Middle East and North Africa

U.S. Syria Withdrawal Impact on Kurdish Partners

By Nicholas Norberg
Tuesday, January 8, 2019, 3:12 PM

On Dec. 19, 2018, President Trump unexpectedly announced that U.S. would withdraw its troops from Syria. To date, the U.S. has deployed around 2,000 troops to Syria, many of them Special Forces members and trainers, for the sake of combating the Islamic State. Trump’s decision represents a sea change in the U.S.’s Middle East and counterterrorism policy and holds special significance for Washington’s Syrian-Kurdish partners, who have been essential in the fight against Islamic State. Without the cover of an alliance with Washington, Kurdish fighters and their allies are vulnerable to assault by the Syrian regime and the Turkish Armed Forces.

U.S. forces and their allies remain committed to fighting Islamic State for the moment, but such a vague withdrawal policy is further destabilizing an already-fractious environment. In particular, Turkey looks likely to pursue military action against Syrian Kurdish groups. Though Russia is engaging with Turkey on the Kurdish issue, Ankara may press its grievances with formerly U.S.-backed Kurdish groups regardless of international objections. If the U.S. hopes to preserve some measure of credibility towards its Kurdish partners, securing Turkish cooperation will require an immense and delicate diplomatic effort that accounts for the depth of Turkey’s commitment to anti-Kurdish operations. This post traces the roots of Turkish objections to U.S. support for Kurdish groups in northeastern Syria, and explores the consequences of the U.S. pullout for American partners there.

Preliminary Consequences of the U.S. Withdrawal Announcement

Since Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, confusion has abounded. Locally, both Turkey and the Assad regime are poised to move on the remainder of Kurdish territory in northeastern Syria. Dec. 28 saw the Syrian regime reinforce positions on the outskirts of Manbij, in preparation for retaking control of the area. Simultaneously, Turkish forces and Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) units redeployed to the northern and northwestern sectors of Kurdish territory, promising to delay their invasion only as long as it takes U.S. forces to withdraw. As both forces advanced, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continued battling Islamic State with U.S. assistance. SDF units took the town of Hajin on Dec. 14 and continued to press their gains along the Euphrates and around Deir Ez-Zor on Dec. 28. Yet, the Syrian Defense Ministry claimed Kurdish fighters were withdrawing from Manbij by Jan. 2 as Syrian Army troops moved deeper into the region.

In Washington, President Trump demurred on his promise of a speedy exit from Syria on Dec. 31, extending the timeline for the U.S. departure to about four months—though U.S. officials deny a formal timeline is in place. The president initially saw the withdrawal as a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to hand off the fight against the Islamic State to Turkey, but Trump’s advisors have been reshaping the U.S. withdrawal in the details of its implementation. Notably, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Jan. 3 that the U.S. would ensure Turkey would not “slaughter the Kurds,” and on Jan. 6 national security adviser John Bolton laid out a plan for a withdrawal that would protect Kurdish groups and keep U.S. forces in Syria for months to come. Bolton went even further by placing conditions on the U.S. withdrawal and pledging to ensure Turkey would not attack Washington’s Kurdish allies. These statements may simply amount to posturing in advance of Bolton’s arrival in Ankara Jan. 7 to negotiate the YPG’s status with Turkey, but Trump’s strong reaction against reports of Bolton’s statement reveals a dissonance between the president and his advisors that undercuts the U.S. position.

The ambiguity surrounding the U.S. withdrawal from Syria has not stopped regional powers from interpreting it as a signal of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s victory in the country’s civil war: The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus on Dec. 27, and the Arab League is on the cusp of readmitting Syria, which was suspended from the forum in Nov. 2011 for its brutal crackdown on protesters. Simultaneously, Russia is adroitly maneuvering to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of the United States. In a Dec. 29 meeting with Turkey, Russia promised counterterrorism aid to Turkey in an apparent move to position itself as the leading power on Syria.

