Last September, the United States began sending additional troops into northeast Syria, where hundreds of US soldiers are helping Kurdish forces fight the remnants of ISIS. The move represented a sharp change for the Trump administration, which had pulled US forces from the Turkish border the previous year, facilitating a brutal Turkish attack on the Kurdish homeland of Rojava.
Yet despite predictions that Trump’s betrayal would bring an end to the Kurds’ leftist social revolution in Rojava, the Kurds have been remarkably resilient. Not only have they managed to endure more than a year of ongoing Turkish attacks, but they have continued forging an inspiring experiment in direct democracy, drawing praise from observers who visit the area.
Rojava “has the best religious freedom conditions in the Middle East and has the best conditions for women,” said Nadine Maenza, a US commissioner for religious freedom, when she visited Rojava this past October.
While the Kurds have defied the odds, they are now facing new threats — particularly from the United States. Over the past year, US diplomats have been calling on Kurdish leaders to share power with rival politicians who do not hold the same revolutionary views.
Participants portray recent talks as a well-intentioned effort to create Kurdish unity.
But the talks are more accurately seen as a bid by Washington to appease Turkey, maintain a foothold in Syria, and, perhaps most crucially, moderate the Kurds’ revolutionary ambitions.
The Syrian Kurds, Trump’s Betrayal, and the Aftermath
For the past several years, the United States has been working with Kurdish forces in northeast Syria in the war against ISIS. By providing the Kurds with arms, money, training, air cover, and logistics support, the United States has enabled them to wage an effective military campaign that has left the group defeated and largely dismantled.
This partnership has ramped up tensions with Turkey, which has been waging a decades-long war against the Kurdish people. The Turkish government has accused the Syrian Kurds of being part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant Kurdish resistance group, and portrays both the PKK and Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists who must be destroyed.
The international left has largely supported the Kurds, inspired by their efforts to lead a leftist social revolution in Rojava. As the Syrian state withdrew its forces from northeast Syria during the early stages of the country’s civil war, leftist Kurds began transforming the area into an autonomous region. They empowered women and ethnic minorities to participate in local and regional politics and promoted a vision of “democratic confederalism” rooted in egalitarian economics and political participation.
The Kurds’ vision of democratic confederalism has led them to begin building a revolutionary new society that is democratically administered by small, decentralized self-governing units. Local communities and ethnic groups participate in communes, neighborhood councils, and district councils, where they decide how to run their communities and manage their resources. By adopting the principle of dual leadership, the Kurds have empowered men and women to work alongside each other as equal partners at all levels of society. If Rojava is successful, it could become the basis for a new kind of egalitarian and self-governing society.
Officials in Washington have always harbored serious concerns about their partnership with the revolutionary Kurds. They have refused to recognize Rojava as an autonomous region within Syria and have displayed a reckless disregard for Rojava’s security, looking the other way as Turkey periodically launched attacks like the brutal invasion of Afrin in 2018.
The Trump administration has been one of the greatest threats to Rojava. Although Trump has periodically praised the Kurds for their military courage, he has repeatedly enabled Turkish aggression. When administration officials announced in October 2019 they would begin drawing US troops away from the Turkish border, they cleared the way for Turkey’s right-wing nationalist president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to launch a military operation that killed hundreds of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
Turkey “had to have it cleaned out,” Trump said, justifying the ethnic cleansing.
But Trump’s decision sparked a backlash, including from many US officials, and he backtracked by keeping a small contingent of US troops in northeast Syria. After Russian and Syrian forces moved into the area, administration officials announced that about five hundred US soldiers would continue working with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to guard the region’s oil and fight the remnants of the Islamic State.
“We’re still partnering with the SDF,” then secretary of defense Mark Esper acknowledged several weeks after Turkey’s invasion. “We’re still providing assistance to them.”
US Support for Leftist Revolutionaries?
Many US officials have commended the Kurds for building a stable political system in a war-torn country.
In recent months, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has taken the lead within the US government in highlighting the Kurds’ achievements in Rojava. In its annual report, a public hearing, and an op-ed, the commission praised the Kurds for creating an inclusive society that provides religious freedom to its diverse residents.
