US seeks Kurdish accommodation ahead of withdrawal

The rapid collapse of Kurdish defences in Afrin, west of the Euphrates River, raised a serious question at the White House.
Sunday 22/04/2018
Fighters from the US-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council stand next to a US Humvee at an outpost, north of Manbij. (AP)
Negotiated withdrawal. Fighters from the US-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council stand next to a US Humvee at an outpost, north of Manbij. (AP)

More than two weeks after US President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw from Syria “very soon,” it is almost certain — unless the president changes his mind — that it won’t be happening before next autumn.

Speaking April 12 at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, US Defence Secretary James Mattis said: “We need to keep the foot on the neck of [the Islamic State] ISIS until we suffocate it.” Alternatively, this could also mean “indefinitely.”

This grace period, whether until November or longer,  would give all stakeholders room to manoeuvre in post-US north-eastern Syria while searching for allies to fill the US vacuum — if it happens. The Russians are beaming, of course, and so are the Iranians, the Turks and the Syrians, all ready to fill the giant hole left by the Americans.

The biggest losers, no doubt, would be the Kurds of Syria who have relied exclusively on US support for their futuristic projects in the country. Bedran Ciya Kurd, a member of the Kurdish self-proclaimed government in north-eastern Syrian told the Washington Post that any abrupt US withdrawal “would be a disaster” and that “even ordinary people in the street will consider it a betrayal.”

Trump’s announcement raised red flags at the headquarters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim, who commands the Democratic Union Party, has hinted that, if the United States walks out, ISIS would re-emerge in towns and cities east of the Euphrates River. Such a statement aims at striking a raw nerve with Trump. Defeating the jihadist group, Muslim added, “will take a long time, maybe years and years. They are not going to be finished so easily.”

Part of that is true, of course, as ISIS makes a stunning comeback at an oil field and village in Deir ez-Zor and in the district of Qadam near Damascus. It did it before in the ancient city of Palmyra, which they stormed back into, only to be defeated twice by the Russians.

What will happen if ISIS does re-emerge in Deir ez-Zor or Raqqa? What will be the fate of the 400 ISIS prisoners held in Kurdish jails? If the 2,000 US military personnel leave by October or November, there is a high chance that the Russians, the Syrians and the Turks — or all of them combined — would march across the Euphrates to dismantle the self-proclaimed Kurdish administration.

The United States has already backed out on a $200 million reconstruction fund commitment to the Kurdish districts, pledged by Trump’s fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last February. Kurds fear that Trump will also soon wiggle out of an announced 2019 Pentagon budget, which allocates $550 million for the SDF. If that happens, the Kurds are doomed.

The rapid collapse of Kurdish defences in Afrin, west of the Euphrates River, raised a serious question at the White House, with Trump wondering where all the US money and assistance went.

Trump has a soft spot for the Kurdish warriors, who he sees as vital allies in the war on terror. He appreciates their performance against ISIS since 2014 and had genuinely wanted to reward them by propping up a semi-autonomous Kurdish state in the Syrian north.

He soon realised, however, that the entire neighbourhood would say no and so would his top generals, advising against crossing Turkey and having to face the consequences of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan jumping fully into the lap of the Russians. That explains why Trump announced the unilateral decision to leave Syria without informing the United States’ Kurdish proxies.

To give them some assurance, however, Trump has halted a joint Turkish-US operation into Manbij, also west of the Euphrates, which Tillerson had promised during a visit to Ankara last February. Tillerson had toyed with the idea of appeasing the Turks with Manbij by displacing its Kurdish community towards Qamishli and Hasakah.

Trump disapproved, given that it was the SDF and YPG that had liberated the strategic city from ISIS in 2016. He has four military stations in Manbij and, rather than hand it over to the Turks, as Erdogan has been asking, he is planning to establish a fifth base, near the Naemeh farms of its countryside, giving ample assurance to the Kurds that the Americans are still there — for now — and that withdrawing “very soon” doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning the Kurds completely.

The assurance was made despite the fact that, on the day of Trump’s announcement, one US serviceman was killed in Manbij, the second to fall since US troops entered the Syrian conflict in 2014.

At their recent summit in Ankara, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani made it clear to Erdogan that he would be getting his share of Tal Rifaat, north of Aleppo, but that any Turkish ambitions for Manbij were off the table — yet another assurance to the Kurds.