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The Kurdish Dilemma

Will the most promising democratic experiment in the Middle East be allowed to survive? The answer increasingly depends on the geopolitical whims of the Trump administration.

Fighters in the Kurdish YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) in 2015. Kurdishstruggle / Flickr

Throughout the war against ISIS, US military officials have repeatedly praised Kurdish-led militias in Syria for their efforts on the battlefield.

“They have an indomitable will,” Maj. Gen. James Jarrard, the commander of Special Operations against the Islamic State, gushed last year. “They have been ferocious fighters and excellent leaders and pretty amazing tacticians.”

This past February, Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command, told a congressional committee that the Kurdish-led fighters constitute “the most effective force on the ground in Syria against ISIS.”

Since the Islamic State began its reign of terror in Iraq and Syria in 2014, the Kurdish-led forces — consisting of two main groups, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) — have indeed played a central role in rolling back ISIS’s gains. But what’s surprising about the constant praise from US officials is that the Kurds are also fighting to lead a leftist social revolution in the northern region of Rojava — hardly the kind of project likely to meet the approval of US policymakers.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone in elite circles agrees that the US military should be allying with the Kurdish revolutionaries. When the partnership first began to take shape, the Wall Street Journal warned about “America’s Marxist Allies Against ISIS.”

Last year, former US diplomat Stuart Jones implored Congress to make sure that ongoing US involvement with the Kurdish-led forces “does not create a political monopoly for a political organization that is really hostile to … US values and ideology.”

In Washington, a big concern is that the Kurdish revolutionaries are carving out an anticapitalist space that firmly rejects the basic premises of the US-led global order. Another major reservation is that the Kurdish revolutionaries have historic ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the US government has classified as a terrorist organization. While US military officials repeatedly deny any ongoing connection between the Kurdish-led forces and the PKK, it’s widely presumed in Washington that the YPG is a PKK affiliate.

With ISIS now facing total defeat in Iraq and Syria, the conflict over the US’s relationship has come to a head: should Washington continue to support the Kurdish-led forces, or should it leave them to confront the many hostile forces trying to destroy their revolution?

The US Approach

When the Obama administration first decided to partner with the Syrian Kurds, it was not doing so to bolster a leftist revolution — it was simply looking for allies to fight ISIS.

The Kurdish-led forces “stepped forward as partners in this fight,” State Department official David Satterfield explained earlier this year. “They were the only ones to do so. No other state, no other party, despite our offers and importunings, were willing to take up this battle.”

The only problem was that the Turkish government did not want the US to partner with the Kurds. Turkey, a NATO ally, views the YPG as an extension of the PKK and, as a partisan of Kurdish national liberation, an enemy of the Turkish state. Confronted with this challenge, US officials crafted a simple solution: they asked the Kurdish fighters to join forces with Arab fighters and create a new name for themselves.

“We literally played back to them that you’ve got to change your brand, you know, what do you want to call yourself besides the YPG,” US Special Operations Commander Raymond Thomas later recalled. “And with about a day’s notice they declared that they were the Syrian Democratic Forces.”

With the name change, the US began providing the Kurdish-led forces extensive military support, helping them achieve numerous victories against ISIS. The Kurdish-led forces defended the region of Kobanî against a lengthy siege, launched a major offensive to capture the city of Manbij, and led the ground attack on Raqqa, helping to oust ISIS from its capital city.

Still, US officials made it clear that their support came with significant caveats. No matter how many heroics the Kurdish-led forces displayed on the battlefield, US officials refused to support the social revolution that the Syrian Kurds were leading in Rojava.

When the Syrian Kurds took a major step in March 2016, announcing the formation of a new autonomous region inside Syria, US officials declared their opposition. “We don’t support self-rule, semi-autonomous zones inside Syria,” State Department spokesperson John Kirby said. “We just don’t.”

A few months later, US officials took more concrete action. After seeing reports that US special forces were wearing patches with the YPG insignia — a sign of the growing solidarity between American and Kurdish military forces — officials ordered the special-operation forces to remove them.

Although US military officials continued to praise the Syrian Kurds, the basic bone of contention lingered: the US had no interest in promoting the experiment in radical self-rule and social justice that the Kurds were leading. Even Special Forces Commander Raymond Thomas, who praised the Syrian Kurds for bringing many positive social changes to Syria, spoke of the Kurdish-led militia forces as nothing more than “our proxies.” The Kurdish-led forces, Thomas said, are “a surrogate force of 50,000 people that are working for us and doing our bidding.”

New Strategic Considerations

With the war against ISIS coming to an end, US officials are looking for new ways to use their Kurdish allies, thinking they might have utility in shaping the outcome of the war in Syria.