US commissioner Nadine Maenza, who visited Rojava in October and November, repeatedly extolled the Kurds for creating a system of self-government that empowers the local population.
“They set up all these committees and they start literally meeting the needs of the community,” Maenza said. “They did it in a way that promoted ethnic diversity, religious diversity, acceptance of one another. . . . It created conditions that are unique to the rest of the Middle East.”
More recently, some high-level officials in Washington have offered similar words of praise. “They seem to be somewhat successful in bringing all these pockets of different ethnic backgrounds together under one sort of democracy that actually seems to be working,” Texas representative Michael McCaul, a Republican, said at a congressional hearing earlier this month.
But as the Kurds well know, US officials often have other motives in mind when showering them with praise — namely, their military prowess.
When ISIS forces began rampaging across northern Syria and western Iraq in 2014 and 2015, US officials discovered that Kurdish militias were the only forces that could hold back the onslaught. “They were the only people who could fight effectively against ISIS at the time,” a State Department official told Congress in 2019.
Over the course of the war, Kurdish fighters made great sacrifices, losing more than ten thousand soldiers. “We outsourced the dying to them,” one US official later admitted.
Now, with ISIS mostly vanquished, Washington has presented a new rationale for supporting the Kurds. Because the Kurds control about one-third of Syrian territory, US officials believe they hold significant leverage over Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. As long as the Kurds remain in command of Rojava, US officials wager, Assad will not be able to reestablish control over Syria.
Rojava “is the United States’ greatest single point of leverage in Syria,” the congressionally mandated Syria Study Group (SSG) noted in a major report in 2019.
This was one of the main reasons Turkey’s attack on Rojava in October 2019 upset some US officials. The president’s “approach has ceded U.S. leverage over a future political solution in Syria,” Florida representative Ted Deutch complained. The co-chairs of the Syria Study Group agreed, condemning the Trump administration for “forgoing an important source of leverage.”
With US forces once again working alongside the Kurds, many US officials believe they have salvaged that leverage. Even if Trump’s actions weakened the United States’ foothold in Syria, they remain convinced that Washington can use what remains of Kurdish control of Rojava to pressure Assad into a political agreement that results in him leaving office.
Antony Blinken, who is slated to become secretary of state in the incoming Biden administration, views Rojava as a key element of US strategy. “That’s a point of leverage because the Syrian government would love to have dominion over those resources,” Blinken said last year. “We should not give that up for free.”
US Opposition to Leftist Revolution
Viewing the Kurds as strategically important partners, US officials have been reluctant to criticize them. Only rarely have they revealed their opposition to the Kurds’ revolutionary aspirations.
In December 2017, former US diplomat Stuart Jones sent one signal when he urged Congress to make sure Washington’s partnership with the Kurds “does not create a political monopoly for a political organization that is really hostile to U.S. values and ideology.”
In 2019, the Syria Study Group provided another sign when it complained that the main revolutionary Kurdish party in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), had been using the SDF’s cooperation with the United States to establish a civilian government at odds with US preferences. “The United States never explicitly pledged support for Kurdish autonomy or self-rule in Syria,” the study group insisted.
One of the clearest signs of US opposition came during a congressional hearing in October 2019, when US senator Jeff Merkley repeatedly asked then State Department official James Jeffrey about his views on the revolution.
“There was, to be fair, a widely circulated vision of Rojava,” Merkley explained. The Kurds envisioned a “self-governed autonomous area with a whole philosophy of democratic control.”
Jeffrey responded by agreeing with Merkley’s characterization of the Kurdish vision, even suggesting that the Kurds might achieve their revolutionary goals, but insisted that the United States did not back the revolution. “I want to emphasize that this vision, which is the vision of our partners, was never the American vision,” Jeffrey said.
And US officials are keen on making their own vision come to fruition. Many US officials and establishment thinkers are doing what they can to bring a less revolutionary Kurdish leadership to power.
In a 2018 policy brief, the Brookings Institution argued that the United States should encourage the PYD to share power with the much smaller Kurdish National Council (ENKS), an opposition umbrella group hosted by Turkey. The brief suggested that a power-sharing agreement could prevent the PYD from creating an autonomous region inside Syria. The United States could adopt “a posture that is accommodating of Turkish national security concerns,” the brief noted.
