U.S. withdrawal from Syria may leave Kurdish allies in a lurch
An abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Syria will have major spillover effects on a number of players in the conflict, including Iran, but the biggest short-term impact is likely to be felt by Syria’s Kurdish minority, who have provided critical help in the fight against the Islamic State but rely on American protection for their survival in the war zone.
President Trump’s announcement Wednesday on the pullout came just days after Turkey said it was poised to carry out a major offensive against Kurdish groups inside Syria that Ankara deems as terrorists, even though the U.S. relied on the groups for years to battle the Islamic State.
Middle East watchers from across the political spectrum warned the consequences will be grave for Kurds who believed their front-line efforts in the bloody ground war against the jihadists meant Washington would have their backs in the Syrian civil war endgame.
“At the local level, withdrawal means the U.S. has sold out on the Kurds, with a Turkish escalation in northern Syria,” said Mona Alami, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
The Trump administration has responded cautiously over the past week to warnings from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of an looming military offensive against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Mr. Erdogan claims the two groups have deep links to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) inside Turkey, which both Washington and Ankara have long designated as a terrorist organization fighting the government of Turkey, a NATO ally. U.S. officials say Mr. Trump sought to deter Mr. Erdogan’s plans for an offensive during a December 14 phone call. However, the administration’s special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, suggested after the call that Washington’s backing for Kurds in Syria has been transactional in recent years and that the groups should now be prepared to “become part of the fabric of a changed Syrian society.”
Speaking at the Atlantic Council in Washington this week, Mr. Jeffery said American alignment with both the YPG and SDF and YPG had been for “a specific goal: which is the defeat of [the Islamic State].”
Several analysts said the Syrian Kurds, who had held out hope for some for an autonomous or independent state in a post-war Syria, now are at the mercy of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which may seek to punish the Kurds for working with Washington in recent years.
“This is a big win for Assad, who will be able to reclaim some 25 percent of [Syrian] territory remaining in the hands of the SDF,” said Ms. Alami in remarks circulated to journalists on Wednesday.
Others, including some key Republicans on Capitol Hill, went further.
“An American withdrawal will put the Kurds and all those who came to America’s aid in destroying [Islamic State] at tremendous risk,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican said in a statement. ” ... It will make it more difficult to recruit future partners willing to confront radical Islam,” he said.
Council on Foreign Relations head Richard Haass expressed hope that the U.S. withdrawal would not be “unconditional.”
“It would be strategically and morally wrong to leave Syrian Kurds to their fate vs. Turkey,” he said.
Mr. Trump’s announcement Wednesday also raised the ire of conservative hard-liners on Iran, several of whom cited National Security Adviser John R. Bolton’s recent promise that U.S. troops would remain inside Syria as long as Iran and Iranian proxy forces remained active there. Both Iran and Russia have provided critical military support to the Assad government in turning the tide in the seven-year civil war.
“We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” Mr. Bolton said in September.
While Defense Secretary James Mattis said at the time that U.S. forces were actually in Syria “for one purpose defeating [the Islamic State],” Mr. Bolton’s comments were seen as a signal that the administration was committed to halting escalating Iranian proxy activity in Syria activity that has set Israeli nerves on edge in recent years.
Mark Dubowitz, a top Mideast analyst at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, said a U.S. withdrawal from Syria would be a “gift” to Iran and Russia.
“The departure,” Mr. Dubowitz said in remarks circulated to reporters, “would be an open path for Iran to continue its hegemonic activities in the Middle East.”