How Trump has betrayed Syrian Kurds with US troop withdrawal

December 31, 2018 10:43
US Marine Corps tactical vehicles are seen driving along a road near the town of Tal Baydar in the countryside of Hasakeh province in Syria on Dec. 21. US President Donald Trump has ordered a withdrawal of the estimated 2,000 US troops in Syria. Photo: AF

In one of my previous articles, I wrote about fading hopes in relation to the future of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq.

Now, the outlook for the Kurdish movement has suddenly even grimmer as US President Donald Trump announced out of the blue that he was pulling all American troops from Syria.

Among all the Kurds, those in Syria will definitely prove the biggest loser as a result of Trump’s decision.

Syrian Kurds were the second Kurdish group after the Iraqi Kurds that had successfully gained de facto autonomy.

Just like their compatriots in northern Iraq, the Kurdish people in Syria have won western sympathy and secured their autonomy mainly because of their gallantry and contribution in the Syrian civil war, during which they fought bravely against both the Assad regime and the Islamic State (IS), and became the only reliable ally of the Unite States in the entire conflict.

In 2013, the Syrian Kurds declared autonomy and then in 2016, announced the establishment of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

Despite the absence of widespread international recognition, the newly created de facto autonomous region in northern Syria has been enjoying the strong support of the United States since the day it was founded.

By providing the Syrian Kurds with all the weapons and supplies they needed, Washington hoped that they could continue to fight against both the Assad regime and the IS effectively.

And on numerous occasions, American officials, and even Trump himself, have vowed repeatedly that they would never forget the Kurdish comrades who sacrificed their lives fighting for the US in Syria.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Kurds themselves actually have an ambitious goal in mind than just establishing a Kurdish autonomous region or a sanctuary.

According to their vision, by building a model state that respects religious pluralism, ethnic diversity, democracy and the rights of women and ethnic minorities on the war-torn and highly chaotic Syrian soil, the Kurds hope that, perhaps a bit too naively, they can create a fait accompli and garner international recognition of their autonomy.

If the Kurds have succeeded in setting up their own autonomous regions in both northern Iraq and Syria, then it would be logical for Ankara to infer that the next Kurdish self-governing region is likely to emerge on its soil.

For years, Turkey has remained highly vigilant against Kurdish separatism, and has been discontented with the Kurdish autonomous region in the neighboring Iraq.

And in recent years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been toughening his stance on the Kurdish independence movement and playing the “Kurdish card” to rationalize his personal dictatorship.

As a matter of fact, the reason why Turkey has eagerly joined the war on the IS is to find an excuse to go after the Syrian Kurds.

That said, as long as the Americans remained in Syria, the Kurds there were safe.

In my opinion, US withdrawal from Syria may give rise to two scenarios: first, it is not impossible that the remaining IS pockets might regroup.

The second and more likely scenario is that President Bashar al-Assad would quickly regain full control of the entire country with the help of Russia.

And since Moscow’s relations with the Kurds aren’t bad, it is likely that the Turks will go after the Syrian Kurds.

As such, chances are, after the departure of US troops, Turkey, a big military power in NATO, would take it upon itself to mount an all-out offensive against the Kurdish autonomous region in Syria and do whatever it takes to reduce the entire area to ashes.

Once the Syrian Kurds are eliminated, Erdoğan might, in return, stop holding the Saudi crown prince’s feet to the fire over the suspected murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi on one hand, and then agree to bear more NATO military spending on the other so as to please Washington.

So in the end, everybody wins, except for the Syrian Kurds.

Compared to the Kurds in northern Iraq, the Syrian Kurds are actually in a much more miserable situation right now, because they are likely to end up losing everything after the US troop pullout.

And there is also the possibility of a ripple effect: once the Syrian Kurds become refugees again, they would almost for certain flood into the relatively peaceful self-governing Kurdistan in northern Iraq, thereby making it very easy for IS militants posing as civilians to infiltrate into Iraqi territory again.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 25

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal