On the 7th of October 2019, the White House announced that American forces would withdraw from Northern Syria, ahead of an anticipated Turkish military operation in the region. The response, worldwide, was of shock and disbelief: Were the Americans abandoning their loyal Kurdish allies? As the world watched on, Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring.
The reaction was emotional, to say the least. But was the decision of president Trump to withdraw US troops from the area of operation of Turkish troops such a surprise, after all? Was it so unexpected? Let’s investigate!
US intervention in Syria and how the US-Kurdish alliance was born.
As far back as 2014, Washington was involved in Syria. Its aim was twofold: Arm the Syrian rebellion against Assad and try to form an international coalition against ISIS: If ISIS was to be defeated in Iraq, it had to be simultaneously fought and defeated in Syria, too.
For a while,
Washington’s fight against ISIS in Syria was limited to airstrikes.
In Iraq, the Americans could rely on and support some units of the
Iraqi army (The few ones that had not melted away upon first contact
against ISIS, anyway). In Syria, things were a bit different…
Washington could not rely on the Syrian army as the US policy was set
against both Assad and ISIS. The fight against ISIS could not be
shouldered by the Syrian rebellion either: The various militias were
too fragmented politically speaking, to unite and become strong
enough to fight both Assad and ISIS at the same time…
The solution came toward the end of 2014 with the siege of Kobane…
Kobane, a Syrian
town situated along the Turkish border and inhabited by ethnic Kurds
was besieged by ISIS and was desperately holding on against the
Jihadis. Syrian Kurds had mainly remained neutral in the Syrian civil
war. They did not rebel against Assad, but they did not fight off the
rebellion either. Instead, the Kurdish militias set up to defend
Kurdish areas against anybody showing hostile intentions. They also
set off to administer the zone they controlled their own way,
independently of Damascus, which was too weak to object or do
anything about it.
Kobane became a media obsession. The whole world was rooting for the plucky Peshmergas, male and female, fighting ISIS. Turkey, in a rare move, allowed Kurdish reinforcement from Iraq to transit through Turkish soil to Kobane. US planes started dropping weapons, food and medical supplies over the Kurdish town, while at the same time providing the Kurds with air support in the form of strikes against ISIS positions in the region. By February 2015, the Kurds were able to counter-attack in the Al-Hasakah province, benefiting from an ever increasing amount of American support, in the form of weapon supplies, air strike and the presence on the ground of US Special Forces elements.
At the same time, the USAF expanded its area of action over Syria with strikes around Raqqah in what had become known as Operation Inherent Resolve.
By early 2016, the Syrian army with Russian and Iranian support, had started to regain ground against rebel groups, Al Qaeda affiliated militias and ISIS. The besieged Syrian airbase of Kweires, isolated for 3 years had been relieved in late 2015 by the SAA supported by Russian forces. This was the first major victory of the Russian bloc against the Islamic state, 3 months after the beginning of the Russia operation in Syria. Washington was desperate to both defeat ISIS in Syria and at the same time frustrate Moscow and Tehran’s ambitions in the country…
Read more about the siege of the Kweires airbase here: https://defensionem.com/kweires-airbase-siege-lifted-in-northern-syria/
In March 2016, the SAA supported by Moscow, had liberated the ancient city of Palmyra from ISIS, scoring a second major victory against the Caliphate… Moscow being seen as the good guy fighting ISIS in Syria was a PR disaster for the Americans.
The Americans, for a while, bet on both the Kurds and the Syrian rebels, financing and supplying arms to both. But where the Kurds came out as steadfast against ISIS, the Syrian rebels of the FSA (Free Syrian Army) turned out to be less than reliable. FSA units kept on losing ground against the SAA and often cooperated with Al Qaeda militias in the country, passing on US supplied weapon systems to them. By mid 2016, most FSA outfits had effectively defected to Al Nusra.
The US-Kurdish alliance was born: With the Kurds, Washington had found the perfect proxy in Syria: Motivated, courageous, willing to fight, Syrian, but not affiliated to the regime.
The war in Syria suddenly started to look like a race: Which coalition could secure the most ground the fastest? The US led one with the Kurds or the Russian led one with the SAA and Iranian proxies?
