If America Leaves Syria, the Kurds Need a Plan B

Ömer Taşpınar

In front of cheering crowds at a political rally, Donald Trump once again managed to shock his own administration by declaring that the US would be leaving Syria “very soon.” Trump apparently had not discussed the timing of this crucially important decision with his military and foreign policy advisors. Needless to say, his statements also stunned American allies in the region, which was followed by a call for them to take over from the US. Should all this come to pass, above all others, it is for the Pentagon’s Kurdish allies in Syria that the implications of an early American departure will be most disastrous.

The YPG, the Kurdish militia trained and supported by the US, has been the most effective military partner on the ground in the fight against ISIS. The YPG played a major role in the liberation of Raqqa, the capital of the so-called caliphate, and most of north eastern Syria. The Kurds clearly hoped that their efforts would be rewarded by America. American acquiescence to the Turkish military invasion of Afrin – a YPG province in northwestern Syria, was a cold shower for Syrian Kurds. Now it looks like the harbinger of much worse days ahead.

If the US pulls out its 2,000 special operation forces in Syria, history will be repeating itself for the Kurds in a most tragic way. The Kurds are in fact dreadfully familiar with American betrayal. From the 1975 Algiers accord between Iran and Iraq, in the aftermath of which Henry Kissinger quickly stopped American military support for legendary Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani’s uprising against Baghdad, to Washington’s recent refusal last year to support the Kurdish Regional Government’s referendum for independence, Kurdish history is full of episodes of American cooperation with Kurds only to dump them when the strategic context changed.

Not surprisingly, Trump’s declaration created a sense of schadenfreude in Turkish circles. Ankara must be delighted to see that the Kurds always make the same mistake in trusting America. But it is too easy to say that Kurds never learn from past mistakes. Given the geostrategic reality of strong Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian opposition to any semblance of Kurdish independence, one should also question whether the Kurds have any alternatives to Western support. It is also important to note that Trump’s surprising declaration is not yet official policy. Centcom commander General Votel and Bret McGurk, the White House’s point person coordinating the global coalition against ISIS, have both contradicted the president, stating that the mission in Syria is still not finished. Most importantly, given his influence with Trump, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis also believes that the US should not pack up and leave Syria “until the conditions that have created ISIL are properly addressed.”

Yet, it is not an encouraging sign to see that the $200 million earmarked in the US budget for post-conflict reconstruction in Syria has been frozen in the wake of Trump’s declaration. All these dynamics create confusion and it remains unclear how long American forces will remain in Syria. But what we know for sure is that the administration’s Syria strategy is under review and that the commander-in-chief wants an expedited disengagement against the recommendation of almost all of his military and strategic advisors.

Could Trump be bluffing? Given his negotiation style and his willingness to see more financial commitment from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries for Syrian reconstruction, this may very well be the case. Leaving Syria without any military commitment also goes against the hawkish anti-Iran tendencies of newly appointed national security advisor John Bolton and the incoming secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. Adding to the confusion are the American military strikes in retaliation to the regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons. The attacks will certainly remind Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies that Washington still has the political will and military capacity to enforce its redlines.

The American show of force does little to assuage Kurdish fears of betrayal, however. It is high time for Kurds to think of plan B. The Syrian Kurds should prepare for an early American departure by contemplating a future Syria where Iran, Russia and Turkey will remain the most important external players. The Kurds could follow a policy of rapprochement with Russia and Iran while simultaneously pursuing political negotiations with the regime in Damascus. Dropping their maximalist dreams of independence and autonomy in favor of some form of federalism within a decentralized Syria is probably their best bet.

Such an outcome will certainly not appeal to Ankara, which may engage in some dialogue with Damascus in return for leaving Syria. The Turks, for now, are savoring a false sense of victory in anticipating an early American departure from Syria. The main challenge for Ankara in Syria will remain the same: to find a way to control the Syrian Kurds at a time when the Kurdish problem in Turkey itself is getting worse due to authoritarianism and military repression. As Ankara well knows, the YPG is an integral part of the PKK, the Kurdish militant group fighting Turkey since 1984 in search of self-rule. This is why the only real and long-term solution to the Kurdish question in Syria requires a return to the peace process between Ankara and Turkey’s own Kurdish nationalist movement. Sadly, Erdogan’s nationalist strategy is going in the opposite direction.

Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.