Once a US ally against ISIS, big power politics now poised to betray them

When US forces first noticed the People’s Protection Units in the fall of 2014 and spring of 2015 they were barely hanging on. They had been placed under siege in Kobani in northern Syria.

SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC Forces celebrate the first anniversary of Raqqa province’s liberation from ISIS, in Raqqa, Syria, in October 2018. (photo credit: ABOUD HAMAM / REUTERS)
SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC Forces celebrate the first anniversary of Raqqa province’s liberation from ISIS, in Raqqa, Syria, in October 2018.
(photo credit: ABOUD HAMAM / REUTERS)
When US forces first noticed the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the fall of 2014 and spring of 2015 they were barely hanging on. They had been placed under siege in Kobani in northern Syria. US airstrikes helped break the siege and soon the YPG were re-capturing territory from ISIS. For all the other groups in Syria that had talked about fighting ISIS and even received US support to “fight ISIS,” this one was actually taking back territory. Today the US is facing a literal “road to Damascus” moment in Syria as it seeks to find a way to walk away. This will be seen as a betrayal despite the sacrifices made, Washington’s task now is to make it seem like isn’t a betrayal.
Evidence for the policy by which the US is painting itself into a corner in eastern Syria can be seen in the US lacking willpower to stand up to Turkey’s threats to invade eastern Syria and displace US partners, and the fact the US won’t include its partners in political discussions about the future of Syria. To understand how we got here requires a bit of complex history.
In the spring of 2015 the US began to shift decisively to an ISIS-first strategy in Syria. It had begun fighting ISIS in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government. ISIS was stretched across Syria and Iraq and the US decided that its operations would involve Syria as well. Initially the US got involved in the Syrian civil war by supporting the Syrian rebels against the government of Bashar al-Assad. But the US government had a problem. The CIA was arming the rebels and trying to help them via Turkey and Jordan.  The State Department was talking about a post-Assad Syria in Geneva. The Pentagon was searching of a broader mission. Once tasked with crushing ISIS the generals at CENTCOM, with support from the US anti-ISIS envoy, began to support the Kurdish forces in eastern Syria.
Support came in drips at precisely the same time as the US was ending some support for the Syrian rebels. There is evidence that the Obama administration began to go soft on Assad at least in part due to efforts to secure the Iran deal. It’s not entirely clear who knew what within the administration, but it is clear what happened. The Syrian rebels failed and they began to lose territory as the Russians entered Syria increasingly after 2015.
As the Russians entered in September 2015 to support the Syrian regime, the YPG had been rebranded the Syrian Democratic Forces in October 2015. Soon they were rolling back ISIS along the Turkish border. The YPG had already taken Tel Abyad from ISIS in 2015, Hasakah was fully liberated in 2015, and in March 2016 Shaddadi was retaken. Then the SDF crossed its own rubicon, the Euphrates river, and liberated Manbij from ISIS.
The advance of the SDF was monitored closely by Turkey which viewed the YPG as part of the Kurdistan Workers Party. Like the crucible of 2015 that saw the US shift strategy from opposing the Syrian regime to defeating ISIS and saw the Russians jump in to Syria in a major way, Turkey had fought a difficult conflict with the PKK in 2015. It also held two elections in 2015, largely to stymie the HDP party which is left-leaning and more sympathetic to Kurds in Turkey. In the wake of an attempted coup in the summer of 2016 in Turkey a crackdown was unleashed and Turkey’s leaders decided the time was ripe to go into eastern Syria to stop the Kurdish advance. They chose Jarabulus and called the operation Euphrates Shield. Tensions were flaring with the US. The US assured Turkey it wasn’t working with the PKK and sought to shield itself from these accusations by talking about the SDF. But this didn’t matter to Ankara, which increasing referred to the PKK and YPG and the YPG’s political wing, the PYD, as the same thing: “Terrorists.” Ankara was serious, so serious it began working with Russia and Iran in Astana to try to sort out the Syrian war. America was excluded. The State department was displeased. It wanted its Turkish friend back.
