By Egemen Bezci
United States President Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw American military forces from Syria caught senior American administration officials by surprise, such as the former Secretary of Defense James Mattis who handed his resignation. For actors in Syria, Trump’s move was equally unexpected. Trump suddenly declared the US mission a victory and called the troops to come back home. Various sources reported even the US military only had twenty-four hours’ notice of the President’s decision.
The American withdrawal from the Syrian war signaled new opportunities and threats for regional actors. It initially seems that Russia, Syria, Iran, and Turkey increase their advantages, advancing their respective agendas, yet Saudi Arabia and Israel are the initial losers since they were using American presence against the Iranian influence in Syria, and the region at large. Russia, Syria, and Iran now have more consolidation in restoring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime throughout the country. Turkey, a main actor in the Syrian conflict since its beginning, sees the US withdrawal as a green light to launch a military offensives against the enclaves controlled by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) along the border. It would not be an exaggeration to state that Kurdish forces will be most affected among this partner since they lost the United States as their patron.
Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), have been praised and supported by Western countries for their effective war against Daesh (also known as the Islamic State). Syrian Kurds increased their political prominence during the Syrian civil war. Before the war started, the Syrian Kurds were heavily oppressed and discriminated against in Syria, even to the point where Syrian-born Kurds were not issued ID cards, making them stateless in their own land without any benefit of fundamental human rights.
At the start of the war in 2011, the Syrian military retreated from the Kurdish-populated areas in the country’s northern regions to focus on protecting Damascus and coastal cities. This power vacuum was filled with the Kurdish political groups in the region. Among many competing factions, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its armed militant branch YPG triumphed and established self-governing cantons in Northern Syria.
One of the underlying reasons behind the YPG’s triumph is that it is an off-shoot of another Kurdish insurgency, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has been waging a prolonged guerrilla warfare against Turkey for almost forty years to establish an independent socialist Kurdish state. Thus, it was plausible for YPG and PKK to relocate its manpower to Syria and transfer their knowledge and experience to local fighters regarding guerrilla warfare.
It was the summer of 2014 that the Kurdish militants in Syria made the global headlines. When the Islamic State made advances in Syria and Iraq, the images of their brutality attracted media attention, such as beheading their captives, burning people alive, and establishing slave markets in the cities they captured. Moreover, lone wolf terrorists and other illicit cells were inspired by Daesh and perpetuated attacks all over the world, particularly in Europe.
Daesh advancement was pushed back only when it tried to capture the Kurdish city of Kobane in September 2014. Daesh initially succeed to capture villages outside of the city and committed monstrous atrocities. The terrorist organisation’s leader Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared that he will kill all the Kurds in Kobane to demonstrate what happens to ones who do not submit to his will.
After four months of fierce battle between Daesh and the Kurds, the Kurdish fighters reinforced by the Free Syrian Army, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, and US-led Coalition, managed to push back Daesh, and liberate the whole canton.
After the victory in Kobane, YPG and Kurdish militants were globally recognised and praised. Female fighters were taking the frontline to protect their and other people’s lives from Daesh atrocities. In a controversial way, even Swedish fashion giant H&M designed a jumpsuit mimicking female Kurdish fighters’ uniform.
The United States found the Kurds as an effective partner fighting against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. Therefore, since autumn 2014, the US provided considerable military and political support and deployed military advisers for the training of Kurdish forces. This cooperation between the United States and YPG resulted in the Islamic State’s near-total defeat, even its so-called capital in the Syrian capital of Raqqa, which was liberated in October 2017.
However, Turkey perceives the YPG as identical to the PKK. Thus Ankara believes that if YPG consolidates its power and territory in Syria, it will foster Kurdish separatist movements against Turkey along the Turkish-Syrian border. The Turkish military launched several military excursions into Northern Syria to remove the Kurdish militants from the border. However, recently Ankara promised to attack YPG regardless of whether the United States withdraws or not.
Washington wants to ensure that while American troops disengage from Syria, the Kurdish militants that worked together to defeat Daesh would not be left at the mercy of Ankara. Therefore, American President Trump threatened its NATO ally Turkey with economic devastation if Ankara attacks YPG.
There are currently multifaceted negotiations between the United States, Turkey, Russia, Syria, and YPG to determine the fate of the Kurds in Syria. Most of the proposals focus on establishing a safe zone between the Turkish border and the Syrian Kurds. While the Syrian Kurds call for a United Nations administrated buffer zone, Ankara insists that the safe zone is maintained by Turkey. So far, there has not been any concrete progress at the time of writing of this piece. It would not be surprising for the observers of the conflict if the negotiations take a violent turn again.
It is not the first time for Kurds to be abandoned after being used as a proxy in power politics. Sherman Kent, the CIA’s legendary Assistant Director for Estimates, wrote in a secret report evaluating the Kurds geopolitical position during the Cold War that:
The Kurds will continue to have considerable nuisance value as rebels – or potential rebels – at least for some years to come. As a traditionally war-like and still largely nomadic or semi-nomadic people who occupy relatively remote areas and have a long history of bad blood with the authorities of their host countries, the Kurds could fairly readily be aroused if given arms and funds from outside. Even in the absence of an acknowledged over-all leader, enough tribes might be stirred up to make considerable trouble for a weak host country, especially if it had other security problems to contend with at the same time.
During the Cold War and later on, competing Kurdish factions were supported by Iran and Iraq against each other to weaken their regional rivals, at the risk of repressive reaction for Kurds by their host states. For instance, in 1972 the CIA supported and organised Iraqi Kurds to start an insurgency against Saddam Hussein’s regime, to help the Shah of Iran (then an American ally).
When those two countries reach an agreement in 1975, Washington abandoned the Iraqi Kurds to the hands of the Iraqi army. Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani’s letter to Henry Kissinger on March 10, 1975, brought little help from Washington: “Our movement and people are being destroyed in an unbelievable way, with silence from everyone. We feel, Your Excellency, that the United States has a moral and political responsibility towards our people, who have committed themselves to your country’s policy.”
The United States is withdrawing its overt support from Kurds again, leaving them with frustration and exposure to aggressive retaliation from regional powers. However, this time it seems Kurds may have more diverse options to find external patrons to provide them political shelter. Russia, Iran and France already demonstrated their willingness to stay in the region, and the Syrian Kurds are looking for ways to cooperate with these countries.
There is an old Kurdish saying: “Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” This may once again prove itself correct. Kurdish political groups in the region have evolved as resistance movements for more than a century. Whether the United States rapidly withdraws from the region without leaving Syrian Kurds with protection or not, it is likely that Kurdish politics and resistance will evolve to adapt to new political conditions to ensure its survival.
One should not forget the resistance character of Kurdish politics, otherwise one may fall into the fallacy of universalising the concepts of great power politics through time and space and deem them suitable explanatory concepts for Kurdish politics and society.
Dr. Egemen Bezci is a Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Fellow at the Institute of Political Science, National Sun Yat-Sen University. He is the author of forthcoming book Turkish Intelligence and Cold War: Espionage, Security and International Relations.