Assessing the Implications of the U.S.-Syria Withdrawal on the Kurdish Democratic Union

Assessing the Implications of the U.S.-Syria Withdrawal on the Kurdish Democratic Union

“The U.S.’ proposed withdrawal of the majority of its military presence from Syria leaves the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) in a challenging position. Now lacking clear U.S. protection and in the midst of preparing its final assault on ISIS-held positions, the PYD is now forced to weigh the decision of aligning with Russia and the Syrian government to hedge against the threat of a Turkish assault from the north.”

The PYD

On December 19th of 2018, in a surprise move following a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, United States (U.S.) President Donald Trump announced that the U.S.’ roughly 2,000 military personnel would be withdrawing from Syria within 30 days. The reason stated was that the so called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had been defeated and the U.S. could continue to carry out support operations in the form of airstrikes[1]. Trump’s decision signalled a likely end to any aspirations of fostering a legitimate alternative to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s government, which has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens and has been found to have deployed chemical weapons against them [2]. Beyond the implications of the withdrawal on the U.S.’ geopolitical aims, Washington’s decision leaves the U.S.-allied People’s Protection Units (YPG), with little leverage and minimal options in its fight for greater legitimacy in its controlled territory along Syria’s northern border. This is significant because the YPG represents the Kurdish component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that has been engaged in most of the combat on the ground against ISIS. Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, has stated that ‘the U.S.’ withdrawal is contingent upon ISIS’ continued defeat and Turkey’s commitment to not attacking the YPG’, but prospects of enforcing these conditions would be hampered by a diminished U.S. military presence along its border[3]. At present, it appears that the U.S. will leave 200 troops after the completion of the withdrawal to serve in a peacekeeping capacity.

The YPG represents the militarised branch of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD). The PYD was originally marginalised and closely monitored by the Assad government, but the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War allowed the group to operate largely independently, drive ISIS back thousands of kilometres with U.S. support, and establish a semi-autonomous enclave in Syria’s northern region along its Turkish border. The  proximity of the PYD-claimed territory to Turkey represents the most imminent threat to the Kurdish enclave as Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara views as a terrorist organisation [4]. Turkey typically maintains a more measured foreign policy approach and avoids third-party conflicts but it entered northern Syria in August 2016 to support an offensive against ISIS and block the SDF from seizing territory that would have connected the sizable Kurdish northern territory to Afrin in the west [5]. This would have yielded the SDF a near complete control over Syria’s northern border. Turkey views the YPG’s gains as a direct cross-border threat to link up with the PKK and now that the U.S. presence is decreasing drastically, it stands to reason that the Turks may seek to attack the Kurdish gains. Turkey’s Defence Minister, Hulusi Akar, was quoted saying that after Turkish military intervention, Kurdish fighters would be ‘buried in their ditches’[6].

U.S. Policy Pivot

In concert with Bolton’s stated commitment to a conditional withdrawal, Trump has stated that there will be an established 32-kilometer safe zone between the YPG and Turkey and threatened economic sanctions against Turkey if it were to violate it. The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Turkey already as a result of its detainment of an American pastor in August of 2018[7]. Turkey, for its part, dismissed Trump’s warning of sanctions with its foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu stating ‘we have said multiple times that we will not fear or be deterred by any threat. You can get nowhere by threatening Turkey economically’[8]. The question facing both the PYD and the U.S. is: will a 200-person peacekeeping force be able to enforce a safe zone against an emboldened Turkey, or is there potential that the U.S. forces may become caught in a crossfire between the PYD and Turkish forces and spark a larger conflict?

Despite President Trump’s stated commitment to a safe-zone, the PYD has begun pursuing alternative partners to guarantee its survival. The Kurds initially protested the U.S.’ decision  when thousands gathered near the U.S. coalition headquarters in Syria but has since acquiesced and begun engaging with potential partners[9]. Faced with a Turkish government with a stated pledge to destroying its territory and an uncertain U.S. military commitment, the PYD is left with few other state partners to align with. The PYD has decided that the only way to hedge against the Turkish threat is to align with allied Syrian and Russian governments. This alliance makes further strategic sense considering that Moscow has been pushing for an alternative to a Turkish presence on Syrian soil. Therefore, a Russian supported YPG could both aim to secure the northern border for the Assad government and provide the PYD the security assurances it seeks[10]. Considering these factors, the SDF has asked Moscow for protection and the PYD expects negotiations with the Assad government to begin soon.

Conclusion

The U.S. withdrawal demonstrates yet another example of the Trump administration’s commitment to recusing U.S. forces from participating in conflicts beyond its borders. The Syrian Civil War has been a devastating conflict, featuring many stakeholders, and few appealing options for coalition forces to align with. The YPG-led SDF has been the U.S.’ most reliable partner in this conflict up to this point but is now likely to turn to Washington’s adversaries to counter what the PYD surely views as an existential threat. The major questions remaining are: how will a PYD pivot to Moscow impact the remaining U.S. peacekeeping force’s ability to enforce strategic objectives and will Moscow and Damascus be reliable partners for the PYD going forward? The situation in which the PYD finds itself represents another chapter in the Kurdish pursuit of statehood in a region offering complex challenges and limited supporters of its aims of state legitimacy.

[1] Syria war: US to leave 200 troops for peacekeeping after withdrawal. (2019, February 22). Retrieved February 25, 2019, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-47330402
[2] Nebehay, S. (2018, September 12). U.N. documents further Syrian government use of banned chemical... Retrieved March 4, 2019, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-warcrimes/un-documents-further-syrian-government-use-of-banned-chemical-weapons-idUSKCN1LS1JH
[3]  Syria conflict: Bolton says US withdrawal is conditional. (2019, January 6). Retrieved February 25, 2019, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-46775308
[4]  Who are the Kurds? (2017, October 31). Retrieved February 25, 2019, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440
[5] Parlar Dal, E., 2016. Impact of the transnationalization of the Syrian civil war on Turkey: conflict spillover cases of ISIS and PYD-YPG/PKK. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 29(4), pp.1396-1420.
[6] Collard, R. (2018, December 21). How Trump May Have Given Assad a Path to Victory in Syria. Retrieved February 25, 2019, from http://time.com/5485660/syria-trump-isis-assad/
[7] Trump threatens to 'devastate' Turkish economy over Syrian Kurds. (2019, January 14). Retrieved February 25, 2019, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-46859164
[8]  Trump threatens to 'devastate' Turkish economy over Syrian Kurds. (2019, January 14). Retrieved February 25, 2019, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-46859164
[9] Collard, R. (2018, December 21). How Trump May Have Given Assad a Path to Victory in Syria. Retrieved February 25, 2019, from http://time.com/5485660/syria-trump-isis-assad/
[10] Seligman, L. (2019, January 28). The Unintended Consequences of Trump's Decision to Withdraw From Syria. Retrieved February 25, 2019, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/28/unintended-consequences-trump-decision-withdraw-syria/

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