For its part, Turkey is busily performing its commitment to the terms Trump articulated to Erdoğan. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar gave a statement Jan. 1 pledging a new phase in Turkish operations against the Islamic State, and Turkey has requested U.S. military support as it carries out anti-Islamic State operations. To further underscore its commitment to expanding its role in Syria, Turkey flatly rejected Bolton’s Jan. 6 conditions for the U.S. withdrawal—Erdogan spurned the meeting, sending his personal spokesman Ibrahim Kalın to demand the U.S. give Turkey a timeline for its departure and request that the U.S. hand over its bases in Syria to Turkish forces or demolish them. Hours later, Erdoğan gave a speech calling Bolton’s demands a “very serious mistake,” asserting that there is no difference between the Islamic State, the PKK, and the YPG, and reiterating his intention for Turkey to fill the void left by the U.S. in northeastern Syria. The Turkish military is also removing officers who have voiced concerns over the planned Manbij operation, signaling Ankara’s intention to press ahead with plans for an invasion.

SDF Origins & U.S. Support

The SDF is a coalition of Kurdish, Arab, Syriac and other local brigades supplied and trained by the U.S. It was founded in October 2015, at the height of the Syrian opposition’s fragmentation, and became an umbrella organization for U.S.-backed groups fighting against Islamic State in northern Syria. The SDF is composed of a diverse array of like-minded groups, but it is not a uniform organization. Individual brigades aligned with the SDF occasionally freelance, and competing factions pursue their own agendas by courting U.S., Russian and Syrian regime support. Despite the complexity of the SDF, the Pentagon worked to train and equip individual brigades in order to extend its capacity to counteract Islamic State expansion in Syria, a critical need in light of the failed CIA program to train and equip Syrian rebels. The SDF initially excluded the well-organized Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) because the Pentagon and U.S. diplomats sought to emphasize coordination with Arab and other non-Kurdish groups against Islamic State to belay suspicions of favoritism towards Kurdish groups. The perception of favoritism was grounded in existing U.S. cooperation with the Kurds, specifically with the YPG.

Beginning in late 2014 with the siege of Kobane, U.S. air support allowed YPG forces to beat back the Islamic State advance. The success of U.S.-backed YPG operations in rolling back the Islamic State in Syria fueled Washington’s enthusiasm for the group, and for the Pentagon’s training program more generally. Accordingly, the Pentagon-backed members of the SDF took on tremendous significance in the battle against Islamic State. Kurdish groups—chiefly the YPG—grew increasingly dominant within the SDF coalition thanks to their longstanding organizational cohesion and existing combat experience in engagements with FSA factions, Islamist groups within the Syrian opposition and Islamic State.

The Pentagon considers the YPG indispensable in the counter-Islamic State fight. However, ties between the group and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist organization fighting an insurgency to secure autonomy for the Kurdish-majority region of southeastern Turkey, have plagued U.S.-Turkey relations. U.S. support for the YPG and the SDF is therefore more controversial than the shared goal of defeating the Islamic State would suggest. The tendency to privilege efforts to degrade Islamic State over other considerations has placed the U.S. in the awkward position of balancing commitments to its Kurdish partners against the objections of its NATO ally, Turkey.

The Kurdish Connection & Turkish Objections

The YPG, along with its all-female counterpart, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), were formed in 2004 as the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a political party formed in 2003 to clandestinely organize Syrian Kurds. At the time, all political parties other than the ruling Ba’ath Party were illegal, and Kurdish groups faced severe repression from Damascus: Kurds did not have Syrian citizenship until Assad granted it under the pressure of the 2011 protests. After declaring autonomy in November 2012, the PYD unilaterally imposed its own administration in Syrian Kurdish zones. The move was not universally welcomed in Syrian Kurdish circles; other Kurdish parties resented the PYD’s power grab, and expressed displeasure with the ambiguous stance the party adopted towards the Assad regime in its reluctance to formally break with the Syrian state. The PYD enacted its declaration of autonomy in northern Syria on the strength of the YPG/J, which forced Assad’s troops from their posts in all but a few government offices.

The receipt of U.S. support at the siege of Kobane in 2014 was a turning point for internal Syrian Kurdish politics as well as in the fight against Islamic State. PYD officials consolidated their authority in northern Syria through 2014 and 2015 by establishing an interim administration that split the region into three cantons (Afrin, Jazira and Kobane). Known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), the autonomous region’s affairs were dominated by PYD-aligned figures as the YPG moved to replace the Assad regime’s security apparatus with a Kurdish one capable of providing basic services and guaranteeing security within Kurdish-dominated zones. Political power was nominally devolved to local councils in each canton, but the role of the YPG as the primary guarantor of security for the DFNS elevated its patron, the PYD, and its political allies.

