President Donald Trump made his feelings on U.S. involvement in Syria clear on Wednesday: “We want to protect Kurds, but I don’t want to be in Syria forever. It’s sand. And it’s death,” he said. He also walked back his December announcement of an immediate withdrawal of American troops, saying it would be slow, but the Kurds have already made other plans for their protection.
On Friday, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council — the U.S.’s staunchest ally in the fight against ISIS in Syria — invited Russian-backed Syrian forces into their territory in the country’s northeast in a once-unimaginable partnership. Damascus has said the troops have already arrived, while the U.S. and Turkey are denying it.
Just seven months earlier, U.S. airstrikes defending the Kurds killed hundreds of Russian mercenaries when they attempted to reclaim Kurdish-controlled oil fields for Damascus.
The planned U.S. troop drawdown has upset a delicate balance of power among factions in Syria and neighboring countries. It stunned Kurds in particular and was met with sharp criticism by Trump’s own military advisers. On Sunday, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said he planned to warn the president that withdrawing U.S. troops could leave the Kurds vulnerable to both ISIS and Turkey. In the Wednesday press conference where he called Syria “sand and death,” the president said the withdrawal would happen slowly “over a period of time,” but he did not give a timetable.
Assuming troops are pulled out in the foreseeable future, Damascus’ alliance with the Kurds is only the first of what will likely be many unexpected shifts in power and control.
“Turkey, Russia, and Iran will be locked in a delicate dance to arrive at the best position they can get on the ground in any potential vacuum left by the United States,” said Nicholas Heras, analyst for the Center for a New American Security think tank.
That dance has already begun in Manbij, the flashpoint northern city where Damascus said it deployed troops at the invitation of the Kurdish military, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The city, which is about 30 miles from the Turkish border, has long been a source of anxiety for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is fighting a long-running Kurdish insurgency in his own country and views Syria’s YPG as terrorists.
Syrian autocrat Bashar Assad withdrew his forces from most of northeast Syria in 2012, handing over power to the Kurds. The YPG then began a years-long campaign to preserve their autonomy from Turkish-backed militias made up of Free Syrian Army rebels and extremist factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, which later evolved into ISIS. Over time, as ISIS cannibalized its former rebel allies, the war became an existential back-and-forth struggle between the YPG and ISIS across the wider region.
When an ISIS offensive threatened to capture the Kurdish city of Kobani along the Turkish border, U.S. forces entered the war on the YPG’s side, backing the group with a campaign of airstrikes that, to Erdogan’s dismay, evolved into a broad-ranging alliance that enabled the YPG to take several cities from ISIS.
The Syrian chessboard
Manbij was captured from ISIS in 2015 and has been guarded by U.S. and French soldiers since. Now, with American forces slated to leave, Turkey, which has been threatening invasion for years, now has an opening. Fearing a slaughter, Kurdish forces are desperately casting around for a savior and apparently seeing one in Assad.
Sinam Mohamad, diplomatic representative of the Syrian Democratic Council to the U.S., told VICE News: “Now we are Syrian and we don’t claim to be separate from Syria. So the regime should have the responsibility to protect Syria from the invasion and occupation of Turkey.”
Heras said Assad and Russia, for their part, have an obvious interest in keeping Turkey at bay. If the Manbij deal holds — and is followed by other local agreements and handovers of power from Kurdish authority to Assad — it could grant the Syrian autocrat the last major victory he needs to solidify his rule over the country.
But if the Kurds and Assad fail to replicate the Manbij deal across the country’s vast northeast, the Syrian war’s chaos and destruction could come to a region that has managed to be an island of relative stability during the nine-year war — and possibly create the space for ISIS to regain strength.
Backed by U.S. airstrikes, weapons, and equipment, the Syrian Kurds have been instrumental in the war on ISIS. They have also conquered almost one-third of Syria’s territory over the past six years of war, carving out an autonomous homeland in the resource-rich northeast region known as Jazira.
Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria — which was reportedly in response to pressure from Erdoğan — is an apocalyptic scenario for the Kurds. Attempts at a peace deal with Assad in recent months have failed, which the Syrian Democratic Council blames on Assad being unwilling to concede meaningful political autonomy to the Kurdish-held region. Now, the Kurds will have to negotiate with the threat of Turkish invasion hanging over their heads, and without American support to strengthen their position.
This new dynamic will likely prove costly. The Kurds will probably offer up hard-won strategic assets like the oilfields of Deir Ezzor and the cities of Raqqa and Tal Abyad.
Such strained negotiations all but guarantee the end of the autonomy Syrian Kurds have fought and died for over the last few years, said analyst Aron Lund of the Century Foundation.
“Damascus wants its borders back, and it wants the resources in these areas,” said Lund. “I don't expect they will feel the need to give an inch on the formalities of restored government control — it will all be presented as a rollback of full sovereignty and Syrian law.”
Among all the bad options for the Kurds, Assad’s return to the northeast region, where Mabij is located, appears to be the least catastrophic outcome — even considering their decades-long abuse at the hands of his family’s rule.
“There is a deal to be made,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma. “The Syrian government needs the Kurds to help police the north and the Kurds needs the Syrian military to protect them against the Turks.”
Civilians caught in the middle
In the spring of 2018, Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies invaded the Kurdish region of Aleppo governorate in the Afrin offensive. At least 134,000 Syrian Kurds fled their homes. Fear of a repeat of this assault is what’s driving the Syrian Kurds — as well as the large Christian minorities of northeastern Syria — toward Assad.
“If the international community don’t move to stop Turkey’s attack, it will lead to a humanitarian catastrophic situation [in a region] where more than 3 million people from all ethnicities and religions are living,” Mohamad told VICE News.
For the region’s large Assyrian and Syriac Christian minorities, the future looks equally grim. Perhaps the one thing uniting northeast Syria’s politically divided Christians is abhorrence at the prospect of Turkish-backed rebel rule. Many of the region’s Christians have already fled to Canada and Sweden as a result of the Turkish-supported rebel and jihadi offensives of 2013, and the 2014 and 2015 ISIS assaults on the Christian-populated Khabur river valley.
The general command of the Kurds’ Assyrian and Syriac Christian militia, MFS, warned in a Dec. 27 press release that an invasion like the Afrin offensive could result in the extinction of Christianity in this corner of Syria.
“Churches will be destroyed. Christians and Yazidis, designated ‘infidels’ by Turkey’s mercenaries, will be killed and massacred,” the general command said. “There is a serious risk of the end of the presence of Christianity in this region if we do not have security in place when the U.S. leaves.”
Cover: Syrian regime forces move between buildings in the southern countryside of the northern Kurdish-controlled city of Manbij on December 30, 2018. (Photo by -/AFP/Getty Images)