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In the days leading up to US President Donald Trump’s announcement that the US would withdraw from eastern Syria, Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq sought answers to rumors of US policy changes. Former Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani met US anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk on December 17 and voiced concern about Kurds in eastern Syria.
The meeting with McGurk came as Turkey was upping its rhetoric about launching an operation in Syria against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. US policy commitments at the time were unclear. The Kurds in northern Iraq had seen this before, in particular they saw the US commit to the Kurds and then walk away in the 1970s. They knew US policy zig-zagged occasionally and remembered the 1980s when the US met with Saddam Hussein, and the 1990s when the US set up a no fly zone and protected the Kurds from Saddam.
BARZANI AND KRG leaders had proposed in the past to allow Kurds affiliated with the KDP, and the umbrella KNC party in Syria, to play a greater role in eastern Syria. Many Kurds from Syria fled to the Kurdish region of Iraq in 2011 and 2012 as the rebellion against Assad began. Some formed a unit called the Rojava Peshmerga and wanted to return to eastern Syria to fight Assad and protect their lands. But the YPG and PKK-affiliates had come to control eastern Syria. The cleavages grew in 2014 when ISIS attacked the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Although the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq and the YPG were both fighting ISIS, they traded accusations about their goals. The YPG entered Iraq’s Sinjar region to save tens of thousands of Yazidis from ISIS genocide in 2014 and accused the KDP of retreating. Over the years the border crossing from the Kurdish region of Iraq to the Kurdish region of Syria was a symbol of the failed relations between the two. It also symbolized an almost “cold war” between the regions. The Rojava Peshmerga, guarding roads in northern Iraq, even clashed with YPG fighters in areas near Sinjar.
Kurdish officials in Iraq discussed with the US what might come next. Their agenda was both personal and had larger ramifications. They understood that eventually Turkey would attack eastern Syria, just as it had sent Turkish forces into northern Iraq to attack the PKK.
This wasn’t an idle threat, since Turkey had done the same in eastern Turkey after the ceasefire with the PKK broke down in 2015. It had done the same in Afrin in northwest Turkey, and destroyed the YPG located there in during the two months of fighting.
According to accounts from these meetings, US officials discussed this issue with Kurdish officials. Could the YPG be convinced to reduce its visible presence in eastern Syria and withdraw from urban areas? Could the PYD, the political group connected to the PKK which runs eastern Syria, be convinced to allow more parties to participate? Would this ease Turkey’s concerns? The US suggested these measures that might tone down the tensions with Turkey, even as Ankara upped its rhetoric in the fall of 2018, threatening a major operation to “bury the YPG in their trenches,” “cleanse the border of a terrorist corridor,” and return eastern Syria to its “true owners.” Turkey also wanted to show its support for Arab opposition groups. This was the line of discussions that took place in the lead up to the December 14 crisis, when Trump phoned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump apparently made his decision to withdraw from Syria after the call.
US Withdrawals from Syria
NOW EASTERN SYRIA prepares for a Turkish operation. Kurds in Iraq fear that instability will result and that many Kurds from Rojava may flee a new round of fighting. US officials, including US envoy James Jeffrey, have discussed allowing the Rojava Peshmerga into eastern Syria, but these efforts have not come to fruition. They only have 6,000 fighters and this is not enough to control eastern Syria.
The potential for tragedy in eastern Syria involves some missed opportunities. Sources say that in 2012, before the rise of ISIS, there were attempts to reconcile the growing power of the PYD and Turkey. This was during a ceasefire with the PKK in eastern Turkey. Turkey was open to having a border crossing to eastern Syria, but didn’t want PKK flags on the border.
The Kurds in eastern Syria will face a choice between a tough battle they will inevitably lose against Turkey’s massive modern army, or signing an agreement between the Syrian regime and Russia that may allow the regime to return, or finding some other model. They have hundreds of kilometers of potential frontline with Turkey and they face internal dissent, including many in the areas which were liberated from ISIS who resent the SDF and are angling to ally with the Syrian regime, Turkey or a resurgent ISIS.
The Kurdish leadership in the KRG faced a crisis last year after its referendum, when Baghdad took back Kirkuk and Sinjar from the Peshmerga. They too felt betrayed by the US, which had backed them against ISIS. Now they have salvaged these problems, held elections, improved the economy and are hosting international events and diplomats. Unlike the KRG, eastern Syria is isolated. It once had closer friends in Damascus and Moscow, and even some discussions with Iran. But Russia and Iran have grown closer to Turkey. Iran’s President came to Turkey on December 20, and Turkey, Russia and Iran met in Geneva this week. With a US drawdown scheduled over three months – and only France appearing to say it will stay in eastern Syria – a new challenge awaits. Kurds in Iraq, sympathetic with Kurds in Syria even if there are political and ideological disagreements, don’t want to see a new crisis across the border.