdish YPG fighters/CC BY 2.0).

The withdrawal of U.S. military support could well be a decisive blow against Kurdish aspirations for self-governance in Syria. The SDF has largely maintained a détente with the Assad regime, and even assisted in its campaign to reclaim the city of Aleppo in 2016 by blocking supply routes for rebels besieged by government forces, an act that has caused deep-seated enmity within the Syrian rebel forces allied with Turkey. With the loss of territory, it will have little leverage in talks to reconcile with Assad, whose government was quick to declare its readiness in somewhat gloating terms to embrace the Kurds that fought alongside the United States.

This blow came on the heels of another major snub last month. A UN-brokered initiative to form a constitutional committee to draft Syria’s post-war charter conspicuously did not include major figures affiliated with the SDF, keeping the most powerful Kurdish faction on the sidelines as the government, civil society and opposition debate the shape and identity of Syrian society for years to come. The American abandonment will make the isolation even more pronounced.

For Turkey, the elimination of a Kurdish-controlled region on the border is just one of the reasons the campaign is a priority. Another is its desire to establish a so-called safe haven in order to repatriate many of the four million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Erdogan’s government has for years sheltered Syrians fleeing the war. But the issue has emerged as a lightning rod for opponents who want nothing to do with their Arab neighbors and their wars, and for government supporters who scapegoat Syrians over Turkey’s economic woes. Erdogan’s party was punished in the recent mayoral election in Istanbul, a campaign followed by a crackdown that led to the deportation of an unknown number of Syrians to war-engulfed Idlib.

Tens of thousands of Syrians, per the Turkish government, have returned to their country voluntarily, to areas administered by its proxies inside Syria. The promise of another safe zone might lure thousands more. But any large-scale, forced repatriation of Syrians would be against international law, and would reengineer the fabric of the society in that region.

Finally, the campaign would leave the rebel national army with a larger swathe of territory under its control. A Turkish proxy, the rebel coalition has its own aspirations in the months to come, and their prime directive officially remains the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad. Though leashed by Ankara, victory in the campaign against the SDF could provide some much-needed leverage for the opposition in negotiations over a post-war settlement, as the endgame of the Syrian conflict grows even murkier.

Kareem Shaheen is the former Guardian correspondent for Turkey and the Middle East.

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    1. itshak Gordine

      Israel is one of the few civilized countries to have helped the Kurds. A petition has just been signed by reserve officers of the Israeli army to ask the government to help the Kurds to defend themselves against the Turkish aggression. Let us not forget that the Kurds have established in the territories under their control a democratic government where women fight like men.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        @Itshak Gordine: Let us not forget that the Israelis have not established in the territories under their control a democratic government.

        On the subject of non-democracy, could we ask when it will be that the haredi men fight like men? Instead of getting others to do it for them? And Haredi women get the same access to education as other women. You, self-styled feminist, care. Right? Also on the subject of the Israeli non-democracy and feminism, Ahed Tamimi, that liberated modern woman who fights the occupation like men do—we can admire her, right? She’s a lot like those Kurdish women you’d have us admire.

        Anyway, I am glad to see your tacit admission that the prime minister’s reckless gamble on a shameless U.S. president is unravelling before Israel’s startled eyes, and that Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds cannot be painted in a positive light and there is no spin that can cast it as something other than what it is: One of the most shameful betrayals in U.S. history.

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          The brave Kurdish people fight practically alone against Erdogan’s imperialist regime. This People in the long History and without State receives no financial support from international organizations while the pseudo “Palestinian People” that no one has heard before the 60s and who specialized in racism, the use children and terrorism receives billions of dollars a year. Recall that the personal fortune of the late Yasser Arafat is close to one billion dollars from misappropriation of customs duties. That of Mahmoud Abbas and his family would reach this amount.

          Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          Haredi women can do army or civilian service. There are more and more Haredi men in the army. They are known to be fierce fighters very inflexible with Arab terrorists. As for Tamimi, everyone knows that she does video business with her family.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “As for Tamimi, everyone knows that she does video business with her family.”

            As I have said, I have no illusions about you. Your are wrapped inside a hermetically sealed “everyone knows” cultish thought system. You put on frank display, usefully, the stoop-to-anything, anything-is-permitted dishonesty of the settlers. And the hypocrisy in your fake feminism is downright funny.

            Note that in your paean to the Kurds, you are actually urging the Palestinians to take up violent resistance again against Israel’s imperialist regime, after which violence you won’t say boo about the Kurds again, you’ll just prattle about “terrrroists.” (You think Erdogan does not call the Kurds “terrrorists”? Seriously?) Noam Sheizaf exposed you long ago:

            By Noam Sheizaf |Published March 11, 2016
            Why do we only listen to violence?

            Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      Pullback Leaves Green Berets Feeling ‘Ashamed,’ and Kurdish Allies Describing ‘Betrayal’

      WASHINGTON — American commandos were working alongside Kurdish forces at an outpost in eastern Syria last year when they were attacked by columns of Syrian government tanks and hundreds of troops, including Russian mercenaries. In the next hours, the Americans threw the Pentagon’s arsenal at them, including B-52 strategic bombers. The attack was stopped.
      That operation, in the middle of the American-led campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, showed the extent to which the United States military was willing to protect the Syrian Kurds, its main ally on the ground.
      But now, with the White House revoking protection for these Kurdish fighters, some of the Special Forces officers who battled alongside the Kurds say they feel deep remorse at orders to abandon their allies.
      “They trusted us and we broke that trust,” one Army officer who has worked alongside the Kurds in northern Syria said last week in a telephone interview. “It’s a stain on the American conscience.”
      “I’m ashamed,” said another officer who had also served in northern Syria. Both officers spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals from their chains of command.
      And the response from the Kurds themselves was just as stark. “The worst thing in military logic and comrades in the trench is betrayal,” said Shervan Darwish, an official allied with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.


      But Trump’s a great guy! Israel’s best friend! Trump and us Israelis—no daylight!

      Meretz and the Joint List should take the same huge Likud campaign posters of Bibi shaking hands with this (un)American son of a bitch—buy them at a discount—and use them against Likud.

      Reply to Comment