In November 2016, the Kurds kick started the Raqqah campaign, called “Wrath of the Euphrates” The aim was to secure the East bank of the Euphrates then rush South, toward Raqqah: The Caliphate’s capital city. Damascus launched “Operation Dawn of Victory” almost simultaneously with the aim of liberating Aleppo. Aleppo was liberated by December 2016. The SAA then regrouped East of the city and used the liberated Kweires airbase as a springboard to blitzkrieg its way East all the way to the Western bank of the Euphrates.
From there, the Kurds, supported by US forces and the SAA supported by Russian forces seemed to race one another southward toward Raqqah: The SAA on the West bank and the SDF (Kurds) on the East bank.
The Kurds made it to Raqqah first, reaching the city in June 2017. From there, they made slow progress inside the city. Meanwhile, in the middle of the Syrian desert, the SAA liberated Palmyra from ISIS (for the second time) in March 2017 and started advancing slowly toward Deir Ezzor. The US led SDF fully liberated Raqqah in October 2017 while the Russian led SAA liberated Deir Ezzor the following month, in November.
Read more about Palmyra and Raqqah here: https://defensionem.com/syria-update-june-2017/
While Damascus held the city of Deir Ezzor on the West bank of the Euphrates, the SDF controlled most of the oil fields and agricultural land in the province of the same name, situated on the East bank of the river.
The situation was tense with Washington warning both Russia and Syria not to attempt to cross the Euphrates. A column of private Russian contractors/mercenaries approaching the Euphrates with the visible intent on crossing it was relentlessly shelled and attacked from the air by American forces on the 4th of February 2018 when it attempted to do so. The episode lasted 4 hours and resulted in the death of an estimated 100 Russian citizens
Read more about the fighting for Deir Ezzor here: https://defensionem.com/deir-ezzor-everyone-wants/
The last race to take place between the two sides was toward the border town of Abu Kamal. Whoever liberated that town from ISIS would control the Syrian-Iraqi border in the region. This is a race the SAA won in December 2017 with the help of the Iraqi army, following a joint operation between Damascus and Baghdad which most certainly displeased Washington: Damascus controlling the Abu Kamal border crossing meant the Iranians had just gained their “land bridge” between Iraq and Syria, and therefore unimpeded access toward Lebanon and the Israeli occupied Golan Heights.
From then on, both sides settled over their respective zone of influence: Washington on the East bank of the Euphrates and the Damascus-Tehran-Moscow axis on the West bank.
After this long but necessary recap, we can now focus on the US-Kurdish alliance itself.
And we can say straight away that it is/was an odd alliance indeed. It certainly was opportunistic on both side and not necessarily a natural one.
The Kurdish militiamen fighting in Syria on behalf of Washington were affiliated YPG. There is no other way of putting this, but YPG is the Syrian branch of the Turkish PKK, an armed group designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the European Union and the United States… As such, when Washington decided to go ahead with its Kurdish partnership in Syria, Its first move was to try and include a maximum of Arabs in the formation and rebrand the whole thing as “SDF” to make it a little bit more palatable… It did not fool many people: The whole operation was under the leadership of the YPG. In the liberated territories under Kurdish control (Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria), towns and cities are administrated according to the Libertarian-Socialist dogmas of the PKK ideology… When Raqqah was liberated, SDF units raised the Kurdish banner over the city as well as displaying huge posters of Abdullah Ocalan, the historical PKK founder. As a reminder, Ocalan was arrested in Nairobi in 1999 by Turkish intelligence operatives with a little help from the CIA… He has been in Turkish custody ever since. Awkward indeed.
So here you are: US forces in Syria were allied in their fight against ISIS with a militia affiliated to a communist organisation Washington has classed as terrorist. While the YPG Peshmergas were courageously fighting ISIS in Syria, on behalf of Washington, their brothers in arms of the PKK regularly ambushed Turkish troops and detonated bombs in Turkey. So US forces in Syria not only fought alongside militiamen belonging to a terror organisation (as designated by Washington itself) but said terror organisation is Turkey’s arch enemy… And Washington and Ankara are supposed to be allies…
The Kurds and Turkey
The Kurds are a mountain people from the Kurdistan region, which spans Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. They are united by the Kurdish language and traditions but sometimes divided by politics and religion: Kurds can be Sunni or Shia muslims, Christian, Yazidi or even Alevi. Prior to WWI, the Kurds were just one minority amongst a myriad of others within the Ottoman empire. After WWI, the Ottoman empire was dismantled and borders were drawn by the allies all over the Middle East. There were talks amongst the victorious allies of creating an independent Kurdistan in 1920, but by 1923 and the Treaty of Lausanne, this idea had been abandoned… The Kurdish people found itself separated between 4 countries, a minority in each of those.
