Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria “very soon” and to deliver the city of Manbij to Turkey fell as a shock to the Syrian Kurds gathered in the northern part of the country. These Kurds, who act on a day-to-day basis as a shield for the US forces, have been deliberately manipulated by the US establishment to cover and protect its occupation forces in the north-east of the Levant. Trump is apparently ready to dump the Kurds from one day to the next. Not content with that, Trump is now putting the Kurds “up for auction”, betting on which Arab country will occupy the Kurdish controlled area and dispose of the territory they are currently based in.
So, what are the Kurds’ options?
The US President clearly attaches no importance to the fate of the Kurds. He is ready to abandon them, despite knowing that they have no other place to go or protection they can seek. The Kurds lost the trust of the government in Damascus because of their unwise political and military choices – and of course they are hunted down by Turkey who considers all Kurds in Syria to be part of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a terrorist-affiliated group by Ankara’s standards.
The “myths” around the Kurds (“they are the best fighters against the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS), or “the Kurds are “best allies of the US”) are incorrect. This rhetoric emanates mainly from the 90s when the US used Kurdistan to secure a foothold in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s era. In fact, the US saw in the Kurds a bridge into the Middle East enabling the establishment of a military and intelligence stronghold for themselves and their Israeli allies. With the war imposed on Syria, the US landed in the Syrian Kurdish area of al-Hasaka with the hope of dividing Mesopotamia and the Levant. Moreover, the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria have no problem in overtly stating their strong bounds to Israel despite the animosity of the respective state they live in: Iraq and Syria.
The Syrian Army and its allies fought against ISIS over the entire Syrian territory losing tens of thousands of officers and soldiers. And in Iraq, the Iraqi security forces fought against ISIS over the entire Iraqi geography where ISIS was present and lost thousands of officers and soldiers (Hashd al-Sha’bi alone lost more than 11,000 militants).
By contrast the investment and loss of Kurdish lives has been more limited. In Iraq, while fighting ISIS in the Kurdish northern area, the Kurds lost around 2000 militants. And in Syria, when the Kurds fought against ISIS, their losses of militants were in the hundreds.
The US played on a Kurdish vision: the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq wanted to establish a State. Washington nourished this dream through its own need to have local forces as Proxies to establish bases in areas where Iran has its centres of influence (in Iraq and Syria). The Kurdish plan failed in Iraq due to the determined Iraqi central government’s will to prevent the partition of the country. In Syria, it had, and has, no chances of succeeding because Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria all have their own reasons to prevent either a Kurdish state or a US occupation of the northern part of the Levant.
The US is not expected to leave without exacting a price in exchange for its withdrawal or an even heavier price if its forces stay. Trump turned back from his decision to retrieve his forces from Syria “any time soon” without giving a specific timetable for his continuing stay. He then asked other countries to replace his forces, not taking into account the Kurds or carrying about them. These are, indeed, the least of his worries: they also represent expenditure he is unwilling to undertake. The Americans, in fact, did not invest any sum, even in the reconstruction of the city of Raqqah which they destroyed to dislodge and relocate ISIS.
Whatever the decision may be (to have the US forces remain, or to pull out of Syria), the Syrian Kurds have lost the chance of deciding their fate, largely due to their repeated decisions to hide behind the US’s skirts.
In the Afrin enclave north-west of Syria, the Kurdish administration refused to deliver the area back to the control of the Syrian government. The Kurds decided to fight against their fiercest enemy, Turkey, for two months, losing the entire area and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled to al-Hasaka and Deir-Ezzour. The Afrin administration believed the world would rush to support them and prevent Turkey’s military action: that was their biggest mistake. In fact, it was only President Bashar al-Assad who sent 900 men of the National Defence Forces (NDF) to help Afrin resistance, but failed to convince the local administration to allow the Syrian Army to take control of the enclave before it was too late. The US would rather see Ankara’s soldiers (the Kurds’ fiercest enemy) in control of Afrin than Damascus’s.
The Kurds seem unaware that they are no longer the West’s “prodigal son”. They chose to disregard the mistake the Iraqi Kurds made when these decided to go ahead with their referendum and spectacularly failed to reach an independent state. And the US is probably happy to see more Kurds from Afrin flocking into al-Hasaka, populating it with more US proxies to the benefit of Washington’s objectives in the Middle East.
It is known that the Kurds have lost hundreds of militants while fighting ISIS to recover Manbij, Raqqah and other villages in al-Hasaka and Deir-ezzour. They fought to support the US occupation of north-east Syria, offering to Washington an excuse to hold on to Syrian territories, claiming their presence was related to the “war on terror”. Not only did the US did not intervene in Afrin, but Washington asked the Kurdish YPG forces to leave Manbij to the benefit of its NATO ally, Turkey.
