On Sunday night, President Donald Trump announced that American troops would be withdrawing from the border region between Turkey and the Autonomous Administration of Northeastern Syria. The official White House statement also gave its public blessing to the imminent and now ongoing Turkish invasion of that region.
Northeastern Syria, also known as Rojava and home to a multi-ethnic libertarian socialist society dominated by the Kurdish people, has been at the forefront of the struggle against ISIS during the long Syrian Civil War. The U.S. has provided them with air support for several years, and prior to this stab-in-the-back, the American and Turkish governments swindled the military wing of Rojava (the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF) with a promise to create a “safe zone” on the Turkey-Rojava border. Only after the SDF demolished fortifications and pulled their heavy weapons back from the border did President Trump give a green light to the Turkish invasion. Without American air support, the fighters of northeastern Syria are exposed in the event of a sustained Turkish assault. This brazen betrayal of the Kurds leaves them at the mercy of a Turkish regime that feels nothing but contempt for them.
The United States has quite a long history of employing Kurdish elements in the Middle East as proxy groups and discarding them at the first opportunity. However, the Trump administration’s links to Turkish interests are key in understanding the current situation. A withdrawal of American troops in the Middle East sounds like a strange about-face in U.S. foreign policy, but American assets are assuredly still operating in Syria. This seems to be more of a gift to Turkey than anything else. Trump and his rotating circle of cronies have links to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkish regime that trace back to before his presidency, including a 2008 Istanbul real estate deal that Trump himself once described as “a little conflict of interest”. His refusal to divest himself from his business dealings prior to becoming president have ensured that this conflict of interest endures.
Trump’s disgraced former national security advisor Michael Flynn was revealed to have been a paid agent of an influential Turkish businessman during his role in the Trump White house transition team, and penned articles around that time arguing for Turkish interests in the American media. Flynn also made decisions involving the American relationship with Kurdish SDF fighters while on the Turkish payroll. Trump and other members of his staff have not been shy about their cozy relationship with the Turks, and their partnership with Rojava/the SDF was always precarious. Turkey is a member of NATO in a strategically important part of the world. Its recent turn toward authoritarian Islamism makes no difference to the United States as long as they keep buying American weapons and satisfying their NATO responsibilities.
The American imperial machine has never had any interest in assisting a socialist enclave of northern Syria that is dominated by an ethnic group despised by their most powerful regional allies. The American/Kurdish SDF relationship was forced by the dual threats of an advancing ISIS and the American desire to counter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The US was likely going to betray Rojava in favor of the Turks once the Syrian war had simmered to the point that the action could be justified. One can criticize Rojava for accepting American support due to America’s long history of callous manipulation or their own socialist principles of anti-imperialism, but when one is facing down enemies like ISIS or Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, American airstrikes are an enticing offer.
Turkey has already seized its chance to eliminate the Kurdish separatist state on its Syrian border. It began conducting combat operations in Rojava immediately after the Trump announcement. The Kurdish ethnic group spans several countries, but Turkey projects a special animosity toward them.
The Erdoğan regime accuses Rojava and the SDF of maintaining connections with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought the Turkish state for decades. The Turks have what they consider a casus belli to destroy any attempt at a Kurdish state on their border. Justified or not, the Turks are already rolling into Rojava. This invasion will likely take on a similar form to the Turkish invasion of the western Rojava canton Afrin last year. The SDF in this area was smashed by the Turkish army and the Turks have been attempting to force out the Kurds by moving in Turkish and Arab populations. Ethnic cleansing campaigns could soon follow in the rest of Rojava contingent on a Turkish victory, and this could easily slide toward genocide given Turkish history (the Armenian genocide and Kurdish conflict), nationalist fervor, and desire to snuff out anything remotely related to the PKK.
Turkey’s presence in the Syrian province of Idlib and their gentle approach to the jihadi groups that control it provide some insight into Erdoğan’s worldview, and the approach he’s likely to take with the secular socialist Kurds. Reports of an attack on the SDF-held city of Minbij by Turkish backed Islamic jihadi fighters have already emerged, and other extremist militias under the banner of the Turkish-backed “Free Syrian Army” are sure to renew their fight against the mostly secular Rojava. Since Trump’s announcement, an ISIS sleeper cell has also taken up arms against the SDF in the former ISIS stronghold city of Raqqa. The Kurds have warned all along that any invasion by the Turks could lead to the reconstitution of ISIS. The remnants of that bloodthirsty gang will surely take any opportunity they’re given to bomb a few Kurds.
Prospects for Rojava are bleak. The SDF are battle-hardened, but will eventually fall to the Turkish military without American air support (although early reports suggest that the SDF is holding its own for now). As in all wars, the civilians in the path of the invading army will suffer the most. The democratic confederalist society that the SDF and Kurdish people have fought bravely to carve out of the Syrian maelstrom is in danger of being wiped off the map. Fourteen thousand SDF fighters have so far given their lives in the struggle against ISIS, and the United States has tossed the veterans of that conflict to the Turkish wolves. If Turkey chooses to seize the Rojava territory completely, the SDF will undoubtedly fight them tooth and nail. However, their only chance to avoid domination by a Turkish regime that despises their very existence seems to be a partnership with the official Syrian Army of President Bashar al-Assad. Negotiations between the two entities have previously been standoffish, but the SDF appears to be backed into a corner. Some sort of partnership or federal cooperation with Syria may be Rojava’s only shot at survival. Assad is far from sympathetic to the Kurds but the SDF may not be in a position to choose its allies. Two things are certain regardless of how the Turkish incursion plays out: many innocent residents and brave defenders of Rojava are going to die, and their blood is undeniably on the hands of the Turkish and American governments.