Last week, Donald Trump unilaterally ordered for the US military to withdraw from the Syrian’s civil war theater. Coming as somewhat of a surprise to the Pentagon, this prompted the high-profile resignations of both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and anti-ISIS coalition envoy Brett McGurk. A bipartisan condemnation ensued, accusing Trump of abandoning allies and setting a dangerous precedent for future military excursions.
This also enraged the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces primarily responsible for waging the lion’s share of the war it took to dislodge ISIS from control of vast swaths of Syria, largely with the help of coalition air support from the United States and Russia. Some 2,000 US military personnel on the ground, training SDF forces and providing targeting information over the last several years, were reportedly deeply unhappy as well with the order to abandon the SDF’s mission.
While ISIS isn’t quite, as Trump declared, extinguished in Syria, the idea that they would regain significant territory or pose a threat beyond guerrilla terror actions is a slim chance. Assad, as his father before him did, has endured the war and will likely seek Russian-guided mediation with the remaining fractured rebel groups. The NATO proxy now abandoned, reconciliation between the SDF and Assad also seems likely as the two rarely fought during the war.
On paper, this seems like a tidy end to what has been a devastating, terrifying conflict for the region. Supporters of Donald Trump attracted to his isolationist foreign policy rhetoric cheered the move and chided Democrats that otherwise normally encourage reductions in US military involvement in foreign lands as flip-floppers, even accusing them of being in line with the neoconservatives so reviled by so-called libertarians and anti-war liberals alike.
Some anti-imperialist internationalist “far-leftists” decried the pull-out too, eyeing the social revolution in Kurdish Rojava (a presently semi-autonomous zone carved out during the war, seen as an opportunity for a Kurdish homeland) and its vulnerability to being crushed by an imminent invasion from Turkey, citing elements of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) operating within or controlling entirely the YPG/YPJ (People’s Protections Units, largely Kurdish militias that spearhead the SDF) as casus belli. Other anti-imperialist internationalist “far-leftists” praised the move, citing that a reduction in US military imperialism as more important than a burgeoning revolution, likely still bitter that an ostensibly anarcho-communist influenced militia made the frankly pragmatic move to accept US military support in exchange for not being completely wiped out by ISIS at the peak of their strength just a few years ago.
There’s a lot going on here, it’s extremely confusing, there’s a lot of acronyms, and making sense of the various viewpoints and ideological axes to grind is tough to do.
I’ve followed this conflict from its very beginning, having watched the Arab Spring unfold and seen Syria collapse into civil war just as Libya did. To reveal my personal biases, I’ve found the revolution in Rojava extremely inspiring and believe firmly that if it wasn’t for the Kurdish militias, thousands more would have perished. Their regard for environmentalism, feminism, ongoing experimentation in stateless governance, and commitment to an inclusive, secular, and a more horizontal, participatory, directly democratic society and economy makes it perhaps the most interesting region in the world for anarchists since Spanish Catalonia during the civil war in the 1930s. Hundreds of volunteers from anarchist and communist formations around the world have traveled to Rojava to assist the Kurds in their struggle and dozens have perished, recognized as martyrs and comrades.
A distinction can and should be made between Democrats in the United States and people that actually fall on the left side of the political spectrum when gauging their reactions to the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. While many might admire aspects of the Kurdish struggle and ideals of the revolution, scratching the surface of that support without a doubt reveals more American imperialist attitudes towards the region. A concern that abandoning the Kurds weakens the US’s ability to find proxies in further conflicts is ultimately a selfish and meddling line of logic. Lamenting “ceding influence” to Russia and Iran in the Middle East is very much a neoconservative’s foreign policy, as is (rightly) condemning Assad as a butcher and a dictator that has no business standing as a head of a state. It still should not be the job of the United States government to makes that decision.