Turkey grew increasingly hostile towards U.S. support for the YPG because it considers organizational and ideological ties between the YPG, PYD, and PKK so significant as to constitute a single, unified organization. . Some Turkey watchers attribute the vigor of Ankara’s anti-PKK operations to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s need to court the ultra-nationalist constituency in Turkish local elections, an indispensable pillar of his ruling coalition. While Erdoğan is indeed dependent on his nationalist constituency of his coalition, the electoral explanation for his anti-PKK stance should not obscure the real threat Turkey perceives in the PKK. The group has fought an insurgency against Turkey for 34 years; despite promising peace talks in 2012, renewed hostilities in 2015 have claimed over 4,000 lives. The brutal Turkish military response heightened casualty figures, and Erdoğan himself triggered the ceasefire collapse and fueled the conflict with bellicose rhetoric—but the deadliness of the conflict demonstrates the genuine threat PKK fighters pose to Turkish security.

The PYD platform drew inspiration from Abdullah Öcalan, infamous as the founder of the PKK. Although he has remained in prison since his 1999 capture, his vision of Kurdish nationalism remains highly influential—particularly his advocacy of “democratic confederalism” as a viable path for Kurdish constituencies to achieve a degree of autonomy in Turkey as well as in neighboring states with significant Kurdish minorities. Upon declaring autonomy in 2012, PYD-aligned policymakers implemented a social contract that closely mirrored Öcalan’s political theories. PYD officials insist they are not affiliated with the PKK, but acknowledge the influence Öcalan’s political thought exerts on the PYD’s program. Fighters apparently move with relative ease between Kurdish-majority areas in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, and casualty data specifying the nationality of YPG fighters killed in battle shows a substantial number of Turkish nationals, likely Kurds, in the group’s ranks.

Disagreement over the extent of ties between the PYD and the PKK has plagued U.S.-Turkish relations since the Pentagon began to cultivate Kurdish fighters in Syria as allies in the fight against the Islamic State. Ankara and Washington both label the PKK as a terrorist organization, but differ over their views of the extent of ties between the PKK and its Syrian counterparts—though U.S. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats did refer to the YPG as the “Syrian militia of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)” in the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment, a detail that was not lost in the Turkish press. Turkey has taken its fight against the PKK across these borders in the last year, including stepping up cooperation with Iran on anti-PKK operations, carrying out operations in northern Iraq throughout 2018, and targeting Kurdish forces in Syria during its January 2018 invasion of Afrin.

The violence of the PKK conflict within Turkey fuels Ankara’s suspicion of Kurdish enclaves in neighboring countries. Ankara fears that an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria could become a staging ground for PKK fighters planning attacks on Turkish soil. Accordingly, Turkey plays up the rifts between YPG-aligned Kurdish groups and the Syrian opposition to suggest that the YPG and, by extension, the PYD are not legitimate representatives of Syrian Kurds. Likewise, Turkey casts U.S. support for the YPG as direct aid to the PKK with the aim of undercutting American enthusiasm for the group. Claiming that the YPG and PKK are synonymous elevates the perceived threat of the YPG to Turkey. Regardless of the accuracy of Turkish assessments, the claim contextualizes the severity of Ankara’s opposition to the group.

The Coming Storm: Tempering the Turkish Threat

Though the YPG and the PYD played a pivotal role in securing Kurdish autonomy in northeastern Syria, the ties they maintained with Damascus are now proving essential to their survival. In contrast to advocates of formal separation from the Syrian state, the PYD struck a balance between asserting autonomy and maintaining ties with the Syrian regime. Assad has suggested that he is open to some form of Kurdish autonomy, but the withdrawal of U.S. support forces Kurdish factions to cement their ties with the Syrian government and Russia at the expense of their autonomy project. Reports that U.S. commanders may allow the YPG to keep weaponry granted by U.S. forces for use against Islamic State following the U.S. withdrawal are too little, too late. The arms American forces would leave behind are insufficient to decisively shift the balance of power against either Turkey or the Assad regime, and the loss of U.S. air support is a far more significant blow to the YPG’s battlefield capabilities.

The PYD and its allies in the autonomous Kurdish zone recognized that calls for independence were untenable from the earliest days of the Syrian civil war. Damascus was always unlikely to allow Kurdish parties to secede, but the PYD recognized that it could secure important concessions from the regime, such as citizenship rights for Kurds, without joining the wider Syrian opposition. Turkey’s conflict with the PKK ensured that Ankara would invade rather than allow an independent Kurdish enclave founded on the principles of Öcalan to form directly on its border, and that threat further incentivized the PYD and its allies to nominally remain inside the Syrian state. Likewise, the firm commitment to Syrian territorial integrity articulated by U.N. and Russian negotiators undermined hopes for an independent Kurdish polity. Moscow has voiced support for moderate concessions to the Kurdish population, but only insofar as they return the Kurdish zone to formal rule by Damascus.

