At some point this year, the last American soldiers will return home from Syria per President Donald Trump’s snap decision to end the U.S. mission there against the Islamic State. Their partners in arms ― a Kurdish-led coalition of tens of thousands of Syrians who used support from American airstrikes, intelligence and training to decimate ISIS ― will still be there.
Those U.S. allies will inevitably be weaker in the face of a bevy of unfriendly neighbors, from NATO member Turkey to ISIS holdouts to Syria’s Assad regime, supported by Iran and Russia and increasingly vindicated in its belief that it can viciously re-establish control over the whole country. That’s a fact critics of Trump’s decision, particularly top Democrats and hawkish Republicans, have highlighted repeatedly.
But the stateside narrative that the Kurds and their partners will wilt in the face of those threats reveals more about Americans’ tendency to navel-gaze than about the coalition’s fate ― and even as they publicly urge Trump to reconsider, anti-ISIS forces are preparing for survival.
Their approach underscores a truth often left out of U.S. foreign policy debates: It’s not just about where the tanks are.
The Kurd-dominated statelet that calls itself the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria is pragmatically negotiating with nearly all the powers in the region. To reduce the risk of what it sees as its biggest threat, a Turkish attack, its leaders are becoming more independent of the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey, Kurdish sources and experts say.
The federation is also building unity between its Kurdish base and the groups that fought with it against ISIS ― namely Arabs and Christians whose territories are now covered by the political project that evolved in the Kurdish-majority region after President Bashar Assad ended his reign of repression there in 2012. And it’s mobilizing thousands of sympathizers abroad to spread awareness of the risks it faces and make the public relations cost of any assault incredibly high.
None of that is to say the Kurds wouldn’t like continued American support or that there’s no basis for them to worry. It’s to show there’s more to the story of U.S. partners in Syria than the now-familiar trope of Trump abandoning a commitment overseas, and that there’s more for concerned Americans to consider than whether U.S. troops were the only thing keeping the Islamic State at bay.
“The Americans didn’t give any message, only ending ISIS,” said Sinam Mohamed, a spokeswoman for the governing body of the northern Syrian region. Her leaders are focused on diplomacy, she added ― with the benefit of stockpiled American weaponry, years of battlefield experience guided by U.S. expertise, and much greater control over Syria’s land and resources than they would have had without American-led foreign assistance since 2014.
“The more we discuss and empower the dialogue, the more we can reach good results for all the Syrian people,” Mohamed said.
A Nasty Neighborhood
The post-World War I border between Turkey and Syria divided millions of Kurds who saw themselves as one united people but ended up as minorities under two nationalist governments that sought to suppress any expression of difference. Since the 1970s, many Kurds in both countries have come to share an ideology: the Marxist-inspired thinking of a Turkish Kurd called Abdullah Ocalan, who tied the Kurds’ struggle to broader fights against capital, misogyny and ecological threats.
Ocalan is today in a Turkish jail, but it’s anxiety over his influence that makes a devastating clash between Turkey and the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish project possible. The Kurdish militant group he founded to battle the Turkish state, the PKK, has close links with the most powerful Kurdish militia in Syria, the YPG. For Turkey, a strong YPG means a stronger PKK.
“Today, the Kurds and their Arab and Christian partners are more jaded about major powers ― and more clear that their destinies are separate from those of the U.S. troops their friends abroad are focused on.”
“There’s a lot of PKK guys who have come over to Syria and fought with the YPG, and they’ve acquired U.S. arms and training, and I don’t blame Turkey for not being happy about that,” said Alan Makovsky, a former State Department official now at the Center for American Progress.
The rift isn’t intractable. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spent years negotiating with the PKK, leans on conservative Kurdish voters to sustain his power and works closely with Iraqi Kurdistan, which Turkey once also viewed as a threat as it became more powerful. And the YPG has repeatedly said it seeks co-existence; analysts like Makovsky note that despite Turkey’s complaints about what the Syrian Kurdish militia might do, its track record so far shows little interest in a cross-border fight.
But as an insurance policy, the Syrian Kurds have maintained a working relationship with Assad, whose family has in the past alternately cooperated with and double-crossed the PKK depending on its feelings about Turkey at the time. By keeping some regime forces in their region, they signaled to Erdogan and to anti-Assad Arab forces who worked with him that any incursion meant taking on Damascus, Russia and Iran.
For now, it’s unclear whether those links will translate to security guarantees once the U.S. leaves. Moscow has not yet approved a suggestion from the Kurds to officially reintegrate the areas under their control into Assad’s Syria and therefore under his protection. What they have in mind is a greater degree of independence than his regime permitted previously, but they’re finding it difficult to convince him they’re not simply seeking to ultimately break away, Mohamed told HuffPost.