Turkey has been facing down a Kurdish armed insurgency since 1984. The PKK was created by Abdulah Ocalan in 1978. It advocated more right for the oppressed Kurdish minority within Turkey. In the past 35 years, the Kurdish-Turkish conflict has gone through several cycles of insurgencies and cease fires, but overall has become more and more intense.
The PKK’s long term vision in Turkey is for an independent communist country (Kurdistan) to see the light of day. Politically and in the short/medium term, they aim for more autonomy. The next step would be confederalism, then independence. Each rounds of concessions would bring the Kurds closer to their long term goal, triggering fresh demands for more concessions.
Historically, the PKK affiliated militias have been able to count on support in Iran, Iraq and Syria where sizeable Kurdish communities live. The PKK has long used Northern Iraq as a fall back position. This has led Turkey to initiate military operations on Iraqi soil 7 times since 1991!
In Iraq, the Kurds represent 20% of the population. While they have enjoyed autonomy within Iraq since 2003, it hasn’t always been so: The Iraqi Kurds tried to secede from Iraq to create their own kingdom in 1919. More Kurdish secession attempts followed in 1931 and 1943. A full blown war erupted between both side between 1961 and 1970.
Toward the end of the 1970’s, two Kurdish factions politically and militarily opposed one another: The PUK and KDP. During the Iran-Iraq war, the Kurds took advantage of the fact the Iraqi army was busy fighting the Iranians to wage a new insurgency against the Iraqi nation. Baghdad lashed back with a full on genocide against the Kurdish population of Iraq, going as far as using chemical weapons (gas). This genocide ended up costing the lives of between 50,000 an 180,000 Kurds, depending on available estimates.
The Kurds rose against the Iraqi government again after the Gulf War in 1991, taking advantage of the fact the Iraqi army had just been decisively defeated and weakened. Between 1994 and 1997, the PUK and KDP fought one another in what has been called the Iraqi Kurdish civil war. It was a complex and messy affair with Peshmergas from Turkish, Iranian and Syrian Kurdish factions taking part in the conflict and joining one side of the other.
In 2003, Kurdish forces, united, once more, fought the Iraqi army again, taking advantage of the US invasion and cooperating with Washington. They were rewarded by a US sponsored Iraqi constitution that turned Iraq into a federation, granting a large autonomy to the Iraqi Kurdistan. In 2017, the Kurds attempted to push for full on independence, taking advantage of the weak state of the Iraqi armed forces after their war against ISIS. Turkey, Iraq and Iran imposed a full embargo on the region while Iraqi troops and Shia militias moved in on Kirkuk and took control of both the city and its nearby oil fields. This swift victory was possible due to political divisions within the Iraqi Kurdish society: The PUK militias did strike a secret deal with Baghdad and withdrew from the battlefield without notifying the KDP Peshmergas…
In Syria, the Kurdish population has been less restless. There hasn’t been any armed rebellion against the central government. However, taking advantage of the Syrian civil war, the Syrian Kurds pushed for a new constitution granting them increased autonomy within Syria. Some dream of a full on independence and the establishment of an independent Syrian Kurdistan called Rojava. As explained above, the Kurds currently administer not only the Kurdish zones but also most of Syria East of the Euphrates which they liberated from ISIS with US support, thus, currently enjoying a de-facto independence.
Turkish operations against the Kurds in Syria.
In 2015, Turkey launched its first military operation in Syria, codenamed Operation Shah Euphrates. The aim was to retrieve the tomb of Suleyman Shah, a historical Ottoman figure, which at the time was surrounded by ISIS, and relocate the tomb to a safer place, closer to the Turkish border.
