Last December, President Trump shocked Washington when he announced that he was pulling US military forces out of Syria. Explaining his decision in a video tweet, Trump declared that “we have won against ISIS” and that US soldiers “are all coming back, and they’re coming back now.”
High-level officials in the Trump administration, who were planning on a prolonged military presence in Syria, were taken aback. Arguing that the withdrawal of US forces would leave a vacuum in Syria that could be exploited by ISIS and Iran, they persuaded the president to delay the withdrawal and maintain a contingent of US forces in the country.
What made the officials’ persuasion campaign notable was that it preserved US military support for Kurdish forces who are leading a leftist social revolution in Rojava, the Kurdish-led area of northeast Syria. The Syrian Kurds, who spearheaded the fight against ISIS, have created an autonomous region that unites several cantons in a system of “democratic confederalism.” The novel governing arrangement, rooted in values of feminism, ecology, and democracy, has given hope to many who desire a path forward from the ravages of the Islamic State and the Syrian Civil War.
Although US officials have never supported the revolution in Rojava, they have backed Kurdish forces in the campaign to stamp out ISIS. Throughout the war, high-level bureaucrats have repeatedly praised the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as the most effective fighters against the Islamic State. “The SDF,” Gen. Raymond Thomas told Congress earlier this year, is “an extraordinary force,” one that “has done most of the fighting and dying in Syria.”
But while Kurdish forces performed admirably against ISIS, they now face serious threats from other actors, including Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and, in particular, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who denounces the Kurdish forces as terrorists.
Naturally, some basic questions arise about the United States’ motives: Why are high-level officials in the Trump administration defending leftist revolutionaries in Syria from Turkey, a NATO ally? And why is the foreign policy establishment demanding that Trump keep US forces positioned in Syria to assist the Kurds, especially now that the Islamic State’s “caliphate” has been destroyed?
According to US officials, they need Kurdish forces to ensure that ISIS is gone for good. If the United States stopped working with the Kurds, they warn, the Islamic State would regroup and regain parts of Syria. And they say that a US withdrawal would embolden Iran.
But US officials are pursuing more ambitious goals, too. As long as US forces remain on the ground in Syria, the Trump administration wants to use them to maintain a foothold in the country. Rather than trying to help the Syrian Kurds achieve their dream of a democratic and autonomous region within Syria, Trump and company are trying to exploit the revolution in Rojava to achieve regime change in Syria.
The Role of Turkey
As administration officials attempt to carry out their geopolitical plans, their biggest obstacle has been the Turkish government. Although the Turks have also been pursuing regime change in Syria, their first priority has been to destroy the revolution in Rojava.
In January 2018, Turkey invaded and conquered Afrin, one of the cantons of Rojava. Over the course of the eight-week Turkish-led military offense, an estimated five hundred civilians were killed, and eight hundred Kurdish fighters died trying to defend the area. Hundreds of thousands of people fled in terror. Human rights abuses were rampant.
Following Trump’s announcement last December that he was withdrawing US forces from Syria, the Turkish government began preparing to attack Rojava again. President Erdoğan vowed to eliminate the Kurdish forces in the area.
A number of US officials warned that the Kurds would be slaughtered. Brett McGurk, the US diplomat who had been coordinating the international coalition fighting ISIS, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that any Turkish incursion into northeast Syria “would precipitate chaos and an environment for extremists to thrive.”
Hearing similar warnings from US military officials, President Trump began to walk back his decision. He eventually opted to delay the withdrawal and keep a small group of US forces in Syria, thereby deterring a Turkish invasion. Issuing a sharp warning to Turkey, the president tweeted that the United States “will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”
The likelihood of a Turkish attack, however, remains high. While Trump has pitched a proposed “safe zone” along the Turkish-Syrian border to appease the Turks, many officials remain skeptical of Turkish intentions, suggesting that the proposal is nothing more than cover for the Turks to take control, since it would require Kurdish forces to leave the area.
