Do Syrian Kurds still need America?

The American presence in Syria may face a huge lack of legitimacy, and the resulting US inaction and retreat may force Kurds to reach an understanding with the regime as a last resort.

Members of the People’s Protection Units in Raqqa last year. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Members of the People’s Protection Units in Raqqa last year.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since the start of Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Afrin last week, we have witnessed several American shows of support for Turkey, which seemed out of place since the circumstances that led to US support for the SDF in the first place are still relevant today: Afrin is under existential threat as Kobani was, and the Americans can’t yet find any reliable partner besides the SDF.
So why the US acting so? And where this partnership is going?
The Trump administration has only shown interest in a “free” partnership with the SDF, one that costs it nothing except “rental” military equipment meant to be returned by the end of operations against Islamic State (ISIS) – which Turkey claims the US promised – and making sure that this equipment does not exceed the minimum necessary resupply of materiel consumed in the intense battles in Raqqa and Deir al-Zour. Other than that the US wouldn’t accept fighting alongside its partners, for instance against the jihadists who came to invade Manbij under a Turkish umbrella, which, thanks to Russian intervention, would become a never- ending cycle of SDF liberating regions from ISIS, only for them to be retaken by other, “moderate,” jihadists.
Moreover, while the US maintains its alliance with the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) and SDF, it continues to flatter Turkey by humiliating its only partner in Syria; US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert described Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) founder Abdullah Ocalan as a person who does not “merit veneration” after his sympathizers, who liberated Raqqa, posed for a photo in front of a large poster of him.
Most recently, she, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, recognized that Turkish attacks on Afrin are motivated by “legitimate security concerns.” Turkey labels the YPG and SDF as terrorist organizations, so these statements out of the State Department amount to a US admission of partnership with “terrorists.”
Tillerson’s most recent statements, offering American participation with Turkey in the establishment of a buffer zone in “northwest” Syria (where Afrin is), has raised Kurdish fears that the US will pave the road for a Turkish occupation with Kurdish bodies in order to maintain its presence in Syria and attempt to draw Turkey from its alliance with Russia. Something like the “marvelous” plan to woo Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi away from Iran, which actually resulted in more direct Iranian influence.
Nevertheless, the Kurds may still consider the alliance with the US a profitable one, not only because the mere presence of the US in the region inhibits both Turkey and the Syrian regime from attacking them, but also for the future, with regard to governance, democracy and shared values.
But obviously, that consideration is reasonable only if there is no existential threat against the Kurds, i.e. if they have a future. They can see clearly the contours of their future in Afrin under Turkish control in the silent, forced displacement of the Kurdish populations of Jarablus and al-Bab. Also by hearing the Turkish threats of genocide concealed between the lines of a statistic “35% subsequently positioned Kurds” so-called statistic pronounced by Turkey’s leadership citing ethnic composition of a region where none of their troops nor officials ever had a foothold. Under such conditions the Kurds, rightfully, don’t have the luxury of occupying themselves with the future.
So the Kurds are now left without choices. Turkish invasion can’t be tolerated or contained, and may be impossible to resist without backup. Yet the Americans opted to play them cheap and encourage these attacks while worrying themselves about Turkish concerns about the YPG, rather than for instance the fact that Al-Nusra Front jihadists are convoying Turkish troops into Syria.
As for the Russians, they are more likely to be concerned about restoring Idlib rather than preventing Turkey from breaking the only US partner in Syria – indeed, a service for which they will likely be very grateful.
One small chance the Kurds have to save Afrin is the Syrian regime, which, in turn, is reluctant to provide support, partially because it is somehow involved in this bargain struck between Russia and Turkey to exchange Idlib with Afrin, and mainly because the YPG is in an alliance with the US, which is viewed by the regime as treason.
The Syrian regime kept silent about this alliance since the battle of Kobani, until lately when ISIS stopped posing a direct, lethal threat to the Kurds following the SDF liberation of Raqqa and northern parts of Deir al-Zour. After that, the Syrian government raised its voice again, calling on the SDF to abandon the alliance and return to its “Syrianism,” with a threat of exterminating “traitors” dealing with Americans.
With that in mind, the American presence in Syria may face a huge lack of legitimacy, and the resulting US inaction and retreat may force Kurds to reach an understanding with the regime as a last resort. This may become very expensive for the Kurds – but not as expensive as being completely sold out to Turkey, as US seems willing to do.
The author is a political commentator focusing on Kurdish issues, and director of, a website focused on Rojava, Syria.