Now in the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017 with a new US administration, Turkey tried again. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had high hopes for Donald Trump, the transactional president. He would see eye to eye with Ankara. But he didn’t. So Turkey sought out the Russians and agreed to buy the S-400 air defense system.
The US meanwhile had one laser-focus in Syria: Defeat ISIS. Turkey had proposed a joint operation with the US to take Raqqa in February 2017. But there was a caveat, the YPG and SDF would be kept out of the offensive. This didn’t seem workable. In June 2017, as Mosul in Iraq was liberated from ISIS, the SDF launched the offensive to crush ISIS in Raqqa. The SDF got more arms as part of this offensive.
Raqqa was liberated in mid-October 2017. Many thousands of ISIS members escaped and the SDF was sent to keep fighting them. In the spring of 2018 the SDF sensed all was not well in Washington when Trump indicated the US might leave Syria. After Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and others appeared to put the brakes on, things continued normally until the fall. In August veteran diplomat Jim Jeffrey was named Special Representative for Syria Engagement. He appeared cold toward the SDF, preferring a Turkey track. There would be joint patrols, the first in November 2018, around Manbij with US and Turkish forces. In December Erdogan called Trump and asked him why US forces were still in Syria. Trump agreed and decided to leave. This triggered the resignation of anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk and Mattis. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton were left holding the water. They thought eastern Syria should be kept as real estate to prevent Iran jumping into the vacuum if the US left.
So Trump decided to stay in eastern Syria a bit more. But things have gone from bad to worse for the SDF since then, in terms of signs the US will eventually leave. Despite thousands of casualties and working closely with the US, the SDF is largely at the mercy of the Americans. They are isolated from every peace process involving Syria. If before the YPG had some warmer contacts in Damascus and Moscow, they are now increasingly attacked in Syrian regime media and getting the cold shoulder by Tehran and Moscow. The SDF put all its eggs in one American basket and the basket may have some holes.
The US has decided to give in to some of Turkey’s demands that eastern Syria be turned into a “safe zone” or Orwellian “peace corridor.” The US calls this a “security mechanism.” It began with joint patrols in September 2019 in the sky and on the ground. Turkish troops have set foot in eastern Syria. This is a prelude to a more permanent Turkish presence likely. Turkey showed its resolve when it invaded Afrin, an area held by the YPG in northwest Syria in January 2018. Turkey now says it will resettle millions of mostly Arab Syrians in northeastern Turkey and that it will carve out a kind of “safe zone” belt of housing for these Arab refugees. Kurds see it as demographic change. Indeed, this was the Afrin model and it will be the model in eastern Syria.
The US continues to pay lip service to supporting the SDF, especially among the US military and CENTCOM. But EUCOM and the State Department want Turkey to play its role in northern Syria. They want the SDF cut out from future discussions about Syria. This would be odd, considering the SDF control almost a third of Syria with millions of residents and sacrificed thousands of lives, that they will have no official say in what comes next. They are isolated diplomatically, to the extent that tiny Syrian opposition groups seem to have more say on paper than the SDF and its other components. The challenge for Washington is how to unwind this gordian knot without chaos resulting. It doesn’t want the SDF going to Damascus to sign a deal, it doesn’t want an ISIS resurgence when the SDF hold thousands of ISIS prisoners, and it doesn’t want Iran rushing in. It appears to want to hand part of eastern Syria to Turkey slowly and quietly, hoping that doing it very very slowly won’t enrage the SDF and residents on the ground into a sense of betrayal. But eventually when the SDF is told to leave the border areas and just run Raqqa, and the regime gets Qamishli and Turkey receives almost all the Kurdish areas of northeast Syria, the residents of the area may wonder what they suffered and fought for since 2014. The message so far has been that they are lucky to have anything at all, since most other groups in Syria got nothing. But nothing may not be good enough.