Syrian Kurds are desperate, and Trump’s divisive rhetoric makes things worse

Syrian Kurds are desperate, and Trump’s divisive rhetoric makes things worse

Since last month’s announcement that the US will imminently withdraw its troops from Syria, President Trump has backtracked. The White House has declared that the withdrawal may yet take a number of months, amid a series of other contradictory remarks from senior American officials over whether the US plans to withdraw its troops entirely or to maintain some presence in eastern Syria. On Sunday Trump generated further confusion by declaring plans for a “safe zone” in Syria across the border with Turkey (without explaining who would enforce this zone, and where it would be located), even declaring that the US would “devastate Turkey economically” if it attacked Syria’s Kurds.

A precipitous withdrawal would be indeed be bad news: it could pave the way for an Islamic State resurgence – the jihadist organisation is thought to still have 30,000 fighters at large in Syria and Iraq – as well as expanded Iranian influence.

And both of these outcomes could be hastened if there is a conflict between Turkey and Syria’s Kurds. Turkey has national security concerns over the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the organisation that dominates the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has fought alongside the US under the auspices of the campaign to defeat Isis.

The YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which has fought the Turkish state for more than 40 years. The future of the YPG in Syria’s north-east, where it established its own self-governed autonomous region during the civil war, is a thorn in Turkey-US relations that first emerged under the Obama administration. Yet the US has still failed to establish a sustainable, viable strategy that can alleviate Turkish concerns but also maintain the SDF as a buffer against the Assad regime and Iran, as well as the critical fighting force it has been in the war on Isis.

It is not too late. A potential US withdrawal combined with widespread concerns of a bloody Turkish-YPG conflict has added urgency and impetus to the need to find a compromise with Ankara over the future of the SDF. The US, in concert with its European (particularly French) allies, should push Turkey and the YPG to make some difficult choices.

Ankara’s long-term approach to the Kurdish question in Syria would be to go back to the 2014 peace process aimed at ending its conflict with the PKK. That could still be revitalised down the line and provide a lasting solution. In the meantime, Turkey must be appreciative of the reality that US interests in Syria, and those of its allies, can only be secured if there are reliable on-the-ground partners who provide immediate solutions in a difficult landscape.

The YPG has been that solution, filling a security void in 2014 at a critical moment for the international community. But that does not mean the US cannot push the organisation to share power on a more equitable basis and make support conditional on its willingness to share power with other groups (Kurdish and Arab). The objective here would be to establish credible and legitimate governing structures as well as alternative partners to the YPG, who can then alleviate some of Turkey’s concerns.

There are limited alternatives. Turkey lacks the capacity to suppress the YPG in eastern Syria (it has attempted, and failed, to defeat the PKK within and across its borders without success for decades). It would struggle to keep the peace in the Kurdish-dominated northeast if it deployed its already stretched armed forces, risking in the process a quagmire that enables the ascendancy of jihadist terrorist groups.

The YPG could turn to and embrace the Syrian regime if it is left to choose between either a Turkish onslaught or negotiations with an administration that is in the process of normalising its relationship with the international community. The YPG is inseparable from Syria’s security and governing structures, yet Turkey will lose the capacity to shape the landscape altogether if the YPG is forced into the regime’s orbit of influence.

Contrary to the hyperbole surrounding Turkish apprehensions toward the YPG, Ankara has in fact engaged the Democratic Union party (PYD), the YPG’s political wing, before and has hosted its head, Salih Muslim. The Turkish government is not entirely averse to negotiating with the organisation, while Ankara found in the 90s that by cooperating with the US and by developing stronger relations with the Iraqi Kurds, it became far more capable of influencing events in Iraq.

A compromise is not beyond reach. The US, Turkey and YPG all stand to lose if Assad and his backers take control of the east. It would be the worst outcome for the Syrian people and the region at large.

 Ranj Alaaldin is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Doha

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