Explained

Trump Abandons Syria's Kurds: Will Turkey Now Crush Their Dream of a 'Secular Utopia?'

Without U.S. soldiers as a buffer, the Kurds are now stuck between Turkey, Assad and ISIS

Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) members protest alongside Syrian-Kurds near the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli against Turkey's military operation in Syria's Afrin. January 21, 2018
DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP

As the war in Syria unfolded and President Bashar Assad pulled his troops out of the Kurdish northeast to quell uprisings in the country’s western population centers, Syria’s Kurds – with U.S. support – took it upon themselves to defeat the Islamic State on their territory.  

As the Kurds pushed ISIS back in brutal battles in first Kobani and later Raqqa, Rojava – or “The land where the sun sets” – began to take shape.

The autonomous state was declared in 2014. While it was never officially recognized by Assad, the United Nations or NATO, it had the de facto support of the United States since its inception, as the Americans provided Kurdish fighters with air cover and weapons in their fight against ISIS. But now, with President Donald Trump ordering the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s looming threats to attack, the days of Kurdish autonomy in Syria appear to be numbered.

In 2016, Rojava morphed into the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) as the Kurds incorporated other ethnic groups into their governing bodies and militias – forming the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The federation was heralded as a fledgling democracy forged out of the horrors of civil war and a “secular utopia” in totalitarian, ISIS-ravaged Syria.

Control of terrain in Syria as of October 26, 2018
Reuters graphic

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Rojava and later the DFNS governed its some 2 million people with an ideology antithetical to ISIS: Promoting minority rights, religious tolerance, gender equality and governing by direct democracy. Kurdish women fight in the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and even famously held a rally in Raqqa – the former de facto capital of ISIS – to denounce violence against women after they helped defeat the terror group.

The philosophy underpinning the state came from leftist revolutionary Abdullah Öcalan, one of the founding members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) but currently in prison in Turkey.  Turkey and the United States both designate the PKK a foreign terrorist organization.

Syrian Kurdish parties said last Friday that Turkish threats to attack their region amounted to a "declaration of war," and asked world powers to prevent an assault. Erdogan has vowed to clear Syria of all terrorists east of the Euphrates River. The Turkish president sees the Kurdish militia in Syria, the People's Protection Units (YPG), as a “terrorist offshoot” of the PKK – which has been conducting a deadly insurgency against Turkey since 1984.

"All the forces in north and east Syria … are asked to agree on strategies to confront this aggression," read a statement signed by Syria's main Kurdish parties and other allied groups.

There are contradictory statements about the U.S.’ stance regarding the Turkish offensive. Speaking at a political rally on Monday, Erdogan said: “We talked with Mr. Trump. He gave a positive answer. We are going to sweep Syrian lands until the last terrorist is eliminated.”

However, a day later, when asked by Kurdistan24 whether Erdogan’s claim about Trump’s approval for the attack on northeastern Syria was a “misstatement,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino responded with a direct “Yes.”

‘Never U.S. soldiers’

About 30 million Kurds live in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, with the Council on Foreign Relations noting that “many who remain in their ancestral lands maintain a strong sense of a distinctly Kurdish identity.” Kurds are one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without a sovereign state.

Erdogan aims to keep it that way. In June 2015 he said: ‘‘We will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria’s north and our south. We will continue to fight in this regard no matter what it costs.’’

As Erdogan ramped up his threats to attack, a spokesman for a Turkish-backed rebel force called the National Army, Maj. Youssef Hamoud, told Reuters last week, “The battle will be launched simultaneously from several fronts. It will be in Manbij and Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn,” he said, referring to towns about 200 kilometers (125 miles) apart near Syria’s northern border.

Speaking on Wednesday, Erdogan said Turkey’s target “is never U.S. soldiers,” highlighting both the importance of the U.S. presence in the region for the Kurds and Erdogan’s growing frustration with his NATO ally.