The conflict in Syria has been raging since 2011, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Backed by Iran and Russia, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has waged a devastating war against numerous rebel groups, many of whom have been supported by the United States and other regional powers. Tens of thousands of civilians have been caught in the crossfire, and millions have been displaced

The defeat of ISIS has left the US-led coalition well-positioned to play a more direct role in the war. As then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pointed out earlier this year, “The United States and the coalition forces that are working with us to defeat ISIS today control 30 percent of the Syrian territory, and control a large amount of population, and control a large amount of Syria’s oil fields.”

By preserving the US-led coalition, many officials say they can make it much more difficult for the Russians and Iranians to continue operating in Syria. Essentially, they want to maintain their ties with the Kurdish-led forces to more directly intervene in the war.

“We’re going to stay for various reasons,” State Department official David Satterfield explained earlier this year, emphasizing the importance of creating new political structures for a new Syrian state while “countering Iran.”

Former US diplomat James Jeffrey identified similar objectives. “We told the Turks that the Kurds were temporary, tactical, and transactional to defeat ISIS,” Jeffrey said. Moving forward, he said, the US needs the Kurds in order to “contain Iran” and pressure the Russians. “The whole purpose of this is to split the Russians from the Syrians by saying we’re going to stay on to force a political solution in Syria.”

At the time, US officials revealed they were beginning to transform their Kurdish-led partners into a border force of 30,000 fighters in northern Syria. According to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, coalition forces have been training and equipping the Kurdish-led fighters to help them more effectively secure the region. “So they’re going to be armed,” Mattis announced. “I would say at a minimum, rifles and machine guns, that sort of thing.”

Right away, the Trump administration was met with significant resistance. The Turkish government denounced the move, saying it had no intention of allowing the Syrian Kurds to continue their revolution in Rojava. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to “annihilate” the Kurdish-led forces.

The Trump administration partially capitulated to the Turkish government, allowing Turkish forces to invade and conquer Afrîn, one of the three cantons of Rojava. From January to March, Turkish forces launched a siege that killed hundreds of civilians and forced 200,000 Kurds to flee the area.

Only when the Turkish government threatened to expand its operations into the remaining parts of Rojava — going so far as to call for an attack on US forces — did the Trump administration push back. Meeting with Turkish officials, Tillerson announced that American forces would remain positioned in Manbij, a city that Kurdish-led forces had previously helped liberate from the Islamic State.

As tensions mounted between the US and Turkish governments, the Trump administration then faced another major challenge. In February, pro-regime Syrian forces backed by Russian operatives launched an attack on Kurdish-led forces in eastern Syria. US officials, who were aware of potential Russian involvement, decided to respond with airstrikes, killing hundreds of people, including dozens of Russians.

The incident, which could have easily escalated, showed just how quickly the conflict could bring the United States and Russia into direct battle. And it laid bear the existential threats Syrian Kurds continue to grapple with as they pursue their social revolution. Not only are they being threatened with annihilation by the Turkish government, they also know that Assad has no intentions of letting the revolution succeed. Without the limited support of the US military, they might already be facing invasions on multiple fronts.

What Happens Next?

With the Turkish and pro-regime Syrian forces testing the commitment of the Trump administration to its partnership with the Syrian Kurds, officials in Washington are now engaged in a heated debate over what to do next. While they largely agree that the war against ISIS is winding down, they disagree over whether they should remain directly involved in the war in Syria.

In January, State Department official David Satterfield told a congressional committee that “the president has committed, as a matter of strategy, that we will not leave Syria. We are not going to declare victory and go.” Secretary of State Tillerson confirmed the decision, announcing that the United States would “maintain a military presence in Syria.”

At the same time, many officials began to insist that it was time to start preparing to pull out of Syria. In February, former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford warned a congressional committee against any kind of long-term US military commitment. “In the end, our Syrian Kurdish and Syrian Arab allies must strike a deal with Assad,” Ford argued. “Unless we are prepared for an indefinite military presence, that deal will largely be on Assad’s terms because he will wait us out.”

Ford was especially concerned about how the American-Kurdish alliance would impact US relations with Turkey and US policy toward Iran. He advised Congress to carefully consider US priorities in the region.

“If it is the priority of the United States to use the Syrian Kurdish forces as a hammer against the Islamic State, then it is going to be much harder to work with Turkey on the Iran problem,” he said. “On the other hand, if we decide that now the priority should be Iran, then we need to figure out how to come to some sort of an agreement with Turkey.”

Within the Trump administration, officials are thinking through the same issues. Some senior officials want the Syrian Kurds to make a deal with Assad so they can withdraw American forces from the region and attempt a rapprochement with Turkey. Others say that they should continue working with the Kurdish-led forces to maintain pressure on Assad while more directly challenging Iranian and Russian involvement.

So far, the hard-liners have the upper hand, convincing Trump that he needs to keep US forces in the area. But it is unclear how long they will be able to maintain their position.

Ultimately, the main question is whether the Trump administration will continue to back the forces that have played such a key role in beating back ISIS while at the same paving the way for a major advance in the struggle for Kurdish liberation. In the end, Trump’s decision may well determine whether the most promising democratic experiment in the Middle East will be allowed to survive.