The Kurds are widely known for being brave, capable fighters, reliable, secular and Pro-American. For these reasons, America cannot afford to abandon its Kurdish allies. Even apart from that, among the peoples of the region the Kurds are most aligned with Western values. The Kurds have protected Christians in the Middle East. Kurdish fighters are composed of both men and women, and in many cases the women lead. The Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Union (YPJ) both embody the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by the United States.
Recent developments regarding US troop presence in Syria call for immediate reconsideration of American strategy, as security concerns on the ground are growing on a daily basis. To clearly understand the importance of American forces on the ground, we must understand what is at stake in Syria. This is true both for Syria as a whole and in north east Syria where Kurds and Americans are working side by side.
Kurds understood very well that US would have to leave sooner or later, but not immediately. The president did float a withdrawal in April of 2018 but was apparently convinced otherwise. Now a new call to leave Syria has been issued and the Department of Defense has signed the orders to fully withdraw.
But before America departs, the President must guarantee the safety of our allies the Kurds. This means that a gradual withdrawal with conditions and guarantees from other US partners are essential so that the Kurds are not in harm’s way and do not feel betrayed, again.
What’s at stake in Syria?
Before any withdrawal can take place, the US Administration must understand the risks of creating a vacuum, and someone is eager to take the place of the world’s strongest power.
Key actors in Syria are split into three groups. The first is Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran. The second are the American allies and our international coalition, which include the Kurds. Ironically this also includes supposed American NATO partner, Turkey, though Turkey is led by a rogue and unpredictable leader with his own agenda. The third is of course Israel, a state constantly threatened by the creeping presence of Iran’s forces in Syria towards Israel’s northern border.
First, West of the Euphrates River, Assad has successfully crushed all remnants of rebels and terror organizations with the help of Iran and Russia. Assad’s control stretches along the Euphrates and towards the Iraqi border, this is important as the area is resource rich. It is also critical to note that Assad’s legitimacy ends at the Euphrates river. East of the Euphrates the Kurds have implemented their own Kurdish-led administration or the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES). A withdrawal will allow Assad, to rein in the rest of Syria using his brutal tactics: civilian bombardments to the usage of chemical weapons. By withdrawing immediately, US would indirectly legitimize the Assad regime and allow him to gain full territorial control of Syria, Assad has promised to regain “every inch of Syrian territory”, and only the current US presence is really keeping him at bay.
Iran, Assad’s loyal ally and top funder, views Syria as a strategic component of its greater Middle East plan. Iran’s intentions are well known: to wipe out Israel. Iran has striven toward this goal by building a land bridge stretching from Tehran through Iraq. Now it is using Syria as a stepping stone, and controlling Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to gain direct access to the Mediterranean Sea. Iran has accomplished all this while keeping its foe, Saudi Arabia occupied in Yemen by supporting the Houthis with funds and arms.
A basic contradiction in current American foreign policy is our designation of Iran’s IRGC as a terrorist organization, while at the same time allowing the IRGC’s Quds Force to roam free in Syria. If the US is stern on “maximizing pressure” in regard to Iran’s expansionist agenda, Syria is key. The US does not have to directly attack Iran’s forces, but it does have the capability to limit Iran’s territorial gains, resources and proxies in Syria all by keeping a small presence. Troops on the ground allow this, but so even might an American air power presence.
Putin is eager for the US to withdraw, largely because that withdraw would allow him to be the sole strongman in the country. Russia does not have the capability to limit Iran’s agenda and cannot guarantee Israel’s security. But Russia does have the ability to deepen relations with NATO member Turkey to undermine US national security interests. Russia has allowed Turkey to control northwest Syria, most notably Afrin and Idlib, all without the United States coordination. Turkey is aligned with jihadists and al Qaeda affiliates.
With that in mind, let us turn to what the Kurds want to see included in any US withdrawal plans.
Kurdish Demands In Planning a US Withdrawal
A no-fly zone (NFZ) is a top priority for the Kurds and is the best solution to guarantee the safety of the Kurds. The idea of an NFZ is nothing new, the Kurds in northern Iraq benefited from an NFZ from Saddam Hussein in 1991. The 1991 NFZ was in coordination with the United Kingdom and France. US has neighboring air bases which it could operate out of such as in Iraq, the Al Asad Air Base which includes two runways. US has a little over 5,000 troops in Iraq, since the withdrawal of forces under the Obama administration in 2011. In Jordan, the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base has played a crucial role in Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State and can continue to do so to protect the Kurds in northeast Syria. The Jordanian Air base also has two run ways and recently the United States allocated $143 million in upgrade funds to expand the base. Some experts have speculated this may be a move to gradually shift away from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. The German government decided to leave Incirlik in 2017 and moved to Jordan after disagreements with Erdogan’s government. All these are considerable options to protect the Kurds in Syria from the air.
An NFZ safe guards the nearly four and half million civilians at risk which include internally displaced Syrians and refugees from Iraq. Secular Kurds have protected the small Christian minority in Syria too, a recent statement from the local Syriac Christians warns that “Turkey is threatening us daily in the local media to invade, and to kill us. They are calling us infidels.” Furthermore, the Christians plea that they have “fought side by side with Kurds, Arabs and the US-led Global Coalition in the war against the Islamic State.” They call for the establishment of an NFZ to protect them from Turkey. Most recently, French president Emmanuel Macron underlined “the need to recognize the rights of local populations and to ensure forces allied with the US led coalition, notably the Kurds.”
