President Donald Trump’s tweets on Tuesday attempting to mend fences with the Syrian Kurds arrived too late and did not improve the situation. Speaking through the spokesperson of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurds were clearly shocked by Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops deployed along the border with Turkey and stand by in the face of a possible Turkish military offensive in northern Syria. In a frank press release, Kurdish officials called the move a “stab in the back” and blamed the US for having failed to “carry out its responsibilities” in guaranteeing stability through the security mechanism framed last August together with Ankara and the SDF. That agreement established both a partial retreat 5-15 km south of Syria’s northern border of Kurdish units belonging to People Protection Units (YPG) – considered by Turkey as a mere extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) – and US-Turkish joint tactical patrols along some sections of the border.
As soon as a few dozen American troops began to evacuate the observation posts of Tal Abyad, Ein Eissa and Ras Al-Ain early on Monday, hundreds of Kurdish civilians followed suit, heading south towards the governorates of Raqqa and Hasakah. Conversely, several SDF military reinforcements, including heavy weapons, have been moved from Deir ez-Zour, Raqqa, and Tabqa areas to strategic positions near the border. Against this background, and despite last-minute efforts from US officials – as well as several European and regional chancelleries – to prevent a Turkish attack, a confrontation is inevitable, with Turkish jets and artillery already targeting objectives near the towns of Tal Abyad, Ras Al-Ain and al-Qamishly.
From the Kurdish perspective, the military situation is twice as complicated. Besides the much more powerful Turkish military in the north, a possible threat might come from the Syrian regime in the west, which could exploit the SDF focus on Ankara’s offensive to move east of the Euphrates and seize strategic territories rich in oilfields.
Nevertheless, the Assad regime might also turn into the Kurds’ last resort against Turkey. Since the beginning of the war, indeed, the two sides have been avoiding major confrontations, with the regime even acquiescing to the progressive Kurdish takeover of the country’s eastern territories in order to preserve vital manpower and resources necessary to protect the capital Damascus. Notwithstanding the tensions between the central government and the Syrian Kurds, especially regarding the latter’s political role and status in the “new” Syria, the possibility of a deal in the next few days should not be ruled out. Not by chance, in parallel to the setting up of new fighting positions to face the Turks, SDF officials – including the Commander in Chief Mazlum Abdi – are considering an agreement with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Russia has also urged the two sides to pursue dialogue.
In military terms, an alliance with the regime, albeit temporary, would be a game-changer for the Kurds, for they could receive crucial air support against Ankara and its proxies. However, from a political perspective it could also mean the end of Rojava, as Assad would inevitably retake control of most of Syria’s east. Much will depend on the duration and intensity of the Turkish offensive, which will likely focus on securing the strip of land between the border and the strategic M4 highway, stretching from Al-Bab in the north-west to the eastern town of Yaroubia, close to the Syrian-Iraqi border.
For Washington, however, the stakes are high as well. While it is premature to consider a US withdrawal tout court, Trump’s decision to step aside means abandoning the Kurds to their fate once again. Make no mistake, the Kurds – both Syrian and Iraqi – have not only represented the most reliable ally in the fight against the Islamic State, but they are also among the few partners of the West in the middle eastern tinderbox who have succeeded, to a considerable extent, in establishing a functioning and stable society based on democratic principles and tolerance among the different national communities. By refusing to protect the Kurds in Syria, the US is not only losing their trust, but also its own reputation, especially within the composite Kurdish population. While pure national interests certainly matter in international affairs, values do too, and Washington’s policy in the Middle East desperately needs them in this moment of decaying multilateralism and rising competition between regional powers. Equally important, US strategic interests in the area could also be undermined, as Kurds might look for new partners and allies to support their aspirations. Among them Russia, which is eager to increase its influence at the expense of Washington.
To be sure, Turkey’s security concerns are legitimate and should be acknowledged by US and Western decision-makers, but leaving the Kurds – and one-third of Syria – to the highest bidder could reveal far more costly than refusing to appease any request coming from Ankara.