With U.S. troops pulling out from the Syria-Turkey border following U.S. President Donald Trump’s Sunday announcement, Kurdish officials and experts say that Syrian Kurdish forces could turn to other powers for protection against a possible Turkish incursion into northeast Syria.
The United States and the international coalition to defeat the Islamic State (IS) terror group have been the leading backers of Kurdish forces, but there are other options for local forces if the U.S chose to halt its support, a local Kurdish official said.
“While the U.S. has had a major role in the fight against terrorism in Syria in recent years, we as Kurds always maintained our relations with other international and regional powers,” Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of the Foreign Department at the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration in northeast Syria, told Arta FM radio station on Monday.
He didn’t specifically name any countries, but noted that their priority is to prevent Turkish forces from invading their region.
‘Between a rock and a hard place’
Since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Kurdish People’s Protection Units known as (YPG) have been in charge of running their areas in the country’s northeast after Syrian regime troops withdrew to focus on fighting rebel forces elsewhere in the country.
Experts say the sudden U.S. decision to withdraw from areas near the Syria-Turkish border has placed Syrian Kurdish forces in a difficult situation.
“The Syrian Kurds are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Nicholas Heras, a Syria expert at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
He said the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has the option to allow the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to return to the area to prevent any Turkish military operation that could occur as a result of the U.S. troop withdrawal.
“This would be a bitter pill, but if the United States is going to encourage Turkey to carry out its military operations in northeast Syria, there may be no other option for them to turn to,” Heras told VOA.
The YPG-dominated SDF has been an effective U.S. partner in the fight against IS in Syria. But Turkey, a U.S. NATO ally, has opposed this partnership.
Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for greater rights in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast for decades.
Despite a U.S.-Turkey agreement in August to establish a buffer zone between Turkish military and Syrian Kurdish fighters, Turkey has been threatening to carry out an offensive in northeast Syria to remove YPG fighters from areas near its border.
The White House said Turkey “will soon be moving forward” with its plans to carry out the offensive.
“The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial Caliphate, will no longer be in the immediate area,” the White House said in a statement.
The United States currently has about 1,000 troops in Syria that have been instrumental in the fight against IS. Kurdish military officials said on Monday that U.S. forces “have withdrawn from border areas with Turkey.”
Russia as an option
Some experts, like Radwan Badini, a professor of political science at Salahaddin University in Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, say the anticipated security vacuum in northeast Syria following the U.S. troop pullout could force the Kurds to search for another powerful ally like Russia.
“There is still a chance that Russia could play a mediating role between al-Assad and the Kurds,” he said.
“Having Russia on your side, even though it’s a close [Syrian] regime ally, is much better than letting Turkey occupy the Kurdish region,” Badini told VOA.
But analyst Heras says that Russia has already made it clear to Kurdish forces that “it will not be the lobbyist for the Syrian Kurds in Damascus.”
“Russia wants the SDF to surrender to Assad first, then be possibly protected from Turkey by Assad later. It is just as likely that Russia will sell the SDF out to Turkey, in order to weaken the U.S.-trained forces,” he said.
Change in US decision?
Heras noted that, “the only real hope for the Syrian Kurds is a change of heart in the White House.”
But attempting to halt the U.S. decision to withdraw from Kurdish-held Syria is not an easy task, other experts believe.
“If the U.S. decision can’t be reserved, [Syrian Kurds] choice is surrender to the regime or a bloody insurgency against Turkey,” said Jonathan Spyer, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, a U.S.-based think tank.
He added that YPG fighters “cannot defeat the Turks in a conventional battle. It is not viable if the intention is to drive Turkey out. It may be viable if the intention is to bleed Turkey over the medium to long term.”
New refugee crisis
United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator Panos Moumtzis said on Monday that civilians in northeast Syria must be spared in any Turkish military operation in the region.
Rights groups also say that any operation carried out by Turkish forces in Syria’s northeast could further destabilize a region already devastated by the eight-year civil war.
“A Turkish assault on northeastern Syria, a country ravaged by war and a humanitarian crisis would likely cause massive civilian harm and further displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians…,” said Philippe Nassif, Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
He told VOA that, “a new refugee crisis on top of the one that has already led to over 5 million Syrians feeling their country would be a tragedy of epic proportions.”