U.S. military and diplomatic support was always insufficient to overcome these barriers to Syrian Kurdish independence, but it did bolster PYD-led efforts to secure a favorable arrangement with Damascus. American support granted the PYD international legitimacy and incentivized Assad and Russia to negotiate with the PYD-dominated Kurdish political structure rather than retake northeastern Syria by force—as they did in southwestern Syria last summer. Crucially, U.S. backing also staved off Turkish operations against the YPG and bought time for the group’s political patrons in the PYD to deal with Damascus.

The real danger following a U.S. withdrawal lies in the possibility that the Turkish military will continue to strike Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria even if the PYD secures a full relationship with Assad, as Turkey has done in northern Iraq in the face of objections from Baghdad. Turkey struck Kurdish forces in northern Iraq last March, and continued cross-border operations in Iraq through the summer. Those operations drew protests from Baghdad, but Turkey has vowed to continue its anti-Kurdish operations—with or without Iraq’s consent. The Iraqi government agreed to deepen cooperation with Turkey against the PKK on Jan. 3 in an apparent attempt to claw back some oversight of Turkish operations in Iraqi territory. Likewise, Turkish operations in Syria’s Afrin Province, formerly an autonomous Kurdish canton, targeted YPG fighters and PYD affiliates. Assad representatives regard Turkey’s operations in Afrin as an illegal occupation, but the Syrian regime proved unable to halt it. An alliance with the regime does not, therefore, guarantee Kurdish forces a respite from Turkish strikes.

Departing Syria, Carefully

It is a positive sign that the Trump administration is bringing diplomatic resources to bear on Turkey. American pressure could forestall Turkey long enough to allow the PYD and its allies to settle accounts with the Assad regime. Russia takes seriously Turkey’s security concerns, but advocates solving them by returning northeastern Syria to regime control. That would require the YPG to cede control of the area to the Syrian Army, an option the YPG rejected in Afrin. In any case, a Syrian Army presence in the Kurdish zone would not guarantee Turkey’s restraint. Turkey doubts Damascus’s ability to keep the YPG disbanded, in part due to the Syrian government’s historic support for the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey. Multilateral pressure, including U.S. intercession, is required to prevent Turkey from pursuing its grievances against Kurdish fighters in Syria.

An orderly U.S. exit from Syria requires that the U.S. exert what little leverage it has left to hold back Turkey’s offensive. Convincing Turkey to show restraint would avert the destabilizing effects of a full-scale Turkish invasion, which risk bringing Turkey into conflict with the Syrian regime. It would also salvage a modicum of U.S. credibility with its Kurdish partners in the anti-Islamic State fight, which is far from finished.

Placing Turkey at the forefront of the counter-Islamic State fight grants the Turkish armed forces license to continue operating across Syria’s borders. They are likely to abuse that writ by targeting Kurdish fighters under the pretense of fighting the Islamic State. The U.S. should be wary of granting Turkey diplomatic cover to eradicate Kurdish groups in northeastern Syria. Success in negotiations with Ankara requires the U.S. to remain cognizant of Turkey’s strong commitment to striking Kurdish groups in northeastern Syria. Even if Turkey does not proceed with the planned offensive in Syrian Kurdish territory, it retains ample capabilities to combat the YPG short of all-out invasion. A continuing Turkish counterinsurgency campaign in northeastern Syria is a highly undesirable outcome. It would greatly impede the reconstruction process in Syria, and there are serious doubts over Turkey’s ability to accomplish its goals east of the Euphrates. It would also abandon an invaluable U.S. partner in the counter-Islamic State fight, a strategically and morally unconscionable outcome.

If the U.S. hopes to dissuade Turkey from attacking the YPG, it will need to delicately present an array of carrots and sticks calibrated to the tremendous value the Erdoğan government places on degrading the YPG. Dissonance within the Trump administration threatens the implementation of the withdrawal, but underestimating Turkish commitments to anti-Kurdish operations in northeastern Syria is an equally surefire way to bungle the U.S. withdrawal.