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Jerusalem. Was the American Decision to Abandon the Kurds a Surprise?

Map situation report, October 23, 2019, Islamic World News

The withdrawal of American troops ordered by President Donald Trump from Kurdish-held territories in northeastern Syria was no surprise to the Kurds. The Kurds had been expecting this move since mid-summer 2019 and were preparing their options in case of such a prospect. The only surprise came from the timing of Trump’s announcement.

According to sources close to the Syrian opposition, the Syrian-Kurds prepared themselves based on their conviction that Turkey’s goal was to take over the Kurdish-held territories along its southern border under the pretext of combating and eradicating terrorism. Turkey further sought to declare the Syrian city of Aleppo as the capital and headquarters of the Free Syrian Army, a Turkish proxy armed, financed, and trained by Turkey.3 [1]

Moreover, the Kurds were deeply concerned by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declarations that he intended to resettle the three million Syrian refugees currently dwelling in Turkey in the territories “liberated” by the Turkish army. His vow could mean only one thing to the Kurds: a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing.

The entire Kurdish population in Syria is estimated at 27–3.5 million located mainly in the big cities, with a minority residing in towns and villages bordering Turkey, such as Afrin, Kobani, and Manbij. An influx of almost three million refugees (Arab Sunnis) with no connection at all to the Kurdish ethnicity would mean the disappearance of the Kurdish majority in the areas bordering Turkey (which definitely is a high Turkish interest). The zone would disconnect the Syrian Kurds from their Kurdish “brothers” in Turkey and transform the border belt into a Turkish security buffer, including a “no-fly zone,” heralded by the Turks.

The writing was on the wall: considering the complexity of U.S.-Turkish relations, U.S. interests in its NATO ally, U.S. bases in Turkey, American indifference to the collapse of the Kurdish autonomy in Iraq in 2017, and multiple American declarations about a possible withdrawal from the area “after defeating ISIS,” the Kurds could have easily concluded that the Americans might consider them as an unneeded ally. One day, the United States could abandon them to open confrontations with the Turks, the remnants of the Islamic State, and the recovered Syrian regime.

Therefore, to ensure Kurdish survival as a nation and as a political power in the reconstruction of the future Syrian state after the civil war, the only logical alternative open to the Kurds was to reach an agreement with the Bashar Assad regime. The deal was needed to preserve the special status of the Kurdish territories, which represent almost 30 percent of Syria, since the region was abandoned by the retreating Syrian regime forces in 2012.  In the aftermath, the territories were declared to be under self-rule and operated as an independent federal state.

The February 2019 Turkish military operation nicknamed “Olive Branch,” supported by units of the Syrian Free Army, targeted the town of Afrin, a Kurdish-populated town in the northwestern part of Syria bordering Turkey. According to Kurdish sources, the operation had American and Russian acquiescence. The action convinced the Kurds and the Syrian regime that it was time to mend fences and counter the Turkish threat. In fact, during the operation, the Kurdish units positioned in the eastern parts of Aleppo handed over their positions to the forces of the Syrian regime for the first time since the beginning of the conflict.4 [2]

Although contact had been initiated in the past between representatives of the Kurds and the Syrian regime and meetings had been taking place in Qamishli and Damascus, these meetings never resulted in a solution between the parties. The situation changed in mid-2019. The Kurds initiated contact with the Assad regime, and five months later, the first publicized meeting took place in Damascus on July 26, 2019, between a Kurdish delegation composed of the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces.  The meeting ended with a joint statement calling for the establishment of a joint committee “to elaborate the negotiations and the exchange of ideas and draw a road map that would ultimately lead to a democratic, decentralized Syria.”