Meanwhile, fear and historic mistrust make it possible to imagine a dramatic upending of the delicate negotiations. When an ISIS suicide bombing killed nearly 20 people, including four Americans, just last week, one top Syrian Kurdish official posted on Twitter calling Erdogan the leader of the extremist group ― the kind of message that thrills supporters but makes peace harder.
Keeping things from going off the rails over episodes like that has so far been one critical ― and nonmilitary ― benefit of an American presence.
Working with the U.S. from 2014 made the Kurds both more powerful and more vulnerable. Turkey became increasingly paranoid as the Kurds’ influence grew, and negotiations between Erdogan and the PKK broke down in 2015, leading to a massive Turkish military operation against the Kurds’ heartland in the country. All the while, Erdogan became more wary of the U.S., angry that it was supporting a rival and intervening in Syria not to fight Assad but to focus on ISIS.
Washington tried to manage those tensions by publicly claiming its cooperation with the Syrian Kurds in eastern Syria had nothing to do with Kurdish militants elsewhere ― a line that failed to convince Erdogan ― and privately counseling pragmatism. A former senior administration official under President Barack Obama, who initiated the policy, told HuffPost the U.S. tried to be realistic about how far it could help and what its priorities were.
“We were relatively candid. I don’t think we told them we were going to abandon them but they could understand that this was not going to be an open-ended relationship,” said the former official, who asked not to be identified in order to describe confidential conversations. “I think they understand the more they work with the U.S. military, the more the U.S. will take their interests into account.”
Key to that realistic approach was signaling that the U.S. found it acceptable for the Kurds to maintain their channels of communication to Assad and Russia, even as American officials were publicly condemning those forces, because it was clear that they would be crucial to the Kurds’ fate. Obama aides also told their Kurdish partners to use whatever influence they had over the PKK to convince it to reduce fighting with Erdogan’s government, the former official said.
And they encouraged the Kurds to focus on eventual political change in Syria that could grant greater rights to all communities, not just theirs. Still, the question of U.S. political support for the Kurds remained contentious, as Kurdish leaders publicly criticized Obama for not pushing to include them in international negotiations over the country’s future because of Turkey’s concerns. Russia took advantage of the split, building deeper ties with the Kurds. But the former official said the U.S. made a strong case for the Kurds to wait until the talks got more serious, and Kurdish sources argue the appeal to Moscow was mostly to get America’s attention.
On the ground, the relationship with the U.S. had an even more important effect. The Kurds’ top goal after the key battle against ISIS that marked the beginning of U.S.-Kurdish cooperation was to connect Kurd-controlled enclaves along Syria’s northern border, said Amy Austin Holmes, a fellow at the Wilson Center think tank who visited the region at the time. Turning south to target Islamic State-run areas was their way of showing Washington they took the alliance seriously ― and today, their influence there is central to their ability to say they represent a broad array of Syrians and should have a bigger say in what the country looks like.
Learning From A Painful Past
Preparations for the Trump-ordered U.S. withdrawal are taking place almost exactly one year after the most important recent bellwether moment for the Kurds’ strategy: Turkey’s takeover, with the tacit blessing of Russia and the U.S., of the Kurdish region of Afrin. The move prompted thousands to flee and remains deeply controversial, with rights groups saying Kurds there frequently face abuse.
“It was very disappointing to our people,” Mohamed, the Kurdish official, said.
Holmes called it a “turning point.”
“There is a real fear that they will do the same thing that they did in Afrin,” she continued.
Today, the Kurds and their Arab and Christian partners are more jaded about major powers ― and more clear that their destinies are separate from those of the U.S. troops their friends abroad are focused on, or from Washington’s maneuvers like ongoing diplomacy with Turkey.
Some do still think their best bet is a demonstration of U.S. commitment, notably the idea of setting up a no-fly zone over the area their coalition has managed to clear from ISIS, Holmes said.
That’s a tough sell politically to Americans outside Washington, however, and it could get very dangerous very fast, said Makovsky, who while at the State Department was involved in managing a similar operation for the Iraqi Kurdish region in the 1990s.
Experts say the alternative is to focus on local deals, with the Americans or Assad using their influence to enforce a buffer between Turkey and the Kurd-heavy areas, and Kurdish leaders ensuring their own house ― now including many non-Kurds ― is united.
“They are … trying to make a great effort to have Syrian-to-Syrian dialogues,” Mohamed said.
It’s an approach that challenges U.S. military-focused assumptions and may not produce results entirely ideal for American interests.
But the Kurds were making their own way well before they were pally with the Pentagon, and they’ve surprised the world ― most dramatically ISIS ― before.
Don’t count them out yet.