The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, following his meeting with his US counterpart Mike Pompeo, that “the US and Turkey will begin controlling the town of Manbij”. Local Arab tribes al-Bubna, al-Baqqarah and al-Tayy issued communiqués “welcoming the Turkish forces in Manbij as these will put an end to the PYD and PKK occupation of the city”.
Clearly the Kurds have willingly consented to be manipulated by the US establishment in the hope of collecting the crumbs left behind by the US forces, and maybe materialise their dream of independence. That seems very far from becoming a reality, at least in the next decades.
The Kurds were indeed surprised to see Donald Trump declaring a fast withdrawal from Syria, realising suddenly that they were being dropped from one day to the next. It was hard for the Kurds to hear the US establishment turn its back and act according to its own national interests with no regard for what could happen after their withdrawal, ignoring the sacrifices the Kurds had made to help fulfil US objectives in Syria.
When Trump agreed to keep the US forces “for a bit longer”, this decision gave an injection of temporary – but false – hope to the Kurds, thinking their fate was postponed. But for how long? Only until the US pulls out all its forces or is forced to pull out under the attacks of the “Syrian Resistance” that is beginning to gather strength in the US occupied area of Syria.
The newly announced resistance seems to belong to local tribes, mainly the “Bakkara” and the “al-Assasneh”, and other local groups ready to stand against the US forces, bringing back the memory the way the insurgency began against the US forces in Baghdad in 2003.
What the Syrian Kurds are certainly failing to acknowledge or even realise is the fact that Trump will not go out of his way to protect them neither will he put his air fleet at the Kurds’ disposal to transport them to America when the time comes to leave Syria. The outcome is predictable: when war ends, nobody wants proxies. They become a heavy burden.
Moreover, the US has no intention of eradicating ISIS because it justifies their presence in Syria. ISIS provides an excuse for Washington to keep its forces in the Levant. It also helps the US’s objectives when its militants attack the only available route between Syria and Iraq, the albu Kamal – al Qaem road. And lastly, it gives some indications – although somewhat feeble – that Syria is still unstable.
The US will not let go of Turkey, aware that Russia and Iran are waiting to receive Ankara with open arms. To keep Turkey on its side, Washington offered Turkey the Kurdish control of Manbij on a silver platter. Moreover, the US is aware that Turkey will never accept a Kurdish state on its border with Syria. It is therefore, it is only a matter of time before the Kurds realise they are being sold off, and that their fate has been sealed.
The Kurds were at some point considered as traitors by the central government in Damascus: they will continue to be seen as such unless they give up acting as a shield for the US. President Assad opened the door to direct negotiation and the Kurds said “ready to negotiate”. The price the Kurds need to pay is not complicated: they must stop protecting the occupying forces (US, French and UK) in the north of Syria.
The Kurds allowed Turkey to walk into Syrian territory to occupy Afrin rather than turn to the state that hosted them when they landed in the Levant. The Kurds have disposed of a territory but it doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to the state of Syria and the Kurds must wake up.
So, what to do with the Kurds? Who is left on their side?
Trump has always been ready to leave the Kurds behind but postponed his decision because it is to Israel’s advantage – not that of the US – to keep the American occupation of northern Syria. Also, Trump wanted money from both Saudi Arabia’s and the Emirates. He thus transformed the US Army into mercenaries and “guns for sale”. The Emirates and Saudi Arabia – according to the media – both offered 400 million dollars but Trump asked for 4 billion dollars to keep his soldiers on the ground. It seems the US forces have become like a duck laying golden eggs provided by wealthy Middle Eastern countries. And in this mish-mash the Kurds have no place at all.
The equation is very simple: if the US forces stay and occupy north-east Syria, Washington needs to invest in rebuilding the infrastructure, which means spending real money. This doesn’t fit with Trump’s objectives to collect rather than invest even one dollar. This is what the Kurds resisted realising and which they still seem not to have understood.
To conclude, the Kurds have no special place under the wings of the US. They are no longer alone in the Middle East with ties with Israel. Bahrein, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Emirates are no longer hiding the exchange of visits with Israeli officials and are overtly speaking in favour of a relationship with Tel Aviv.
The Kurds may have only one possibility: to reach out to the central government in Damascus for mediation, stop protecting an occupying force, and understand they are the cannon fodder for the benefit of the US-Turkish relationship. The Kurds need to make it very clear they are unwilling to be used as a shield for the US goal to divide Syria. All recent positioning of the Kurds makes this extremely unlikely. But this is the only way forward for them, if they are able to take it. They can then win a full reintegration into the state that hosted them when they arrived in the Levant 100 years ago.