In May, a bipartisan study group established by Congress advised the Trump administration to prepare for a Turkish attack. “If the US-Turkish negotiations over a ‘safe zone’ along the Turkish-Syrian border in northeast Syria do not succeed,” the study group reported, “this could prompt a Turkish incursion in that area, whether or not US forces remain.”
At a congressional hearing that same month, New York congressman Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that he viewed the proposed “safe zone” as “a thinly veiled attempt to suppress the Syrian Kurds, who have been our partners in fighting ISIS.” California congressman Brad Sherman echoed that sentiment, saying that “it seems to be for the purpose of suppressing Syrian Kurds, who are the bulk of the fighters for the Syrian Democratic Forces.”
Many US officials now agree that Turkey poses a significant threat to the stability of northeast Syria. A Turkish attack on Rojava, they warn, is one of the greatest dangers to the safety and security of the Syrian Kurds.
The Congressional Response
Facing pressure over the Turkish threat, Trump has personally assured Kurdish leaders of his support, telling them that the Kurdish people are “not going to be killed.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has provided similar assurances, saying that the administration is working to ensure that “the Kurdish people in Syria are indeed protected.”
Regardless, not all congressional leaders have been persuaded. In January, US senators Tammy Duckworth of Wisconsin and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee wrote a letter to President Trump asking him to “develop and implement a strategy to help protect the security and diplomatic equities of our Kurdish partners.” At a congressional hearing the following month, a number of US senators requested the same of then-commander of US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, emphasizing the importance of creating a plan to safeguard the Kurds.
“I worry that there is a lot of lip service right now about making good on our promises to the Kurds, and it seems that we are short on plans,” New Mexico senator Martin Heinrich said. The consequences of not acting, he warned, “could be morally terrible.”
Since then, a number of administration officials have continued to insist that they are considering ways to protect the Kurds, but they have not offered details. Rather than drafting a specific plan and strategy, as a number of members of Congress have urged, administration officials have largely shrugged off the request.
To “leave the Kurds in jeopardy, it would just be the wrong thing to do morally, it’d be the wrong thing to do in so many ways,” Engel said.
Congressional pressure notwithstanding, the administration has kept its eye on the prize: achieving regime change in Syria. Now that ISIS has been defeated, US officials believe they can use their partnership with the Kurds to block Assad from reasserting his control over northeast Syria while pressuring him into stepping down from power.
As far as Rojava is concerned, “we are not seeking to create an independent country,” Defense Department official Robert Karem told Congress last year. Instead, “we want to use the hard-won military victories of the Syrian Democratic Forces as leverage towards a diplomatic end state.” Brigadier general Scott Benedict delivered the same message, saying that the stabilization of northeast Syria “can contribute as part of that leverage to eventually get to a political settlement.”
In a separate hearing, US special envoy to Syria James Jeffrey confirmed the strategy, noting that Rojava is useful “as part of the leverage to try to push the political process forward.” He described the US relationship with the Kurds as “tactical and temporary.”
Other officials agree that the American presence in Syria gives the United States a stronger hand against Assad. According to the special study group convened by Congress, the US military presence in northeast Syria facilitates “the control of one third of Syrian territory via the SDF partner force.” The region is especially important because it “contains valuable hydrocarbon, water, and agricultural resources.”
When Jeffrey reviewed the situation with Congress last month, he explained that Assad’s lack of control over the region remains crucial to US strategy. Either Assad will accept negotiations for a political transition, Jeffrey said, “or we will continue the economic and political-diplomatic pressure, and Assad will see 40 percent of his territory being held by others, and he’s going to have a hard time getting that back.”
What the administration has concluded, in other words, is that Rojava is most important as a tool for achieving regime change. It has opted for a strategy that downplays the threat from Turkey and rejects the Kurdish goal of creating a democratic, autonomous region inside Syria.
It’s a cynical strategy that exploits the Kurds. But it’s the one prevailing in Washington at the moment.