In early August, the United States and Turkey announced they had agreed to jointly patrol a strip on the Syrian side of the Syrian–Turkish border, after repeated Turkish threats to invade the area where American, British, and French troops operate. Turkey had consistently said that Kurdish-led forces in the area, the YPG (People’s Defense Units), were terrorists, given their historical relationship with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a guerrilla group that has fought against the Turkish government since the late 1970s. The YPG, however, were not focused on targeting the Turkish government. They are the backbone of the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), the primary partner of the United States and its allies in defeating ISIS after a long, bloody battle that stretched into a vast swathe of northeastern Syria. Two months later, the U.S. has acquiesced to a Turkish invasion of its closest partner in the fight against ISIS, causing a political and humanitarian disaster.
Without U.S. help, the YPG and the SDF would not have expanded as they did, and Turkey probably would not have been perceived them as such a threat. It was because the U.S. asked them to take over the Arab-majority areas of Manbij, Raqqa, and Deir al-Zour that they allied with Arabs, Christians, and others to take back the territory that formed ISIS’s caliphate. ISIS was formally defeated on March 23, 2019, and the fight against it moved into a second phase, of rooting out the many sleeper cells that remained under the surface. Thousands of Syrian, Iraqi, and foreign fighters and their families, many of them committed to ISIS’s ideology, were put in prisons and camps, which became overstretched and under-resourced. Many nations refused to take back their fighters, leaving them in the hands of the SDF, who struggled to deal with the burden. The work to eradicate ISIS for good was being done through the continued partnership of the U.S. and the SDF.
Looking through the lens of America’s strategic interests, the decision to withdraw undermines the efforts to eliminate ISIS. This is so in both the short and the long terms. In the short term, U.S. special-operations forces will not be tracking down and capturing ISIS sleeper cells, as they had been doing since the caliphate was formally defeated. The camps and prisons holding ISIS fighters and sympathizers will be at grave risk of a prison break, which has already begun to occur. It is hard to know exactly what will happen to those in the SDF’s custody.
In the long term, the U.S. withdrawal will undermine a political project that was making progress in addressing deadly cycles of violence in the Middle East. In the long (now set to be longer) Syrian civil war, no actor in the region had done better than the SDF and their civilian counterparts had done at getting buy-in from the communities that eventually came under their charge. Since ISIS’s defeat, many journalists who came to northeastern Syria were looking for cracks and fissures in the governance of the area. To be sure, they found plenty. It is inevitable in a society built on the distrust of others’ intentions after eight years of civil war and decades of dictatorship. But finding discontent is not the same as identifying its causes and effects. If the wise use of American military force is when it is the one element needed to create success, this was the perfect example. Here we were not trying, as we tried in Iraq, to remake a Middle Eastern society into something it wasn’t. We were supporting, effectively, local partners who were addressing the most basic problems of their own society.
A poignant example can be found in the province of Deir al-Zour, which is divided by the Euphrates River. The areas northeast of the river are under the control of the SDF. Areas southwest of the river are controlled by the Syrian government, with Russian and Iranian forces present. Because Western journalists were able to access the SDF-controlled areas, we were well aware of local discontent northeast of the Euphrates. Less was known about the other side of the river. News coverage had been focused either on the increasing Iranian presence in the area or on the continuing ISIS attacks against the Syrian government there. About a month ago, however, protests broke out in areas under government control. The protesters called for, among other things, having the SDF and the U.S.-led international coalition to take over the area. To have Sunni tribes in the deserts of eastern Syria calling for the United States to intervene on their behalf shows how much the region has changed since 2003. It also shows that, although the discontent in areas under SDF control was considerable, those on the other side of the dividing line, under control of the Syrian government, believed their situation to be worse.
Analysts and commentators looking at the Middle East often point out an obvious conundrum in the region: Poor governance and untenable social conditions lead to grievances against the regimes in power; uprisings upend the structures in place and reshuffle the deck without addressing the underlying concerns; the chaos exacerbates sectarian and ethnic tensions, leading to further conflict. To the extent that analysts talk about these problems, however, they rarely propose practical solutions that could be implemented on the ground. The tone tends to be: Well, the governments just need to do x, y, and z, because that’s what they do in developed countries. Then people will be happy!
