President Trump’s strategy of getting out of Syria but keeping the oil continues to stir up policy debates and emotions.
Opponents of the U.S. withdrawal see this as a betrayal of the Syrian Kurds, who have done the heavy lifting in battling the Islamic State (ISIS) in partnership with U.S. special operations forces.
Proponents see the American pullout as an opportunity to sever ties with a radical Kurdish group and thereby mend ties with the Turks, who see the Kurdish group as an existential threat.
It is time to realize that Washington can still win over both Turks and Kurds – and thereby, its competition with Russia and Iran for influence in northeast Syria
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – America’s partners against the Islamic State – bring together Syria’s Arabs, Kurds, Syriac Christians, Turkmen and Yazidis.
Critics argue that this multiethnic and multifaith force is a “fig leaf” for hiding its primary component – the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is designated by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union as a terrorist organization because of the violent insurgency it has led against Turkey since 1984.
In 2016 the Turkish prime minister called the YPG, “legionnaires and hired soldiers of Russia.” A pro-Turkish pundit claimed the next year that the YPG saw Syria “merely as a springboard for supporting the P.K.K.’s insurgency against Turkey’s government.” The pundit predicted that U.S.-backed YPG’s takeover of Raqqa, the jihadist capital in Syria, would create “anew the conditions that led to the rise of the Islamic State.”
Other analysts expected that the Syrian Kurds would “do a back flip and embrace the Syrian military” following Turkey’s previous cross-border operation into the SDF-held Afrin region in the winter of 2018.
Washington’s campaign against the Islamic State and partnership with the SDF has provided a unique opportunity to test such predictions and the true colors of the Syrian Kurds and their alphabet soup organizations.
For U.S. special operations forces, the SDF’s men and women in uniform have proven to be loyal and effective fighters, as they shared trenches in defeating the Islamic State.
Since then, the SDF leadership appears to be interested in maintaining the security and stability of northeast Syria rather than launching any attacks against their Turkish neighbors to the north.
Instead of provoking a Sunni reaction and an Islamic State resurgence in Arab-majority towns, the SDF has demonstrated a surprising ability to build solidarity across ethnic and religious divides and built a relatively inclusive system that embraces minorities.
Critics and supporters of the SDF would agree that there is much room for improvement in northeast Syria on the political front. The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) – the SDF’s political wing – continues to exclude Syrian Kurdish groups close to Turkey and to Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government.
Remedying this democratic deficit was central to France’s efforts over the summer to reconcile rival Kurdish factions in northeast Syria, which seem to have hit a dead end. The SDC’s path to legitimacy requires sharing power with all democratic parties, including those sympathetic to Ankara and Erbil.
Given the complex history of the SDF, and its problematic relations with the Turkish government, U.S. policymakers need to decide whether this umbrella group is more of a liability than an asset.
Some argue that the cons outweigh the pros to such an extent that northeast Syria is better off under the rule of the Syria’s Bashar Assad regime and its patrons, Russia and Iran.
Washington’s current trajectory, unless altered, will soon prove whether northeast Syria’s Arabs, Kurds, Syriac Christians, Turkmen, and Yazidis will fare better under the authoritarian trifecta of Damascus, Moscow and Tehran.
Oddly enough, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is currently busy waging his third cross-border campaign into Syria against the SDF, was the one who had earlier helped the Syrian Kurds prove that they can change.
During Turkey’s Kurdish peace process, which Erdogan led until 2015 in defiance of a decades-long hardline policy against Turkey’s Kurds, the Turkish leader proved that the Kurds on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border could be a partner and positive force for change.
In February 2015, when the Turkish army carried out an operation into Islamic State-held territory to rescue the tomb of the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Syrian Kurdish YPG forces cooperated closely with Ankara to provide cover for the Turkish soldiers.
Sadly, the ascendancy of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party and Erdogan’s losing of his parliamentary majority in June 2015 elections practically ended Turkey’s peace process with the Kurds. The Turkish president turned to ultranationalists and their hardline policies for the snap elections that he called for regaining his majority.
The Erdogan government today pushes the line in Washington and elsewhere that the pro-Kurdish movements in Syria and Turkey are destined to remain a threat, beholden to their radical ideologies, violent pasts, and Cold War connections to Russia.
As the White House is trying to shape its Syria policy, the question of whether the Kurds are also capable of change – just like millions of others who have escaped Moscow’s iron fist to embrace democracy, free markets, and religious freedoms – is more pertinent than ever.
Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, for example, warns: “To suggest that a pro-Russian orientation is hardwired into Kurdish genes, though, is self-defeating.”
The history of Iraqi Kurds, who once had close relations with Moscow, and the success of their Kurdistan Regional Government in building strong political and economic relations with Turkey and the U.S. proves Rubin right.
One could argue that Washington’s flipping of Syrian Kurds and their SDF allies was on the path to becoming yet another success story in the Islamic State-torn Middle East. It was as much a strategic political win in the region as a tactical military one against the jihadists.
Oddly, the U.S. flip of northeast Syria resonates with another flip in the Middle East from decades ago. As Hudson Institute’s Mike Doran argues about Egypt’s flip from the Soviet camp to the U.S. one: “The Soviets could help Cairo make war, but only the Unites States could help it make peace.”
Similarly, Washington today can not only help the SDF wage war to keep the Islamic State and the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian patrons out of northeast Syria. The U.S. can also help its political wing, the SDC, make peace, by reaching negotiated settlements with Ankara, Damascus, and Erbil that would guarantee peaceful coexistence and autonomy.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to watch closely as he is poised to flip the Kurds back and win Syria in its entirety. As President Trump is finalizing his game plan for northeast Syria, he needs to remember that he can still choose to win both Turks and Kurds, and thereby, America’s competition with Russia and Iran for influence in northeast Syria.