The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took the city of Baghouz, ISIS’ last stronghold in Syria, in March. While formally the SDF still exists, it appears that the U.S. State Department’s Global Coalition against ISIS has met one of its main goals, to eradicate the organization’s Syrian presence. While many have claimed victory and peace, policy experts recognize that the reality is not so simple. The US decision to pull out troops on December 14th from Syria shocked the international community and US bureaucrats, who were wary of the power vacuum a sudden troop withdrawal would leave. While Trump has since declared his support for leaving 400 troops as “residual presence” in Northeastern Syria, this transition strategy fails to take into account the competing interests of Turkey, the Assad regime, and Russia. In light of the possible lack of US military presence, it is crucial to mediate the relationship between the SDF and Turkey to ensure that American allies aren’t crushed.
Recent negotiations between the US and Turkey have highlighted Turkish President Erdogan’s newfound desire to take a pragmatic approach towards the Kurds, meaning that the US must capitalize on its newfound opportunity to ensure the survival of their longtime allies. Negotiations between the Kurdish forces and Turkey aren’t only for regional influence, but also to ensure that actors like Russia do not allow space for the Assad regime to continue. Though technically a NATO ally, the relationship between Turkey and the United States has deteriorated from “ambivalent allies to antagonists.” Erdogan’s actions, ranging from democratic backsliding to corruption, and a controversial constitutional referendum empowering the executive branch, have all served as examples of him “salami slicing” at power. Issues such as Turkey’s consideration of Russia for F-35 fighters, corruption scandals, Erdogan’s purging of political opponents, and strong opposition to the People’s Defense Units (YPG), have led many leaders in the region to worry about their future goal of a “safe zone” and military presence in Syria. In light of these changes, the US must be tougher in negotiations that cover issues in regards to their relationship with Russia and their opposition to YPG forces. Foreign affairs expert Steven A. Cook of the Council of Foreign Relations, suggests that the US find an alternative to their use of the Incirlik Air Base. The US reliance on Turkey for military operations, particularly in the Middle East, has given Erdogan leverage to indulge in despotic power-grabs with little to no response from the public or the international community. If the US is able to project its authority in coming negotiations regarding military issues, it can use this leverage and alliance with Kurdish-backed forces in the area to deter Russia and Turkey from pursuing their self-interested goals.
Ankara continues to negotiate with Washington, articulating their desire for a “safe zone” into the Northeastern area of Syria that is dominated by the YPG. Meanwhile, using troops, tanks, and artillery, Turkish have pushed YPG away from their border, forcing them to seek an independent settlement with Assad. For long-term peace in the region, the US must ensure that they act as an intermediary between the YPG and Turkey. Given that 90 percent of Syria’s oil reserves and arable land is in the northeast of Syria under Kurdish control, if the US were to succeed in negotiating a cease-fire or initiate dialogue for a peace treaty between Turkey and the Kurds, not only would they weaken Assad, but they would guarantee the Kurds economic means for trade, cooperation, and sustainability. The prospect of crippling the Assad regime could be at risk, however, if the US does not take serious action against the threats that Erdogan has made of mobilizing troops against the YPG, as the U.S. has ignored Erdogan’s demands of disarming and demobilizing the Kurds. Such threats coupled with a long history of Iran, Syria, and Russia deploying Kurdish units as proxies, it becomes clearer than ever that the US may well be the sole ally to the Kurds.
The US empowerment of YPG Kurds will also allow them to secure their own identity as a group. Because the YPG depends on other groups like the far-left Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been involved in armed conflict with Turkey since 1984, for the sake of military capital, it has made an enemy in Turkey, which consequently seeks to eliminate them from existence. The only actor capable of stopping such a loss is the US, as they possess the political will and resources to ensure that the YPG does not continue to resort to the PKK for military support. In the past, the US has offered the YPG aid in exchange for distancing itself from the PKK. A continuous committed effort is not only crucial to ensure that the northeastern part of Syria is under Kurdish and US influence, but is also a given opportunity to bolster the Kurds to combat the looming influence of Turkey, Russia, and Iran. Erdogan may be a regional power, but that influence pales in comparison to the leverage of a US presence, which will vastly weaken Damascus, Turkey, and their backers even if the US continues with troop removal.
The continued sanctions upon Assad’s Syria has left Damascus and its forces weak, allowing the Kurds to continue to dominate in the northeastern area. Such sanctions are essential as they have both weakened Russia and Iran. With its current negotiating ability, the US must hit “two birds with one stone.” The first objective is shifting Turkish dependency on oil from Tehran towards sources of Kurdish possession, as it would deter ties between Turkey and Iran, who are at odds towards the US and its allied interests. While the Turkish government despises the Kurds, it does prioritize geopolitical gains over its bitter rivalry: Turkey initially opposed the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), yet, it grew to depend on their oil and now has a trade connection with its ports in Ceyhan. Seeing that the Kurds dominate the northeastern side of the country, along with the area’s oil reserves, this would both foster co-dependency between KRG and Ankara, and reduce Turkish dependence on Iranian hydrocarbons. Such an outcome would benefit the US by simultaneously mitigating regional conflict, and promoting their regional objectives.
While the US is doing all it can to ensure that the SDF’s existence does not hinder its relationship with Turkey through diplomatic means, the US bureaucracy hasn’t stopped Erdogan from talking to President Trump directly over the face-value assurances it has for the Kurds. The year of 2018 and the beginning of 2019 has been disastrous for the Kurds, having suffered catastrophes including Turkey and Iran invading Kurdish settlements in late 2018, the Turkish government politically attacking Kurdish members of Parliament, the association of the PKK with the YPG, and the US announcing a troop presence reduction in Syria. Achieving an independent Kurdistan is virtually impossible at this point, but ensuring their survival is a duty of the US that is still within reach. The Kurds have been crucial allies in the region, and the moral imperative falls to the U.S. government not only to combat President Trump’s abrupt announcement of removing US troops but also to protect its allies.
Photo: “Kurdish YPG forces“