Even taking into consideration that Trump is, in one form or another, likely compromised and cornered into making a decision like this still shows very little regard for the self-determination of the Kurdish people and instead highlights domestic partisan issues instead of a humanitarian concern. It does, however, make sense. The Kurdish groups in Syria are faced with two options I can see, presently:
- Endure the invasion of Northern Syria by Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance, likely costing thousands of lives and a total destruction of everything the revolution has gained during the conflict.
- Reconcile with the Assad government, which likely also doesn’t want a Turkish “counter-terrorism invasion” to become a convenient land grab occupation, a scenario that seems more and more plausible every time Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan opens his mouth. The Kurds win a degree of political autonomy (likely far less than the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq) and a reduction in pre-war marginalization in exchange for disarmament or integration into Syrian military structures in an effort to end the war.
This plays right into Russian efforts to keep Assad in power without losing an acre of control in Syria, thus retaining a warm water naval port in Tartus and likely complicating western efforts to build pipelines into Eastern Europe that would undercut Russian natural gas exports, both critical policy goals. The latter seems to be happening already, as Egypt is reportedly mediating discussions between Assad and the SDF, and units from the Syrian Arab Army have been seen moving into Kurdish territory, theoretically to dissuade Turkish forces massing on the northern border.
In regards to Trump, who let’s just operate under an assumption that he “listens” to Putin, he’s likely got blood on his (or son-in-law Jared Kushner’s) hands over the murder of a Saudi journalist in Turkey that is being leveraged against him, and he could fracture the NATO alliance by either seeking to stop the Turkish invasion of Northern Syria, infuriating a newly-aggressive and expansionist dictator and drawing Ankara closer to Moscow, or by letting it happen, likely irritating European members of the alliance, particularly France and Britain, both of whom have pledged not to pull their forces from support roles alongside the SDF. Another obvious goal of Putin is the weakening of the NATO alliance, particularly as it expands east with Turkish membership. France and Britain, while not the US military, could still function as a deterrent to Turkish invasion, so a slight easing of the hand-wringing for Rojava could be in order.
The larger picture is certainly a chess game, and one that retrospectively sees the Kurds used unfortunately once again as “useful idiots.” This isn’t the first time this has happened, and Kurdish groups were wary to trust the United States as it was already. It shouldn’t be chalked up to naivete but tactical pragmatism, the problem being that under any other US administration, the Turkish issue could likely be navigated without the political precarity of being potentially compromised against the best interests of NATO or, perhaps more simply, without the concerns of Trump’s business interests.
While we play the waiting game to see how the rest of this plays out, Rojava is determined to resist and keep its hard-fought revolutionary gains. While admirable, it’s hard not to be pessimistic after Afrin was invaded by Turkish-backed militias just a few months ago with only a token initial resistance and a presently ongoing guerrilla campaign after the YPG spent weeks declaring the northwestern region “a fortress.” It isn’t hard to extrapolate the same scenario playing out across greater Rojava with even more widespread results, the ethnic cleansing and mass displacement carried out by the “Turkish Free Syrian Army” could be a reprehensible harbinger of things to come without anti-aircraft and anti-armor support from Assad’s military if the Turkish aren’t somehow negotiated or deterred away from a full-scale invasion.
What remains to be seen is how intact the Rojava project emerges in the event of an increasingly likely reconciliation with Assad’s government. Higher degrees of political autonomy certainly seemed more possible before the SDF doubled-down with cooperating with the United States, which is largely where I believe the “betrayal” language comes from. The Kurds likely saw a path for some kind of state or free territory, that they rightly felt entitled to after the blood spilled defending people of all stripes while Assad played the long game in Damascus. Cynically, it’s safe to say this fight was multi-pronged, and Assad bided his time and allowed threats to cohesive Syrian sovereignty to neutralize or weaken before finding optimal conditions to end the war politically. The Rojava Revolution, much like the Spanish Revolution it is so often compared to, will likely be a casualty in that respect: crushed or neutered by political powers larger than its critique beyond the nation-state, despite operating more civilly than the other belligerents during the war and being an inspirational beacon to revolutionaries around the world.