Why a US Withdrawal in Syria Leaves the Kurds Vulnerable


The United States has been heavily involved in the Middle East for almost two decades at this point. Despite what many would have you believe the US has played an integral role in the region and facilitated a great number of things, some of which have helped and some of which haven’t.

President Trump recently announced in December that he would be withdrawing US troops out of Syria as per his promise during his presidential campaign. This decision has since been clarified as the withdrawal will be significantly slower than first expected. It should take around 4 months for US troops to completely leave Syria.

This withdrawal will have lasting implications and seriously alter the course of the Syrian conflict leaving several groups in dire positions, one of the most important being the Kurds.

The Kurds are an indigenous people of the Mesopotamian region in what is now Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Armenia and Iran. The Kurdish people have been fighting for independence for almost a century and in Northern Iraq achieved a fairly significant degree of autonomy after the fall of Saddam Hussein. This allowed them to better prepare for a fight against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq in 2014 when the regions Peshmerga forces were sent into areas abandoned by the Iraqi army.

In Syria, the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), who are the armed wing of the PYD or Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, were successful in repelling and beating back IS on a number of occasions throughout the conflict. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, also set up bases in Syria in an attempt to aid the YPG in their fight.

The US has been helping the Kurdish forces, who currently fight under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), via bombing campaigns, weapon supplies and intelligence sharing. The alliance between the US-led forces and the SDF has allowed the SDF to retake thousands of kilometres of IS held territory and successfully capture IS’s Syrian capital of Raqqa, an incredibly significant achievement.

There are several reasons why the US withdrawing their forces from Syria will most likely leave the Kurds in a pregnable position. The first is that Turkey will most likely seize on the opportunity to attack Kurdish forces in Syria. Turkey seeks to destroy Kurdish resistance and independence as result of a conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government, in which terrorist tactics have been used by the PKK in a push back against second-class status and in their fight for independence, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Turks.

The second has to do with the success of the SDF on the battlefield and their territorial gains which have brought them into direct contact with Russian-backed Syrian government forces and rebel groups backed by the Turkish government. This contact has led to clashes that show no sign of easing off.

The US bombing campaign and their mere presence acted as a deterrent which stopped many from attacking the Kurds and their allies, their withdrawal would see that deterrent disappear.

Despite what President Trump proclaimed, when he tweeted that ISIS had been defeated in Syria, the group is still a threat and possesses as many as 14,500 fighters in the country. IS has morphed into other groups and other forms of extremism, as Tobias Ellwood, the UK’s Junior Defence Minister, stated.

A withdrawal, even a slow one, may be not be in the best interest of the US as IS still possesses the manpower capable of making it a significant threat to achieving stability in the country.

The President is following through on his campaign promise and ‘bringing his troops home’, but it seems to be the case that this decision is being made in an attempt to keep his supporter base happy and firmly on his side. Many of his opponents, a number of which are anti-war, also agree with his decision, which may be another reason why this particular decision was made.

But, it’s also possible this is merely Trump adhering to his isolationist stance or continuing with the US’s shift towards a more Pacific orientated foreign policy. Either way, the Kurds are a stable force that show significant promise and may be key to achieving stability in not just Syria but also Iraq.

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