Up to 15,000 Syrian rebels, including from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), are ready to join a Turkish military offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northeast Syria. On Thursday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar was quoted as saying, they YPG “can dig tunnels or ditches if they want, they can go underground if they want. When the time and place comes, they will be buried in the ditches they dug. No one should doubt this.”

The operation will be Turkey’s third cross-border operation into Syria since 2016, following the successful Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch, in which Turkey recaptured Afrin (a Kurdish enclave in the northwest of Syria that was part of Rojava).

In June 2018, a report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) detailed large-scale human rights abuses in areas under Turkish control such as Afrin, which was taken from the YPG in March.

The report said, “Civilians now living in areas under the control of Turkish forces and affiliated armed groups continue to face hardships, which in some instances may amount to violations of international humanitarian law and violations or abuses of international human rights law.”

However, the YPG has been dogged by allegations of human rights abuses in areas under its control. In June 2014, Human Rights Watch reported “arbitrary arrests, due process violations, and failed to address unsolved killings and disappearances” in the three Syrian enclaves administered by the Kurds.

HRW noted that the Kurds are running a local administration with courts, prisons and police, and “Kurdish-run areas of Syria are quieter than war-torn parts of the country, but serious abuses are still taking place.”

Trump’s surprise

While both Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received advance notice of Trump’s order to withdrawal the 2,000 or so American troops from Syria, the Pentagon, State Department and U.S. Congress appeared to be caught mostly off guard

“I have no idea what’s going on,” GOP Sen. Bob Corker, the outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, said after the withdrawal announcement. “I did not know and I think I should have been [notified],” said GOP Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Senate Armed Services Committee chief. “I believe that they should have notified probably all of Congress but certainly our committee.”

The withdrawal was also met with immediate criticism from the president’s allies within his own party. Sen. Lindsey Graham called the withdrawal a “huge Obama-like mistake” and said “ISIS is not defeated” in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan – as Trump claimed in a tweet after news of the withdrawal broke. Graham concluded, “An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, Bashar al Assad of Syria, and Russia.”

GOP Sen. Marco Rubio even retweeted the Russian Embassy praising the withdrawal with the comment, “I found someone who is supportive of the decision to retreat from #Syria.”

The United States had committed in September to keep troops in Syria indefinitely, to bolster Kurdish forces in an effort to keep Iranian influence out of the area – a commitment that infuriated Turkey and left the Americans effectively in control of a little less than a third of Syria.  

Mr. Kurd

Also in September, during a press conference at the UN, Kurdish journalist Rahim Rashidi made headlines around the world when Trump referred to him as “Mr. Kurd.” Rashidi asked Trump what a future relationship with the Kurds would look like in a “post-ISIS” world.

“We’re trying to get along very well,” Trump responded. “We do get along great with the Kurds. We’re trying to help them a lot. Don’t forget, that’s their territory. We have to help them. I want to help them. They fought with us. They died with us. They died. We lost tens of thousands of Kurds, died fighting ISIS. They died for us and with us. And for themselves. They died for themselves. They’re great people. And we have not forgotten. We don’t forget.”

“Mr. Kurd” was trending on Twitter after the exchange, and while many Western journalists mocked Trump and viewed the label as crude, it became a sensation among Middle Eastern Kurds – who see their identity as rarely recognized on the world stage.

Trump calls on Kurdish reporter by saying 'Mr. Kurd'

“I loved it – because all the time, our identity is ignored by the Turkish government, by the Iranian government,” Rashidi told The Washington Post. “We are proud of our struggle for democracy, for justice, for freedom. He made me so happy when he called me Mr. Kurd. It was a moment of respect for us, for me.”

After Trump’s plan to withdrawal was announced on Wednesday, many critics immediately saw the move as a betrayal of the Syrian Kurds who fought side-by-side with U.S. soldiers to end the atrocities of ISIS – Trump’s number one priority in Syria.

Without U.S. soldiers as a buffer, the Kurds are now left to fend for themselves against the second-largest military in NATO, one that has vowed to destroy them before handing their territory back over to the Assad regime that for decades stripped them of autonomy and identity.