President Trump’s announcement that US troops would be withdrawn from northern Syria (also known as Rojava) in the coming months reminded Kurds of their proverbial lament that they have “no friends but the mountains.” Nevertheless, the announcement shocked the international community for two reasons: Not only would Islamic State gain an opportunity to return, but the Turkish state alongside the Free Syrian Army – which mainly consists of radical Sunni Islamist rebels with links to Daesh – would massacre the Kurds.
The Kurds fought bravely against ISIS and created their own unique, radical, democratic secular system in the heart of the chaos of Middle Eastern politics, led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military, the People’s Protection Units, which Turkey sees as a Kurdish terrorist organization and threat to its national security.
Russia, Iran and Turkey were not expecting such a move from the US, and all have welcomed it. This is particularly true of Turkey, whose military, armed with heavy machine guns, is waiting for the right moment to occupy Rojava, having already taken the Kurdish town of Afrin. Reuters reported that Hulusi Akar, the Turkish defense minister, declared that Kurdish militants in Syria “will be buried in their ditches when the time comes.”
Despite these threats, the Kurds have responded calmly to the withdrawal announcement. For instance, PYD diplomatic relations co-chair Salih Muslim commented on ANF News that although a US withdrawal would be a matter of concern with regard to the stabilization of Rojava, “We didn’t call them, and we’re not sending them away. We rely on our own strength and defense.... Our interests coincided, we acted together, but we never relied on them.”
Of course, the Kurds are conscious of previous Western/US attitudes toward them. Perhaps the most striking incident occurred in 1999, when Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, was handed over to the Turks with the help of US secret intelligence services in Nairobi. Syrian Kurds follow Ocalan’s ideology, and their political success was built on his political theory.
Nonetheless, Kurdish and US regional interests currently overlap. The Kurds need long-term protection, and the US needs Rojava and the Kurds to stop an Iranian Shia expansion in the region and to secure Israel’s position in the Middle East.
Iran is struggling to preserve its political clout in the region. To strengthen its geopolitical position, it is fighting to create a Shia crescent from Iran all the way down through Syria to the Mediterranean coast.
SUCH AN expansion of Shia Iran will be the greatest threat to US interests in the region in coming years. Additionally, the growth of pro-Iran sentiment in Shia-majority Iraq, with which it shares deep socio-economic and cultural ties, impacts on US geopolitical interests.
In this regard, Rojava plays a crucial role. Sherkoh Abbas, president of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, noted, “The only deterrence to Iran is the Kurds [in Rojava]. The only way to disrupt the Shia crescent is [through] the Kurds.”
US concerns about how the national security of its favorite ally, Israel, can be guaranteed are influenced by three major factors: the potential expansion of Iranian influence in the region; the ambiguity of Turkish politics, which is leaning toward becoming a Sunni-based nationalist one-party state under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; and the role of autocratic, militarist Russia, which now has ties to both Iran and Turkey.
Although the US continues to proclaim it will cooperate with Israel over Syria and in opposing Iran in the region, Israel is well aware that US withdrawal from Rojava would leave a power vacuum that would be filled by Iran and Turkey. Since both countries oppose Israeli political interests in the Middle East, their focus will move on to harming Israel. As Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas indicated, relinquishing the Kurdish buffer zone constitutes a substantial threat to Israel, North Africa, Europe and the US.
A US withdrawal from northern Syria would contradict any rational understanding of the geostrategic paradigm. This is particularly regarding the war against ISIS in the region. That struggle has relied on coordination with the exceptionally effective and successful Kurdish fighters on the ground. It also gave the US the legitimacy to effectively control a historically important geostrategic area, thereby enabling it to monitor the expansion of Iran and strengthen its position in the Middle East. to reverse this situation would not only be irrational in terms of immediate matters of regional and potentially global geosecurity, but would also constitute a long-term threat to Israel.
So will the US withdraw its troops from Rojava? The short answer is no. Relinquishing Rojava and allowing the elimination of the region’s Kurds would be entirely contrary to US/Western geopolitical and geosecurity interests. The Kurds may believe that they have “no friends but the mountains,” but they also know who has to act like a friend on their own soil.
The writer is currently a visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge in England.