Turkey’s attack on Rojava in October 2019 put significant pressure on Kurdish leaders to take Washington’s concerns into consideration. Shortly after the assault, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi agreed to begin talks with opposition leaders, and US officials urged the two sides to create a unity government that incorporated ENKS leaders.
US diplomat William Roebuck, who played a central role in facilitating the talks, noted in an internal memo that he wanted to see Rojava’s political structure “evolve” by “including Kurds outside the PYD and more empowered, independent Arabs.”
After several rounds of negotiations in early 2020, one of which Roebuck attended, the two Kurdish sides came to an agreement. On June 17, Kurdish leaders announced they had reached a “common political vision” over how to govern Rojava.
Roebuck, who participated in the ceremony, praised both sides for their efforts. “They have shown flexibility and intelligence in the way that they have dealt with this,” he said.
The US Embassy in Syria agreed, issuing a statement that described the agreement as “an important first step towards greater political coordination between Syrian Kurdish political factions with the support of the United States.”
Although it remains unclear whether the deal will create a pathway for ENKS leaders to acquire political power, the accord is a major political victory for the United States — and a blow to the Kurds’ revolutionary ambitions.
The Future of Rojava
Despite the Kurds’ many achievements, the future of Rojava remains in doubt. Even if the revolutionaries find some way to withstand growing US pressure, the Kurds still face an existential threat from Turkey.
Turkey’s invasion in October 2019 expelled hundreds of thousands of people from numerous towns that Ankara’s forces and their allied militias continue to occupy. As part of the military operation, Turkey drove a huge wedge between the western and eastern parts of Rojava.
Turkish leaders continue to back militants that launch periodic attacks on the Kurdish people. The very day that the Kurds in Rojava announced their unity deal, Turkey launched a major offensive against the Kurdish region of Iraq, even receiving encouragement from the Trump administration. Recent reports indicate that Turkey is preparing to mount another attack on Rojava.
The Kurds have also lost much of the leverage they had over the Syrian government. After Turkey invaded Rojava in October 2019, Kurdish leaders had no choice but to invite Syrian and Russian forces into the area for protection. US officials estimate that between four thousand and ten thousand Syrian forces now occupy various parts of northeast Syria.
Russia has also been pressuring the Kurds, despite the fact that Russian military forces initially came to their assistance during the Turkish attack. Russian leaders are intent on bringing Rojava back into the orbit of the Syrian government, which Russia has been backing in the Syrian Civil War. In early 2020, Russia closed an Iraqi border crossing that had been supplying Rojava with about 40 percent of its medical aid.
The coronavirus and economic woes are still another challenge for the Kurds. Reports indicate that the virus is spreading through Rojava; officials have periodically placed cities into total lockdown. On the economic side, rapid inflation has made it difficult for people to purchase basic goods and essentials. Farmers are struggling to find buyers for their crops. US sanctions have worsened the crisis.
“Ordinary people are having trouble buying the basic goods that they need to survive,” US diplomat William Roebuck acknowledged last August.
Through it all, officials in Washington insist they are still supporting the Kurds. They continue paying the Kurds to manage several camps that are holding about ten thousand detained Islamic State fighters and about seventy thousand civilians, many of whom are the wives, children, and family members of ISIS fighters.
Hundreds of US soldiers remain on the ground in Rojava, where they continue working with Kurdish forces to target remaining pockets of jihadists. Although the Trump administration has announced troop drawdowns in Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan, US officials have indicated that they will maintain a military presence in Rojava.
The incoming Biden administration remains something of a wild card, but president-elect Joe Biden has signaled he intends to keep working with the Kurds. In 2019, Biden said that “it makes a lot of sense” to keep several hundred US troops in Rojava “to protect the Kurds and provide for security in the region.” Other US officials have indicated that there will be no immediate changes in US policy under the Biden administration.
Much more quietly, however, Washington continues meddling in Kurdish politics. US officials insist that they are trying to create unity among various Kurdish political parties, but what they are really trying to do is create a more moderate Kurdish leadership. They want to appease Turkey, maintain US forces in Syria, and bring the revolution in Rojava to an end.
In short, the United States has begun a major new battle for Rojava — and Kurdish liberation is their last concern.