America’s hasty and badly organized withdrawal from Afghanistan in August raised fears among other Washington allies about the sustainability of the American friendship. Kurdish troops in northeastern Syria, facing multilateral opposition from Islamic State fighters as well as the Assad regime and the prospect of a Turkish incursion, have felt particularly vulnerable.
So recent meetings between senior US officials and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which resulted in US President Joe Biden’s pledge that the US would not spare him, have gone a long way in allaying those fears.
About 35 million ethnic Kurds live in Kurdistan, a region that includes parts of northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey and western Iran. At times, groups in different parts of the region have pressed for an independent state, but the overall majority – at present, at least – are relatively content to occupy autonomous regions. In Syria it is the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) otherwise known as Rozwa.
US involvement in Syria and military support for Kurdish-led forces has paid significant dividends for both sides. Backed by nearly 2,000 US troops on the ground and an air campaign, the SDF has proven to be the most effective buffer against Islamic State in Syria and played a decisive role in ending its territorial control in March 2019.
But there is always the fear that America will retreat, leaving them at the mercy of their enemies. This fear flared up in October 2019 when former President Donald Trump ordered US troops to withdraw from the region, effectively giving the go-ahead to Turkey’s offensive and occupying a large area of the AANES region. In this event, Russia made an agreement between Turkey and the SDF. Turkey found a safe area along the border and the SDF agreed to withdraw 20 miles south of the border. Meanwhile, the US maintained sufficient military force to continue supporting Kurdish efforts to stabilize the region. But the prospect of a sudden US withdrawal has been shaping Kurdish actions since then.
The election of Joe Biden in November 2020 raised hopes that the US would take a stable approach in its dealings with the Kurds in Syria. And it seems that America is willing to do so, at least on appearances.
Meetings between US State Department officials and SDF leadership ended in August and September 2021 America is pushing Its “commitment to the campaign against ISIS and stability in the region” and assuring the SDF that “there will be no change in Syria” following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
What’s in this for America?
US military aid and a security umbrella may have been a key factor behind the Kurds’ success, but protecting Kurdish gains is not the reason behind the Biden administration’s decision. There are many other factors at play. First, the threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria continues despite the group’s loss of territorial control. Iraq’s short- and medium-term security and stability remains a key US priority, and a sudden withdrawal from Syria will aid in the resurgence of IS in Iraq.
There is also a need for a US military presence in Syria to curb Iran’s influence in both Iraq and Syria and to address the security concerns many US allies in the region – particularly Israel – feel as a consequence.
The continuation of US military aid and financial aid is critical to the stability of the region and could serve as a springboard for accommodating Kurdish rights and the inclusion of AANES in Syria if political pluralism and a decentralized governance model are accepted. Is.
AANES’s prospects are closely tied to its inclusion in a UN-led peace process to end the civil war in Syria. So far, its efforts haven’t managed a seat at the table. A more concrete commitment from the US in the form of political support for the inclusion of AANES representatives in UN peace talks could turn the situation in its favor.
Turkey’s plan failed
But AANES has more pressing concerns. Turkey continues to threaten the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas that it has been fighting in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan since 1984. Turkey invaded Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria in 2018 and 2019, and large-scale attacks by Turkish and Turkish-backed Syrian groups in rural areas of the smaller AANES region continue daily, as in areas controlled by Turkish-backed Syrian groups. Human rights violations committed against Kurdish citizens. On August 19, Turkish drone strikes killed three SDF commanders and two fighters.
Eliminating the SDF’s influence in Syria remains a key objective for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoan. But the US presence, and its commitment to the stability of the region, will act as a deterrent against a new large-scale Turkish military campaign. Previous Turkish attacks in the AANES region were carried out with the tacit support and encouragement of Russia, something that is now less likely to be taken for granted, with the US explicitly stating its support for the SDF. And US troops on the ground in eastern Syria will also prevent the Assad regime from destabilizing AANES to take back full control of its territory.
US military support means Turkey’s efforts to label the SDF as “terrorists” are less likely to succeed. Erdogan has used Turkey’s military operations against the Kurds in Syria to underscore his strong nationalist base – and he has repeatedly used Western support for the Kurds as an example of the West’s retaliation for Turkey.
With Turkey’s military campaign unlikely, Erdoan’s ability to please the Nationalists with an easy victory against the Kurds is likely to diminish. Erdoan has a strong hold on power in Turkey, but there are reports that Turkish opposition parties are working with Kurdish groups. If a united opposition can defeat Erdoan’s Justice and Development Party at the next election in 2023, it will be another step towards a peaceful future for the Kurds.