Trump's hasty Syria withdrawal spells uncertain times for Kurds

Trump's hasty Syria withdrawal spells uncertain times for Kurds
Comment: A hasty US withdrawal would leave the region in state of greater instability than when Washington arrived, writes Bashdar Ismaeel.
6 min read
20 Dec, 2018
Trump will come under intense internal pressure to not abandon the region [AFP]
US President Donald Trump's sudden decision to announce a full withdrawal of US troops from Syria caught his allies back home and abroad off-guard, even if it is in tune with Washington's incoherent and murky policy in Syria.

In a video message on Wednesday, a triumphant Trump declared victory against the Islamic State group. "We've beaten them, and we've beaten them badly. We've taken back the land. And, now it's time for our troops to come back home," he rejoiced.

It's not the first time that Trump's intention to withdraw has caused a stir with State Department and Pentagon officials. In April, Trump made a vow to return troops "very soon", a message that was quickly revised in a flurry of discussions among state officials and national security advisers.

At the time, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton were all reported to have cautioned Trump on any rapid or immediate withdrawal.

The biggest ramification of Trump's sudden decision will be for the US alliance with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by the Kurdish People's Defense Forces (YPG), who have been vital local partners in the fight against IS.

The Kurds were already wary of the US' long-term intentions in Syria. Their lack of intervention when Turkey launched an operation in Afrin earlier this year was just one reminder that US policy, let alone support, was far from guaranteed.

While the US has tried to placate its traditional regional ally, and protect the Kurds at the same time, this was always an untenable scenario

But the presence of more than 2,000 US troops, dozens of military bases, and lately, the building of observation posts on the Turkish border had given some level of reassurance.

More worryingly for the Kurds, Trump's decision comes just days after his phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had threatened a new operation to drive out YPG forces - which Ankara sees as an extension of the PKK, which has fought a three-decade insurgency - from Manbij, as well as territories east of the Euphrates.

The growing alliance between US and Kurdish forces, and the increasing clout and local influence of the YPG forces has long been a thorn in the side of US-Turkey relations. While the US has tried to placate its traditional regional ally, and protect the Kurds at the same time, this was always an untenable scenario.

Read more: Trump 'orders' full US troop withdrawal from Syria, in blow to Kurdish allies

However, in recent months, there has been little to suggest that the US was about to abandon its Kurdish allies. The ongoing fight against IS, the aforementioned building of observation posts on the border, military patrols designed to ward off Turkish attacks and not least stern warnings from the Pentagon about any new Turkish operation, gave hints of a more long-term US presence and support for the Kurds.

Now, not only does Trump's announcement put any alliance with the Kurds seriously in doubt, it also opens the door firmly for Turkey to attack.

Many, such as Trump ally and Republican senator Lindsey Graham, see a rapid US withdrawal as a betrayal of the SDF and the Kurds. Graham slammed the president's decision as shortsighted and "disastrous to our own national security".

Any US withdrawal from Syria is not just a victory for Turkey, but Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime will also be jubilant at the prospect of heavily diluted US influence in the region, leading to the prospect of eastern Syria becoming a deadly new theatre in the protracted Syrian civil war.

This puts the Kurds in a tough predicament where they have to choose what will be, in their eyes, the lesser of the remaining evils.

While the territory under their control may have greatly expanded, and they may now enjoy considerable military strength, they lack any political recognition or long-term sponsors in the region. As a result, their long-term survival will be impossible without new alliances with Damascus and/or Moscow, naturally, at a heavy price.

In reality, as hasty as Trump's announcement may appear, he will face enormous internal pressure from State officials and political allies to not abandon the region, the Kurds or the fight against IS.

Any US withdrawal from Syria is not just a victory for Turkey, but Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime will also be jubilant

This could result in a small but symbolic residual force and the retention of some military bases to keep a semblance of peace in Eastern Syria and to coordinate a counter-insurgency phase, including airstrikes, against IS.

After all, Trump may send triumphant messages for political goal-scoring about the defeat of IS, but nobody is naive enough to believe that the battle is completly over.

From 9-15 December alone, the US launched more than 200 airstrikes against IS positions. Furthermore, thousands of IS forces reportedly remain and IS has shown a knack for fighting back just when it appears they have been defeated.

In fact, just over a week ago, the US special envoy to the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, confidently stated "I think it's fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring."

This view was supported by Mattis, who was also keen to ensure that IS could not re-emerge.

Meanwhile, the UK rejected Trump's assertions that IS had been defeated. "Much remains to be done and we must not lose sight of the threat they pose," read a statement from the Foreign Office.

Of course, the Americans are not the only western foreign troops stationed in eastern Syria. The French also have a small force on the ground, and it remains to be seen how much coalition partners will heed US directives.

State officials had previously indicated that US policy in Syria was not based on defeating IS alone, but also to counter growing Iranian aspirations in the region and ensure a political settlement in Syria could be overseen.

As recently as September, National Security Adviser John Bolton indicated that US troops would remain in Syria to counter Iran. "We're not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias," Bolton said.

Now, a US withdrawal would not only leave the region in state of greater instability than when it found it, it leaves the future of Syria on a platter for Moscow and Tehran.

The Pentagon, not for the first time scrambling to respond to a surprise Trump statement, indicated in response to the withdrawal announcement that it was transitioning to the "next phase of the campaign", but failed to provide further details.

Meanwhile, the White House stated the US and its allies stood "ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists territory, funding, support and any means of infiltrating our borders".

The crucial word here is 'allies'. The Kurds will be pondering deeply if that term still includes them. And if it does, then Washington is back to square one, with Turkey also coming under that category.

Either way, uncertain days await the Kurds.

Bashdar Ismaeel is a writer and geopolitical, energy and security analyst.

Follow him on Twitter: @BashdarIsmaeel

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.