In northeastern Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are spearheading a final military campaign against the Islamic State — attempting to defeat the organization once and for all. Their effort is part of Operation Roundup, a military mission backed by the United States.
According to US officials, the Syrian Democratic Forces have cleared the Baghuz and Dashisha areas in eastern Syria and are now conducting a final push into the Middle Euphrates River Valley. “Victory by the Syrian Democratic Forces there,” US colonel Sean Ryan announced in a September 18 press briefing, “will mean that ISIS no longer holds territory.”
The Syrian Kurdish fighters that form the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces are well-known on the international left. Over the last several years, they’ve led a remarkable social revolution in Rojava, the northern part of Syria, where they are seeking to establish an autonomous, anticapitalist territory that secures Kurdish self-determination while overturning gender-based hierarchies.
The revolutionary goals of the Syrian Kurds make them unlikely partners for the United States. Although US officials have repeatedly praised the SDF as the most effective anti-ISIS fighters in Syria, Washington has made no secret of its opposition to the revolution in Rojava.
Earlier this year, US officials gave Turkey the green light to invade and conquer Afrin, one of Rojava’s three cantons. More recently, the US has been pressuring Kurdish military leaders to leave Manbij, an area that the SDF liberated from the Islamic State in 2016.
It’s unclear what President Trump thinks about all of this. He recently praised the Kurds as “great fighters” and “great, great people,” but he previously expressed little concern about their fate. The values that Trump personifies — American capitalism, plutocratic governance, anti-feminist reaction — are sharply at odds with those of the Rojava revolution.
Still, a number of high-level administration officials have insisted that the United States will continue to support the SDF. “We will not simply cast that organization aside,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis promised in June. “It is critical . . . to defeating the ISIS caliphate now” and “preventing the rise of ISIS 2.0.”
During a congressional hearing the same month, Maryland senator Chris Van Hollen asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to pledge “that you’re not going to be bullied by Turkey or President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan to throwing the Syrian Kurds under the bus.” Pompeo replied that “there’s no administration intention to hurl any large yellow objects whatsoever.” And then last month, the Trump administration reversed the president’s earlier decision to withdraw US forces from Syria.
While Trump continues to oscillate, leaving many observers wondering what he will do next, Syrian Kurdish fighters remain determined to not only liberate the final areas of the region still in ISIS’s hands but to achieve their social revolution in Rojava.
The machinations of the various powers active in the region will largely determine whether the Syrian Kurds will have the chance. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has vowed to retake Rojava. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly threatened to annihilate the Kurds’ radical experiment. And American support has been contingent at best, always subordinated to the greater concerns of US empire.
Triumphs and Setbacks
The experience of Afrin and Manbij have confirmed the Syrian Kurds’ worst fears about the Trump administration’s sincerity.
In January, Turkish troops, with the approval of the US, invaded Afrin. They pummeled the canton until March, wreaking devastation and causing mass exodus. About five hundred civilians and more than eight hundred Kurdish fighters died during the Turkish offensive. More than one hundred thousand residents fled the area, and by the end of May, more than 134,000 people remained displaced. Those still in Afrin are suffering material deprivation and surging violent crime under the new Turkish-backed leadership.
The Syrian Kurds are also facing a major challenge in nearby Manbij. After Erdoğan threatened to extend his invasion of Afrin into Manbij, US and Turkish officials made a deal that requires the Syrian Kurdish fighters to withdraw from the area. Rather than coming to the defense of the Syrian Kurds, US officials opted for appeasement. US and Turkish military forces are set to begin joint patrols of the area.
The deal is a major setback to the revolution in Rojava. Since expelling the Islamic State from Manbij, the Syrian Kurds have overseen a transformation so striking that even US officials have praised it. After visiting Manbij in July, Defense Department official John Rood marveled at how he had walked freely and safely through neighborhoods that had previously been under ISIS control. “It was really remarkable to see,” Rood said.
New Hampshire senator Jeanne Shaheen, who had a similar experience during her own recent trip to the area, informed Secretary of State Pompeo that she was “very impressed with the work of the Syrian Democratic Forces.”
The entire area, she said, has been “stabilized.”