In 2016, Ankara launched operation Euphrates Shield. The aim was officially to fight terrorism alongside the Turkish border. That included YPG and ISIS elements. In reality, Ankara wanted to seize Manbij from the Kurds. The real objective of Euphrates Shield was to drive a wedge between the two Kurdish controlled enclaves in Syria along the Turkish border. Such a move would ensure that the Kurds could not join said two enclaves, which would de-facto give them control over the Turkish-Syrian border… Turkey needed to control the border North of Aleppo, so as to keep being able to supply the various jihadi factions fighting the Syrian government in the area.
Ultimately, the Turkish forces lost several men and tanks and failed to take Manbij. But they did manage to gain a strong foothold in Syria, having captured a large area while the majority of losses had been incurred by the various pro-Turkish militias rather than by the Turkish army itself. It also gave Ankara a leveraging position in the negotiations that would lead to Idlib becoming a Turkish controlled deescalation zone. Euphrates Shield was therefore considered a success.
Subsequently, in 2017, Turkish forces entered the Idlib province. There, the Turkish army was supposed to enforce a cease fire between the region’s rebels and jihadis and the SAA… Instead, Turkey used that opportunity to pour in hardware and reinforcements aimed at deterring a SAA offensive as well as strengthening their position against the YPG.
In 2018, Turkey initiated its fourth incursion into Syrian territory with Operation Olive Branch. The aim was to capture the city and district of Afrin from Kurdish Peshmergas. This offensive managed to both weaken the Kurdish position in the region as well as keep pressure on Syrian controlled Aleppo.
Finally on the 9th of October 2019,Turkey launched operation Peace Spring. The official aim of the operation is to expel terrorists from the Turkish borders and to create a 30km “safe zone” (read buffer zone) inside of Syria where some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently on Turkish soil could be relocated…
So, what is this Obsession Ankara has with the SDF/YPG?
It is rather simple: The YPG is the Syrian branch of the Turkish PKK which has been leading an insurgency / war of independence against Turkey since 1984. This war has cost over 55,000 lives on both sides while also costing the Turkish economy an estimated $500billion. Turkey, like any other nation on earth, is very protective of its territorial integrity and will simply not tolerate any attempt at secession.
Ankara does partially shoulder the blame for the Kurdish insurrection in Turkey: It is the Turkish policy of discrimination and decades of abuse that have led to the creation of the PKK in the first place! The Kurds were not allowed to honour their traditions or use their own language. Moreover, the word Kurd was also illegal: Up until 1991, Ankara called its Kurdish minority ”mountain Turks”! Nevertheless, Turkey is aware that giving concessions to the Kurds now (in way of accrued autonomy) would only lead in more demands for wider concession, as their ultimate goal is full on independence and autonomy would only be seen by the Kurds as a mere stepping stone.
The Syrian conflict has been good to Erdogan: For a man obsessed with turning secular Turkey into an islamic country, the opportunity to support islamists in Syria gave him credibility and credentials in the eyes of the hardliners in his country and abroad. This game also gave him the opportunity to place Turkey at the heart of the global diplomatic arena as far as Syria is concerned.
However, the Syrian conflict has also led to the US-Kurdish alliance which threatens to destabilise Turkey and its borders: The Kurdish controlled area in Syria became de-facto autonomous when the Syrian army lost control of the country at the beginning of the Syrian civil war. But with the financial and military support of the US, this area has become an almost completely independent entity altogether… Worse, the self defence militias composed of plucky Peshmergas defending their villages against ISIS have now been amalgamated and turned into a fully fledged army, thanks to US support in the form of weapon deliveries and financing.
The US inventory of
arms given to YPG in the last two years is as follow:
37,000 AK pattern assault rifles, 7,000 machine guns, 4,000 heavy machine guns, 3,000 RPG-7, 315 mortars, 1000 AT-4, 195 sniper rifles, 150 infrared laser illuminating binoculars, 200 MANPADS and 100 EIMOS 81 mm mortars.
This “Rojava” nation could be used by the PKK as a springboard for offensives against the Turkish state as well as a safe heaven, shelter and rear base of operations. All that American money, training and weapons could be turned against the Turkish military… In fact, Ankara is convinced that it is not a matter of “could” but “when”.
