US withdrawal from Syria rattles Kurds, emboldens Turkey

Arin Sheikmos, a Kurdish journalist and commentator, says: “We have every right to be afraid.”
Thursday 20/12/2018
A Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) fighter holds a sniper rifle on his shoulder as he attends the funeral of a slain People’s Protection Units (YPG) commander in the northeastern city of Qamishli on December 6. (AFP)
Feeling betrayed. A Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) fighter holds a sniper rifle on his shoulder as he attends the funeral of a slain People’s Protection Units (YPG) commander in the northeastern city of Qamishli on December 6. (AFP)

ISTANBUL – US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria has rattled Washington’s Kurdish allies, who are its most reliable partner in Syria and among the most effective ground forces battling the Islamic State (ISIS).

Kurds in northern Syria said commanders and fighters met into the night, discussing their response to the surprise announcement on December 19.

Arin Sheikmos, a Kurdish journalist and commentator, says: “We have every right to be afraid.”

The move is widely seen as an abandonment of a loyal ally, one that could prompt Turkey to launch a fresh offensive against the Kurds or drive the Kurds into a new alliance with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran and Russia.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said in a statement December 20 that a premature US troop pullout would have dangerous repercussions and a destabilising effect on the region.

It pointed out that “the war against Islamic State has not ended and the group has not been defeated.” It was the group’s first response to Trump’s surprise announcement  that he would be withdrawing all American forces from Syria.

A Syrian member of parliament, Peter Marjana, said December 20 that a US pullout would be a “recognition that Syria has won.”

Trump’s decision to pull out completely was confirmed by US officials and is expected in the coming months. The move stunned US lawmakers and allies and upends American policy in the Middle East. For NATO ally Turkey, however, the news is likely to be welcome.

The US and Turkey have long had their relations strained by differences over Syria, where the United States has backed the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against ISIS. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

“Now we have Manbij and the east of the Euphrates in front of us. We are working intensively on this subject,” state-owned Anadolu news agency on December 20 reported Defence Minister Hulusi Akar as saying during a visit to a Qatari-Turkish joint military base in Doha.

“Right now it is being said that some ditches, tunnels were dug in Manbij and to the east of the Euphrates. They can dig tunnels or ditches if they want, they can go underground if they want when the time and place comes they will be buried in the ditches they dug. No one should doubt this.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week that Turkey may start a new military operation in Syria at any moment, touting support from Trump even though the Pentagon had issued a stern warning to Ankara.

The Pentagon had said that unilateral military action by any party in north-east Syria, where US forces operate, would be unacceptable.

Turkey has already intervened to sweep YPG and ISIS fighters from territory west of the Euphrates over the past two years. It has not gone east of the river, partly to avoid direct confrontation with US forces.