The enforcement of an NFZ would be more difficult with no troops on the ground, however James Jeffrey, US special Representative for Syria Engagement hinted at a possible NFZ for the Kurds without having troops on the ground, “remember, we were not present in northern Iraq, but over northern Iraq in Operation Northern Watch for 13 years.”
Co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), Ilham Ahmed stated that the French were receptive to their request for a no-fly zone over northern Syria, but said they needed to consult with the European Union and gain Washington’s permission first. A de-facto US NFZ has been in play for some time in north east Syria in coordination with Russia, where Russian planes avoid flying near US zones.
France is eager to support the Kurds on the ground along with the UK and the Dutch, this will only be feasible if US continues the air cover. Together, the French, UK, Dutch and Americans can successfully protect the Kurds without giving up any territory to Assad, Iran, Russia while preventing a Turkish incursion from the north. In return, this would please all parties including the US president, European concerns and would allow the Kurds and other minorities to hang on to the advancements they have made while being protected from a Turkish slaughter.
Guarantees Turkey will not invade
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently stated “the importance of ensuring that the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds, the protection of religious minorities there in Syria. All of those are still part of the American mission set.”
By far the leading threat against our Kurdish allies in north east Syria comes from NATO partner Turkey. The United States must use its leverage to prevent a Turkish incursion into Syria. It is well understood among Syrian Kurdish officials and civilians in Syria that Russia gave a greenlight to Turkey to invade and occupy Afrin in January 2018, but Turkey can only start an operation against the Kurds with the permission of the Americans. That is why it is crucial for the US to stand by its allies to ease the frustration and concern of a possible Turkish invasion. US must clarify to Turkey that it is a red line if Kurds are attacked, they are not enemies of Turkey and mediate between the two sides to find common ground, such as economic opportunities.
The United States recently signed an $3.5 billion arms deal agreement with Turkey which includes 80 patriot missiles. The patriot missiles are to replace Turkey’s S-400 missile purchase from Russia, however Turkey has not cancelled the Russian order and is still set to receive in July 2019. This would mean Turkey would now have both Russian and American technology at hand, which are incompatible with NATO defense systems and can expose national security intel to the Russians. The Department of Defense released a report as required by the 2019 NDAA titled Status of the U.S. Relationship with the Republic of Turkey. The report clearly states that “the Administration will reassess Turkey’s continued participation as one of eight partner nations [F-35 program] should they continue their purchase of the S-400.”
The United States has an opportunity to set conditions to Turkey that it cannot target Kurdish allies inside Syria if it wants US F-35 fighter jets, the industrial workshare that comes with the purchase, patriot missiles and the $3.5 billion arms deal. In return, US can guarantee to Ankara that the Kurds will be under the watchful eye of US aligned forces on the ground and will respect Turkey’s security concerns to prevent cross border skirmishes. Turkey must respect that Syria is a sovereign state, therefore any operation that calls for annexation or “buffer zones” inside Syria would be a violation of such agreements. Syria must be for Syrians not Turkey. Appeasing Turkey would send the wrong signal to our Kurdish allies on the ground and embolden Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric and actions which undermine American interests in the region. Turkey will also receive the assurance that the SDF will continue the fight against the Islamic State without the need for Turkish boots in northeast Syria, there still exists an estimated 20-30k IS fighters.
To ease tensions, generate economic opportunities
American backed SDF control over 30 percent of Syrian territory east of the Euphrates, which holds nearly 52 percent of Syria’s oil riches accounting for 80 percent of the countries pre-war production, and according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), north east Syria contains over 75 percent of agricultural wheat production, while major dams and the bulk of the Euphrates River are all in the hands of US allies. This is significant leverage over Assad’s cash strapped regime at the same time creating potential economic opportunities with Turkey.
Through trade, Kurds and Turks can ease tensions. We witnessed this in 2008 when Iraqi Kurds and Turkey began trading and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq became Turkey’s second largest trading partner next to Russia. Even after the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum held in 2017, oil continued to flow due to a common interest, a growing Turkey could not afford to lessen its oil imports and KRG needed the funds as it was recovering from the war against the Islamic State. Turkey lacks oil resources and heavily relies on Russian, KRG, Iranian oil. (Turkey recently received a US waiver on Iranian oil imports with recent sanctions.) As Turkey’s economy grows, north east Syria can diversify Turkey’s oil partner-states, lessening the reliance on Russian oil in return bringing Turkey closer to the sphere of influence of the United States, NATO.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an on-the-ground based reporter and analyst reaffirms “Turkey initially opposed Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, but after 2007-2008 slowly opened up to economic opportunities. If there is peace between Kurds and the Turkish state, something similar could be developed between Turkey and Syria’s Kurds.”
US endorsement of Kurdish-led administration
US foreign policy towards Kurds has historically been within the context of the nation states of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. However, unless the US decides to recognize Assad’s brutality as legitimate, the United States will need to prioritize the Kurdish led administration in the north east of Syria, and create a foreign policy facing that Kurdish administration based on the interest of the Kurds and minorities in that area. The US should translate the great military success by American forces and the SDF into a political partnership based on cooperation and development.
Both the US and Kurdish led administration have common interests and shared values in Syria. Opposing the Iranian regime, Russian interference, opposing Assad, Islamic State reemergence, Turkish annexation and incursion into Syria, protection of civilians, refugees and IDPs, minority and religious rights are all ways the Kurds and Americans can find common ground and a path towards a political solution to Syria’s long-standing Kurdish question.
The American people very well understand the importance of standing behind our allies. As the President made the announcement to withdraw forces in Syria, regardless of where we stand on the political spectrum, one thing was agreed: Kurds need to be protected.