This is simply unacceptable for Turkey. Ankara’s protests haven’t been heeded by Washington… The Turks have therefore decided to take matters into their own hands. The 30km safe area would enable Ankara to effectively and directly control its border as well as cut lines of communications and supply lines between Turkish and Syrian Kurds.
The second Turkish objective is more problematic: Settling Syrian refugees back in Syria sounds like a good idea, but forcing Sunni Arab refugees to settle in what is a Kurdish area emptied of its original population stinks of ethnic cleansing/population replacement. This can only lead to further ethnic tensions down the line between the original population and the new inhabitants… But anything that weakens the Kurdish and Syrian position is good as far as Ankara is concerned.
Such a buffer zone controlled by Turkey, on Syrian soil, could also be used as a safe heaven by all sorts of anti-Assad and pro-Turkey militias, including some linked to Al-Qaeda. This could only delay the end of the war in this country and impede the political peace process.
Operation Peace Spring: Sitrep.
The Turkish army started its offensive by using its air force and artillery to soften-up the SDF positions. However, after 4 days, progress seems slow. In some areas, the Turkish army and its proxies have advanced up to 10km inside of Syria and has managed to conquer several towns and villages including Tell Abyad, an important administrative centre within the province of Raqqah. In other areas, the Turkish army seems to made little progress. There are reports of successful local SDF/YPG counterattacks.
On the second night of the conflict, US special forces came under fire when Turkish artillery opened fire on the city of Kobane, Northern Syria. What US military personnel was doing embedded with YPG militiamen along the Turkish border when the White House announced that US forces had been pulled back is unknown. No casualties have been reported. The US soldiers took cover, weathered the shelling and withdrew once the Turkish batteries ceased fire. More reports have emerged of US personnel and US outposts being at risk of being isolated or coming in contact with pro-Turkish militias as Turkish forces advance. This contradicts the White House narrative that says all US personnel has been withdrawn over 30km away from the Turkish border… Somebody, somewhere is lying.
A US commander said its forces in Kobane had been purposely targeted by Turkish artillery, adding that the Turkish army knew about the position of every American outposts and outfits in Syria. If this is the case, it looks like a message/warning shot from Ankara to Washington to encourage the withdrawal of US forces from the region.
Today, news emerged that YPG forces have decided to withdraw from the area directly along the Turkish border, around Tell Abyad, to avoid being encircled by advancing Turkish forces.
Sadly enough, reports and videos of executions and of prisoners being beaten and humiliated have already emerged from the conflict. Turkey, like everyone else in Syria, makes heavy uses of proxies. In this instance, the main pro-Turkish militia fighting alongside the TAF (Turkish Armed Forces) is the FSA (Free Syrian Army). The FSA is made up of foreign jihadis, radicalised Syrians and Turkmen militiamen. Those militiamen are not as disciplined as regular soldiers and therefore, the risk of war crimes increases.
The most notable incident involved the execution of Hevrin Khalaf, a woman and political leader. She was the secretary general of the Future Syria party. She was filmed being dragged out of her car and shot dead by pro-Turkish militants. Her driver was killed in similar fashion. Similar incidents involving civilians being shot have been documented.
So far, the conflict has created 100,000 refugees, mainly Kurdish civilians, fleeing their homes and their land, which is exactly what Ankara wanted in the first place. More ominously, around 700 ex-ISIS fighters that were kept captive by the SDF have escaped their Kurdish prisons…
Yesterday, Kurdish general Mazloum Kobani Abdi told a US envoy “I need to know if you are capable of and willing to protect my people, if you are not, I will make a deal with Damascus and the Russians and invite their planes to protect this region”.
The Turkish offensive has drawn angry emotional reactions from around the world.
American lawmakers have prepared a bill which, if passed, would result in far reaching economic sanctions against Ankara. Said sanctions, once imposed, would only be withdrawn once the Turkish offensive stops. President Trump himself mentioned “shutting the Turkish economy down”.
France, on behalf of the EU, has also hinted at potential EU wide economic sanctions against Turkey. France, again, alongside Norway and The Netherlands, have announced they would no longer sell or supply military equipment to Ankara. A fairly unprecedented state of affair within NATO
Turkey, for its part, threatened to allow Syrian refugees to cross the Turkish border with the EU unchallenged, opening the tap of a possible refugee exodus toward the European bloc. The threat is directed at some EU leaders and bureaucrats who have labelled the Turkish operation “invasion”. Ankara insists that Peace Spring is not an invasion but an anti-terrorist operation.
