On Wednesday, December 20, 2018 President Donald Trump issued an order as commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces to withdraw the 2000 U.S. troops in Syria, via a tweet.
These forces have been fighting Daesh/ISIS jointly with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) based in northern Syria.
The ramifications of this action are many, with lots of beneficiaries (alphabetically – Daesh/ISIS, Iran, Russia, Syria, Turkey) since the U.S. will be out of the way with no ground presence, even though it is possible American air power may still be used. But only one group will bear the cost – the Kurds. I will only address the Kurdish angle, though that runs through Turkey. I won’t even join the mob of speculators wondering why Trump did this.
The U.S. has been arming, training, and otherwise supporting the Kurds of Syria. The primary reason has been to use them, as very able and committed fighters, to eliminate Daesh/ISIS in Syria. Now, Trump has declared “victory” over that murderous entity, despite an August report that estimated 30,000 of those extremists remained in Iraq and Syria. This reeks of George W. Bush’s premature and utterly inaccurate “mission accomplished” declaration about the Iraq invasion.
This announcement by Trump seems to have surprised the various agencies in Washington, D.C. that would ordinarily have a stake and say in such matters. Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, Turkey’s Erdoğan was among the first to learn of this by phone after he “assured” Trump that Turkey could mop up the remaining Daesh/ISIS forces (a very dubious assurance since Turkey helped them and got them into Syria).
This brings us to the Kurds, who are Erdoğan’s boogeymen, bêtes noire, demons, nightmares… (you get the idea) and he considers those in Syria to be an extension of the PKK which has been fighting for Kurdish liberation in Turkey. Washington’s cooperation with the Kurds in Syria has stuck in Erdoğan’s craw. It has been a major contributor to tense Turkey-U.S. relations in the last few years.
Erdoğan has tried everything to dissuade Washington of its Kurdish cooperation. Nothing worked. Then, Erdoğan got himself in a serious jam when he shot down a Russian plane. He had to make amends by kissing up to the Kremlin, which gave him an idea. He could kill two birds with one stone. By pretending to cozy up to Putin, he could purchase missile systems from Russia, or at least pretend to do so. This seriously ruffled NATO feathers since it might lead to security breaches, but Erdoğan didn’t care. And now we know why. Just a few days ago, the U.S. State Department approved a $3.5 billion Patriot missile sale to Ankara. Though this has not yet received final approval, it makes very clear what has been going on. Erdoğan has gotten what he wants… again.
The Kurds are now royally screwed. Regardless of how able they are as fighters, the sheer preponderance of numbers and military equipment that Turkey has over them makes the outcome a foregone conclusion. Once the 2000 U.S. troops have been withdrawn (which will take roughly three months), the potential for Turkish troops fighting and or killing any of them will be eliminated. How would such a clash come about, you might wonder? Erdoğan has been threatening to enter northern Syria to eliminate the Kurdish forces he dreads. With Americans in their midst, that could have been a real problem. Now, once they’re gone, Erdoğan will have a free hand. Turkish forces are already being mobilized north of the Syrian border and Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defense minister, has threatened to “bury” Kurdish forces in Syria, according to the “Washington Post”.
The Kurds usefulness to the U.S. now being largely (if not completely) finished, they are being turned over to the tender mercies of Ankara. This resembles what Washington did to the Kurds of Iraq in in 1975. After supporting and arming them through Iran and Israel to extort concessions from Iraq, the Kurds were left to the tender mercies of Baghdad and its Arabization policies.
Now, the Kurds have few options. They can fight to the death, providing Turkey with an excuse to massacre non-combatant Kurds (something it may well do anyway). Their fighters could try to blend in with the general population by laying down their arms – either turning them over to the Turks, hiding them, or giving them to their compatriots in Iraq and Turkey. Most likely, they will cut a deal with the Syrian government. Of course Damascus has no love for the Kurds. But, they were allowed to go their own way, without much rancor, when the Syrian army had its hands full fighting various anti-government forces. This suggests that the two sides might be able to come to some accommodation, despite Damascus’s lack of interest so far. After all, President Assad and the rest of Syria’s leadership must know that if Turkey expands its already significant presence on Syrian soil, it will be a long time before Ankara withdraws its occupying forces.
So what should Armenians do in this mess? Some of our compatriots will be directly affected since they live in the Kurdish controlled zones of Syria. Otherwise, short of a few volunteers going to help fight Turkey, there’s not much we can do except to keep developing and expanding our relationships with our closest, and potentially friendliest neighbors, the Kurds.