Will the US abandon the Kurds after a deal on Syria?

Syrian Kurds, who have made large gains in their fight against Islamic State (ISIS), observe anxiously the shifting of positions of both Turkey and Russia.

Kurds protesting near Syrian-Turkish border (photo credit: REUTERS)
Kurds protesting near Syrian-Turkish border
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A new deal for the ending of the six-year conflict in Syria has been announced and peace talks are expected between the Syrian government and the opposition in mid-January in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.
As Reuters reported, under an outline deal between Russia, Turkey and Iran, Syria would be divided into informal zones of regional power influence, but this time without the US and the United Nations.
Syrian Kurds, who have made large gains in their fight against Islamic State (ISIS), observe anxiously the shifting of positions of both Turkey and Russia.
They are anxious due to Turkey’s claim that the YPG is not part of the truce.
With the new Turkish strategy Kurdish areas may be targeted.
Nothing from these political negotiations concerning the Kurds of Syria has been announced by Russians, but the Turks definitely want the Syrian Kurds to be sidelined in any plans for Syria’s future.
Turkey has repeatedly requested no role for Kurdish fighters in any offensive to liberate Raqqa, the last stronghold of ISIS in northern Syria.
Developments in Aleppo have shown that Turkey had given up the issue of regime change in Syria and is more obsessed with capturing al-Bab, a city around 40 km northeast of Aleppo, in an attempt to stop Kurdish fighters from joining their regions of Afrin and Kobani.
It is difficult to predict what Russia or America will do if Turkey tries to advance beyond al-Bab.
Kurds accuse Turkey of using the fight against ISIS as cover to strike Kurdish forces’ bases near the town of Manbij; needless to say the Turkish incursion into Syria was to ensure Kurdish militias did not gain more territory in Syria.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at University of Oklahoma, said, “It seems that the Kurds will be squeezed between Erdogan and Assad, neither of whom want the Kurds to have independence or an independent military. The US is unlikely to guarantee Kurdish independence, but it is likely to want to preserve good relations with the Kurds and the toe-hold in the region that good relations with the Kurds provides.
“How far will the US go in arming the Kurds to defend against the Turkish and Syrian armies? That is a question that no one can answer right now. We will have to see how peace negotiations proceed between Assad and the rebels and Turkey.
The longer Syria is in chaos and the government remains weak, the longer the Kurds will have to consolidate their government and legitimacy.”
Aside from the Turkish request to extradite Muhammad Fethullah Gulen, one of the main issues of contention between Turkey and the US is the support that has been provided by Americans to Syrian Kurdish fighters in the fight against ISIS.
Kurds have bitter memories of the history of the American-Kurdish political relations; America abandoned the Kurds in a critical periods, and Obama’s withdrawal from the Middle East conflicts leaves the Kurds worried about their future.
Syrian Kurds eye American support in their fight against ISIS, and seek to play a crucial role in Syria’s long-term stability.
The US can support their Kurdish partners having a unified political front, where both PYD and KNC can work together diplomatically and military in Kurdish regions.
Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon II and a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute, thinks that “Turkey has been a member of NATO since the beginning; it is a key country to contain Russian influence in the Middle East. Between the Syrian Kurds and this regional power, the choice of the United States seems obvious. If the Syrian Kurds are assaulted by the Turkish army, the United States will not bomb it.”
He believes that the battle for the liberation of Raqqa can play an important role for the future of Syrian Kurds: “Another solution for the Kurds is to be indispensable in the fight against Daesh [ISIS]. If the Kurds had a key role in the taking of Raqqa, it would then be difficult for the United States to abandon them. If [US President] Donald Trump decides to abandon Syria to Russia, this is likely to happen since the Syrian Kurds will have become useless.
Their only solution to escape the Turkish threat will therefore be to get closer to Russia. The close collaboration of the SDF with Russia and the Syrian army in the region of Afrin seems to indicate that the leadership of the PYD leaves this option open.”
While Jonathan Spyer, a Middle East analyst and a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, thinks that the safe Kurdish-controlled areas cannot be destroyed because of the presence of American forces there.
“The US is still committed to the fight against ISIS and the SDF remains its most effective ally, in which it has invested heavily. For as long as US air power and Special Forces remain present and in alliance with the Syrian Kurds, the Kurdish-controlled area cannot be destroyed. The abandonment of the Syrian Kurds would represent a major blow to US prestige.”
The Israeli expert thinks that Syrian Kurds can work with the new US administration as a factor of stability: “Turkey is not a reliable ally and the rebel forces with which it works include Islamist and Salafi forces, including some such as Ahrar al Sham with links to al-Qaida. It is not of course possible to predict what the US will do, but the Syrian Kurds and their allies should be making this case to the incoming administration.”
Julien Théron, a political scientist and lecturer at Sciences Po Saint-Germain and Paris II University says: “There is no precise role for the Syrian Kurds in the Russian-Turkish deal. Ankara clearly stated that it considers the YPG as terrorists and if Moscow tried to get the maximum number of Syrian groups to the negotiation table, it is very likely that it’s a condition sine qua non for Turkey. That said, if Moscow appears as more moderate on this issue than Ankara, the regime always rejected... the federalization of the country, and therefore the Kurdish autonomy.
It is therefore probably more a strategy to keep the Kurds quiet while getting results in Astana. It is hard to predict what kind of policy the Trump administration will implement toward the Syrian Kurds. As far as we can deduct a position from its general posture toward the conflict, it is possible that he will just leave the crisis management to Moscow.”
For the time being, perhaps the best thing that can be done by the Syrian Kurds’ politicians is to put their differences and divisions aside and start working politically and negotiate as one team.
That’s the only way to address regional deals and achieve the strategic objectives and national demands of Kurds, and that will prove to the new US administration they are a key factor in maintaining US interests in Syria.
The author is an academic and Syrian Kurd journalist who lives in Erbil.