Internet and the media are full to bursting with outrage at the Turkish operation and with support toward the Kurds. It is fair to say the whole world is behind the Kurds in this one.
It is difficult not to root for the Kurds, the way they defended themselves against ISIS before becoming the tip of the American spear against the Caliphate. It is easy to like their way of life, the way men and women are equal in their society and how women are as eager as men to take up arms and fight. But this support for the Kurds is also an engineered (emotional) one. What we know of them, what we have learned from them in the past few years, we learned it from the media, which have consistently depicted the YPG as folk heroes… The world needed heroes to counter balance the evil presence of ISIS. When the desperate resistance of Kobane came to light, back in 2014, the media were all over it. What the media have consistently avoided to do was to inform people about the political ramifications of the YPG and their affiliation to the Turkish PKK. Worse, the mainstream media has completely ignored the regular ambushes and bomb terror attacks perpetrated by the PKK in Turkey, all the while celebrating the military prowess of the same group in Syria…
This has led to a completely distorted the perception of the situation on the ground.
To be fair, the issue of revolutionaries and independentists has always been divisive… Depending on which side of the line you are situated on, you will see them as heroes and freedom fighters or rebels and traitors. Those issues often trigger emotional responses and rarely rational ones. If you support the Kurdish cause in Syria, would you support it in Iraq and Turkey, too? Would you likely support the secessionist / independentist movements of Kosovo? Crimea and Donbas? Catalonia? Corsica? Flanders? Savoy? Veneto? Difficult one, isn’t it?! It is easy to be generous with the lands and sovereignty of others, but it gets more difficult to accept as it strikes closer to home…
In the past few days, we have seen peace activists and people usually in favour of a US withdrawal from many different places suddenly be offended by… A US military withdrawal!
The problem, here, is again, the lack of foresight and long term plans by the Pentagon’s and White House military planners… Just as with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, only the immediate objective was considered, while all the long term consequences were simply ignored.
The US policy / mission in Syria was initially all about supporting the “moderate” opposition in Syria against Assad: Assad had to go. The FSA and other moderate militias ended up proving that they were not so moderate after all, and after a while, Washington gave up on them and also gave up on their demand for Assad’s immediate departure. He still had to go, but maybe not straight away…
Washington then turned its energy into defeating ISIS and therefore found itself fighting the same enemy as Damascus, Moscow and Tehran! True, Moscow focussed on rebel groups and jihadi militias in Western Syria for the first month or so of its campaign in Syria, but the heat was quickly tuned against the Caliphate after that.
However, Washington had no intention of cooperating with the Russo-Iranian-Syrian axis of evil. Instead, it decided to fight ISIS on its own term, picking the YPG as its proxy force of choice. While the American’s main goal was to fight ISIS, any opportunity to undermine the Russian or Syria effort was taken. By using the Kurds as proxies in Syria and push them to advance all along the Turkish border as well as push all the way down to Deir Ezzor, Washington not only defeated ISIS but put the Kurds on a collision course with both Ankara and Damascus.
The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is simply not economically, politically and militarily viable without the American military and financial support: It hss been created artificially, encompass several ethnic and religious minorities, some of them still loyal to Damascus. It is surrounded by enemies that conduct an economic blockade against it. It cannot export or import anything and is therefore totally dependent on US aid. Furthermore, Damascus desperately needs the Kurdish occupied oil fields and agricultural land in Deir Ezzor to ease pressure on the Syrian economy and ease food and oil shortages (and high prices) for the well being of its population…
This, here, reflects the lack of long term goals and policies from the US in Syria: To defeat ISIS and obstruct Russian, Syrian and Iranian policies in Syria in the short term, Washington accepted to put its Kurdish ally in a difficult position vis a vis of Turkey, while at the same time, humiliating Turkey, an American ally, by openly arming and cooperating with a terror group at war with Ankara… They also knowingly put the Kurds in the line of fire of Damascus by having them occupy Raqqah and Deir Ezzor.
