It is not only many members of the US establishment who have labeled President Trump’s order to withdraw America’s forces (2,200 troops) from Syria as a betrayal, but also the allies of the United States. They claim that Trump is throwing the Syrian Kurds under the bus and leaving Israel in a state of “strategic isolation.” Also coming in for criticism is the statement by the US administration (the first of its kind) announcing that it has no plans to remove Bashar al-Assad from power.
It may turn out to be Syria’s Kurds (who number about two million) who will face the most dramatic consequences of the president’s decision, for it was they who created the de facto autonomous state of Rojava in northeastern Syria with the Americans’ support. Now Rojava’s very existence is under threat.
Ankara has already stated that it has not given up on its plan for “an offensive against the terrorists” in eastern Syria, but has merely put it on hold for a while (i.e., until the Americans have left). Officially, this has been prompted by the fact that Turkey intends to take over for the US and finish off the remnants of the “Islamic State” (IS) — something over which Trump and Erdoğan have supposedly already reached an explicit agreement. The leader in the White House has already tweeted that this is so. Turkey’s foreign affairs minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, issued the same confirmation on Dec. 21. If left to its own devices, the Syrian government army could handle a few stray IS units even without the Turks, but Ankara isn’t particularly interested in IS. Turkey needs to wipe Rojava off the map.
According to Çavuşoğlu, the vacuum that will be left after the US troops pull out “can be filled by terrorist organizations,” so Turkey is ready to exert control over those territories (which, as a reminder, are Syrian).
Faced with the dilemma over whether to favor as an ally the mythical state of Rojava or Turkey, the leader in the White House did not hesitate to choose the latter. Although the American troops are slated to leave Syria within 60 to 100 days, the State Department advisors who are helping to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure in northeastern Syria are being pulled out within a matter of days. Brett McGurk, the chief advisor and special presidential envoy in Syria — a man whom the Kurds practically viewed as the architect of their statehood — is openly irate. McGurk, who saw himself as a new version of Lawrence of Arabia, accused the White House of “abandoning the US allies in the region.” However, he himself bears much of the responsibility for the chaos there. It was none other than McGurk who was the primary author of the new Iraqi constitution that plunged that country into the abyss of civil war. And he also wooed the Syrian Kurds on behalf of the US, by dangling promises of their own statehood, which never materialized.
The command of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces has already issued a statement condemning the US decision and proclaiming its determination to continue the fight. Kurdish leaders are less concerned with the Americans’ departure than with the deal the Americans reached with the Turks behind the Kurds’ backs. Their statement calls out Turkey’s intentions to take aggressive action against Rojava, in addition to Ankara’s “dirty plans and games.” The Kurds feel that by simultaneously announcing both the withdrawal of their troops as well as the sale of the Patriot missile-defense system to Turkey, the US has green-lighted the plans for a “Turkish occupation” of their territory. However, for some reason they are requesting protection from the UN, although Rojava is legally within the borders of the Syrian state and thus that kind of conversation needs to be held with Damascus.
What awaits Rojava? The only thing that can save it would be the recognition of the sovereignty of Damascus within its borders. If Syrian government troops enter Rojava, the Turks will not risk seriously damaging their relationship with Russia in order to launch an offensive. Nor do they even need northeastern Syria, as they only need assurances that there will be no further moves to create a Kurdish quasi-state and thus no threats to Turkey’s stability. Damascus and Moscow are ready to provide this. Russian representatives have always expressed their readiness to work with Damascus in order to safeguard the national rights of the Syrian Kurds in a mutually acceptable way. If the Kurds had been willing to move in this direction earlier, their negotiations with the Syrian government could have been conducted in a more favorable atmosphere. But better late than never. If the leaders in Rojava don’t find a way to reach a compromise with Damascus, the Syrian Kurds could be looking at a real calamity.