The SDF, on the other hand, and its civilian governing body, the Autonomous Administration, have made significant progress in addressing the fundamental issues of governance that plague other parts of the region. To its critics, the SDF is merely a disguise for a Kurdish nationalist project, but that view fails to reflect changes in Syria’s Kurdish community since the war began. To be sure, many Kurds have dreamt of an independent state, and will continue to. But in Syria that was never a realistic possibility, given the demographics of the “Kurdish” regions of Syria. More so than in neighboring Iraq, Syria’s northeast is a patchwork of overlapping religious and ethnic groups. In significant parts of the region, Kurds are not the majority. So the idea of forming a Kurdish state there is not realistic and would be met with popular disapproval. The SDF and YPG know this. In areas under their control, they have made it clear that Kurdish separatism was not their aim and that the Arab, Christian, Turkmen, Circassian, and other non-Kurdish communities there were equal partners in a political project that could reshape the area. And so there evolved an effort to realize the cultural and political ambitions of Syria’s Kurdish community while establishing a pact with other communities to ensure their rights and interests as well. It was a truer reflection of the society than the Arab nationalism that has prevailed in Syria more or less since its founding as a modern country, and especially since the Arab-nationalist Baath party rose to power in 1963.
Rather than trade Arab nationalism for Kurdish nationalism, however, the Kurdish powers-that-be in northeast Syria set out to guarantee their community’s rights and integrity by guaranteeing those of their neighbor as well. Of course, the idea of an independent Kurdish state remained strong in the Syrian Kurdish popular imagination, but it was not a goal that the SDF seriously pursued. Rather, the Autonomous Administration, together with the SDF, set out to create a pluralistic society that involved all communities in the governance of the area. To a large degree it was working. Again, protests in the largely Arab province of Deir al-Zour, calling for governance by the SDF, is demonstrative. The shift in Arab public opinion in favor of the SDF was striking. A few months after returning to Raqqa, and just as the Turkish invasion began, Marwan Hisham, an Arab activist and journalist from Raqqa, wrote for Amnesty International:
I’ve never experienced a freer Raqqa than in the last two months: seeing people go about their lives, expressing their allegiances comfortably. The religious, the anti-Assad, the pro-Assad and even the anti-SDF. . . . As an Arab, I say: when I looked at the Syrian map before today, I saw no hope of an inclusive future except in this part of the country. Now that hope is gone.
Is it? There’s a cliché often repeated by those writing about the Kurds: They have no friends but the mountains. But it’s not entirely true; they have many friends in Washington as well. In Congress, in other corridors of power, and in public opinion, the reaction against the Turkish invasion and against the U.S. betrayal of the Kurds has been swift and passionate. The problem that the Kurds face now is that President Trump seems unwilling to change course and restore the highly effective U.S. alliance with them. The U.S., having worked hard to assure Turkish leaders about their border security, thought it had come to an agreement that could work for Turkey, the SDF, and the U.S. In what must seem like a parody (or a conspiracy) to those now under Turkish attack, the U.S. spent the past two months tearing down the SDF’s defenses along the Turkish border, saying that the move would appease the Turks and reduce the likelihood that they would invade. Instead, it facilitated the invasion, as the U.S. stepped aside from the newly unprotected border to watch its NATO ally, Turkey, whose porous border policy contributed significantly to ISIS’s rise in Syria, attack a group that had lost 11,000 lives fighting ISIS.
Instead of standing aside for Turkey to invade, the U.S. could have told the Kurds that American troops would leave in a year, so make the best deal you can with the Syrian government — if it breaks the deal, we’ll support you. The U.S. could have simply stayed the course and told Turkey to live with it. Instead, the U.S. stood in the way of any reconciliation between the SDF and the government, as a condition of continued American partnership with the former. The U.S. made the worst possible “deal” it could have, folding in the face of pressure from a country whose military depends on our technology and that would have been crazy to launch an invasion against strong U.S. resolve to prevent it. In general, American disengagement from the Middle East would be a good thing, but if this is the model for how to achieve it, its proponents who would try to persuade anyone of its wisdom have their work cut out for them.
I was in northeastern Syria about a month ago, listening to and participating in a spirited debate, in a mixed group of Kurds and Arabs, about America’s intentions in Syria. On the question of the America’s commitment to stay in the area, views ranged from optimistic to pessimistic. The most pessimistic voice, a Kurd, was adamant that the only way forward was a deal with the Syrian government, because America would inevitably leave someday. Someone else chimed in that America wouldn’t abandon the Kurds, and the pessimist replied that of course the U.S. wouldn’t leave the area on a whim but that it needed to usher them toward a deal with the Syrian government. I know he takes no satisfaction that he was even more right than his caveat would allow: America did indeed abandon the Kurds — and all people of goodwill in northern Syria — on a whim, jeopardizing years of progress in defeating ISIS in both the short and the long terms.