In March 2019, President Trump announced that the US mission in Syria had been fulfilled and that ISIS had been 100% defeated. The statement was contradicted several times by military advisors who admitted that while the Caliphate had been destroyed, the ISIS ideology and thousands of ISIS fighters were still alive and kicking… In any case, “Isis is defeated” is the official party line in Washington. So… What’s next for US troops in Syria, if they have fulfilled their main goal of defeating ISIS?
If ISIS and Assad were Washington’s priorities in Syria, the Kurds and an independent Kurdish state was not. For the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria to truly become Rojava, an independent Kurdish state, the US would have had to station troops there for decade and keep the entity alive with a financial drip: Turkey, Iraq and Syria would never recognise it and trade with it. It was clear that deep down, the Kurdish-US alliance was temporary. You had to be naïve or too soft for this world to believe otherwise… Since the beginning of the war in Syria, Turkey has drifted away from the US orbit, playing, more often than not, a rogue role in this conflict, supporting at one time of another ISIS and Al Qaeda linked jihadi militias… The F-35 / S-400 dispute opposing Ankara and Washington find some of its roots in this conflict, too, with the Turks believing the US willingly ignores Turkish security and interests in Syria by cooperating with the Kurds.
However, long term, never would the US chose the Kurds over Turkey, which has the second largest army in NATO! A US withdrawal now would go a long way to start repairing the ties and relationship between Ankara and Washington.
Putting feelings aside and looking into cold hard facts, a Kurdish independent state in Syria would be a dangerous precedent not only in Syria, but also Turkey, Iraq and Iran, all home to a Kurdish minority…. Furthermore, drawing lines/borders according to a particular ethnicity in the Middle East would be one hell of a Pandora Box to open! (See Israel).
Where would you draw the line? Would you stop at the Kurds or would you allow every religious and ethnic minorities in Syria to obtain their independence and give them each their own little kingdom? Just imagine the inter-ethnic and inter-confessional wars that would follow as those little confettis would fight against one another for access to the sea, access to minerals, fertile lands, water or oil…
There is also ultimately the question of sanctity and inviolability of borders. Ankara is fighting an armed insurrection, a terror group that wants its independence. Ankara is therefore fighting, first and foremost, for its territorial integrity. And as difficult as it is to support the Turks or Erdogan, most other countries would do the same if their territorial integrity and therefore sovereignty were therefore threatened.
Washington was also faced with difficult choices, back in 2015: The Americans could hardly openly help the Syrian army fight ISIS when at the same time Washington had stated that Assad had to go… Neither could the Americans openly cooperate with Russia on the subject so soon after the whole Crimea / Donbass episode… Short of a full scale invasion of Syria to fight both ISIS and Assad, Washington was short of options. The Kurdish card was a good one in the short term. And it could have maybe worked alongside a workable solution for Syria. But this last element was lacking from the American strategy.
Russia, on the other hand, has kept all doors and communication channels open in this conflict, talking to all actors without pre-conditions. It submitted a draft constitution to Damascus several years ago in which the Kurds could have a certain degree of autonomy in their region as part of a united Syria. Assad had refused that solution, back then, but if it has a chance of bringing the war to an end quicker, he might be swayed and persuaded to accept it this time around. It could be a fair compromise for the Kurds. And Ankara, while still officially anti-Assad, would rather accept this than have an independent Kurdish state at its borders…
The Russians have access to Assad any time and they also talk to the Kurds as they allowed them to open a diplomatic mission in Moscow back in 2016! Maybe they are better placed to solve this puzzle. Would Washington allow it? That’s a question for which we have no answers…
In the meantime, as we are writing this, The Kurds, who fought ISIS well and lost between 11,000 and 13,000 men doing so, are being pushed away from their land by Turkey while their main backer, Washington, has taken a step back and is watching from the sidelines. It is difficult not to get emotional, not to believe that they were used and their trust was abused. Maybe they were also maybe a little naive in the amount of support they hoped they would get from Washington in the long term…
What we are seeing here is cold Realpolitik from Washington. Either on purpose or down to a complete lack of long term planning and a certain lack of skills in diplomacy: Its short terms plans fulfilled, its attention is turned elsewhere. Geopolitics has no feelings. Just interests to be defended and pawns to be pushed forward…