Although the Trump administration has been willing to deal away the gains of the Syrian Kurds in both Afrin and Manbij, it has continued to find it beneficial to preserve some elements of its partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Together, the SDF and the US military control the northeastern part of Syria, including the country’s largest oil fields. About two thousand US military forces are positioned at military bases throughout the area.
Typically, US officials say they need to maintain their military presence to ensure the Islamic State has been routed. “We’re remaining in Syria,” State Department official Brett McGurk announced in August. “The focus is the enduring defeat of ISIS.” A month later, State Department official James Jeffrey provided additional confirmation, saying that “we are not in a hurry” to leave Syria.
US officials are taking advantage of the situation to pursue other objectives as well. For starters, they are using the US’s military presence to keep up the pressure on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, making it more difficult for the Iranian and Russian governments to support him.
A number of former and current US officials argue they are more likely to achieve their goal in Syria — regime change — if they can split the Russians from Assad. The Russians are “the finger in the dike for Assad,” former US official Antony Blinken recently commented. “If they pull out then he’s likely to go.”
In August, US general Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), said that US involvement in Syria has a lot to do with the Russians. “It’s an aspect of great power competition that plays out right here in the CENTCOM area of responsibility,” Votel said.
Iran looms large as well. Numerous officials in the Trump administration have pointed to Iran as the main reason for their ongoing involvement in Syria.
In June, State Department official David Satterfield told Congress that US military forces would not leave Syria unless Iranian forces depart the country first. “Any decision on the US military presence anywhere in Syria, A, is a presidential decision, [and] B, depends absolutely on the exit of Iran from Syria,” Satterfield said.
A month later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo relayed a similar message to Congress, explaining that President Trump now makes all of his decisions about Syria by giving primary consideration to the Iranian role there. Iran has been “a central point that we have focused on, with respect to US policy in Syria,” Pompeo said. “I’m confident [it] will remain so.”
Ongoing US support for the Syrian Democratic Forces is therefore at contingent at best. If US officials can find others ways to achieve their objectives, then they will undoubtedly cut the Kurds loose. After all, US officials largely view the SDF as “our proxies” who are “working for us and doing our bidding,” as General Raymond Thomas, the commander of US Special Operations Command, once put it.
The Big Question
Although the Trump administration appears to have decided to maintain US forces in Syria for now, one big question remains: will it continue working with the Syrian Kurds?
For months, a number of current and former US officials have argued that the time has come to sever ties with the Kurds and refocus on the relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally. Given that US-Turkish relations have faltered considerably over the past few years, especially after Turkish officials accused the US of being involved in the July 2016 coup attempt against President Erdoğan, the Trump administration may find it difficult to revive the alliance. In August, the Trump administration imposed sanctions and increased tariffs on Turkey, exacerbating the country’s economic crisis.
At the same time, the deteriorating relationship has not prevented the two countries from working together militarily. The US and Turkish governments are currently working in tandem to prevent a Syrian incursion into Idlib Province, where at least 3 million civilians and thirty thousand anti-Assad militants are cornered. “Turkey has helped us very much with that whole situation,” President Trump recently said.
When the State Department recently announced the appointment of former US diplomat James Jeffrey as special representative for Syria engagement, it sent a strong signal that the US intends to work more closely with the Turkish government on the situation in Syria. For the past year, Jeffrey has been calling for warmer relations with the Turks, telling Congress last December that Turkish-US ties are “crucial to us” and imploring his colleagues “don’t cut off this relationship.”
Jeffrey also indicated that the US partnership with the Syrian Kurds was making it harder to achieve a rapprochement with Turkey. He noted that Turkish officials view the revolution in Rojava as a project of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant Kurdish liberation organization that the Turkish government has been battling for decades. There has been “a lot of bitching” from the Turks, he said.
Given the situation, the Syrian Kurds are facing significant uncertainty about their fate, not to mention the numerous threats to their very existence. Although US officials are supporting them for now, it remains to be seen whether ongoing pressure from Turkey or other geopolitical factors may lead to a change in US policy.
Yet if the US turns its back on the Kurds, it will not only be sacrificing the heroes of the war against the Islamic State in Syria — it will be risking the revolution in Rojava, the most promising democratic experiment in the Middle East.