Experts Weigh In


Man in a group of protestors stands holding up a sign that reads "#DefendKurds"



graphic: simple globe with longitude and latitude lines - a magnifying glass looks in on the North African and Middle East region  ANALYSIS – The Elliott School of International Affairs

Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds

The U.S. withdrew troops from Northern Syria amid fierce bi-partisan debate and now Elliott School experts weigh in on the implications for our Kurdish allies and the rest of the world.

Experts: Bayar Dosky, Lisel Hintz, Shana Marshall, Tashi Rabgey – November 11, 2019


Tashi Rabgey. Research Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs.

The abrupt change in the US Syria policy has had immediate and devastating effects – from Turkey’s ethnic cleansing operations in Syrian Kurdish territories to the release of ISIS prisoners and destabilization of the region as a whole.  Geopolitically, the position of Russia, Iran and the Assad government have been strengthened while US credibility and diplomatic leverage have plummeted to new depths. But as clear as these immediate consequences have been, the sudden reconfiguration of the region also raises questions about the infrastructures of governance that have given shape to the shattered Syrian state over the past eight years of conflict.

Most significant in this regard has been the Kurdish self-governing entity known as Rojava.  Formed in 2012 as autonomous enclaves in northern Syria, Rojava grew in scale as Kurdish forces led the assault against ISIS and won back control of Syrian areas far beyond Kurdish territories.  The Rojava administration eventually controlled a third of the Syrian state – an area larger than the size of Switzerland. In 2016, the de facto autonomous administration declared itself a new federated region in northern Syria and proposed an asymmetric system of governance for the Syrian state.  

While it lacked recognition and was rejected by the Assad government, the Kurdish-led regional administration managed to persist through the mayhem of war-torn Syria.  Indeed, at times it appeared to thrive. Espousing democratic values of ethnic and religious pluralism, gender equality and even ecology, Rojava was, by any measure, an extraordinary political experiment at the heart of one of the most deadliest wars in recent memory.  While it was also widely denounced for its connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the fact remains that Rojava drew attention to an aspect of statehood that is often overlooked in times of conflict: namely, the role of governance infrastructures in the provision of public goods, in gaining public confidence and in bolstering the social foundations of regional stability.  

With the geopolitical realignment of the region – and more Turkish aggression on the horizon – it is too soon to tell what will become of the Syrian Kurdish experiment with democratic governance and regional state-building.  But it is right to acknowledge this de facto Kurdish-led autonomous administration and important to take note of its achievements for future prospects in structuring Syrian statehood.

Shana Marshall. Associate Director, Institute for Middle East Studies, Elliott School of International Affairs.

The fact that the US military had to bomb its own foreign base in a hasty pullout from Syria – and then face an almost immediate, even larger, redeployment – says more about the contradictions and costs of imperialism than it does about the unique pathologies of Donald Trump. The increasing rapidity with which we shift alliances, abandoning civilian populations and leaving the military to fight alongside last month’s drone targets, is not only a sign of declining US empire but also the fragmentation of an entire region that has spent the last hundred years under the alternating yokes of foreign militaries and Western-backed despots. The mammoth scale of weapons pumped into volatile conflict zones to subsidize our own powerful political lobbies and declining industrial sectors is only more proof that our policies are not the result of coherent humanitarian (or even strategic) goals, but the ordure of a political and economic ruling class that has completely abdicated any sense of ethics or morality. 

Lisel Hintz. GW Alumna and Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins SAIS.

Much has been made of President Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from Syria and thus leave the United States' Syrian Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS alone to retreat or face the brunt of Turkish forces seeking to expel them from a designated zone. And rightly so. Apart from the potentially negative impact on the US' ability to form strategic alliances in the future (not that this was the first time the US has abandoned Kurdish allies) was the impending humanitarian disaster faced by Kurdish civilians. Indeed, evidence suggests Turkish-backed Syrian forces loosely gathered under the new umbrella of the Syrian National Army committed atrocities in their campaign to cleanse the region of Kurds. To make matters worse, Trump's comments about "the Kurds" - a gross oversimplification of a group of people that vary in language, religion, sect, tribal affiliation, ideology, political aspirations, belief in the use of violence as the solution to their grievances, and much more - being "natural enemies" of Turkey basically naturalized and justified the violence taking place. As to the actual veracity of Trump's statements, I was pleased to contribute to a Washington Post fact-checking piece that gave his claims four Pinnochios.

From a foreign policy perspective, Trump's decisions made immediately after December 2018 and October 2019 phone calls with Turkish President Erdoğan indicate both the extent to which he can be influenced and, more fundamentally, a complete breakdown in the decision-making process. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, well respected across party lines and described as a “re-assurer in chief,” resigned after the December phone call. Trump’s exclamation point-riddled letter dated three days after a similar conversation with Erdoğan in October and imploring the Turkish leader not to "be a fool!", which Erdoğan reportedly threw in the trash, was an embarrassment to diplomacy. 

Further, the outcome of what was meant to be a stern visit from Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo - at a time when Congress is already pushing hard for the applications of sanctions triggered by Turkey's purchase of an S-400 missile defense system from Russia - was basically a gift to Erdoğan. He got most of what he wanted in terms of a zone that will be free of YPG forces and potentially what amounts to a crude return counter for unwanted items: Turkey can try to "put back" the Syrians - to whom it initially opened its borders and its arms of Sunni brotherhood before the government changed its mind in response to negative public opinion - all in a place from which most didn't originate. He also got this without a protracted invasion that could have lost support as Turkish troop and civilian casualties mounted, as well as sanctions relief from the US. Finally, and perhaps most damningly from a US foreign policy perspective, he essentially swapped Russian troops for US support in patrolling the designated zone, opening up space for even more of President Putin’s much-sought leverage in Syria and the Middle East more broadly.

Bayar Dosky. Non-Resident Scholar, University of Kurdistan – Hewler.

The US abandonment of its Kurdish allies in the Middle East has significantly increased uncertainties in the region.  This, in turn, constitutes an imminent threat to global security in the world. The shift in US policy toward its Kurdish partners began in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 2017 but stunned the world in recent weeks by immediately enabling Turkey to launch a military assault and ethnic cleansing operations in northern Syria that displaced over 200,000 new refugees within days.  

The US withdrawal also marks the destabilization of the region in ways that will have far-reaching repercussions on the security interests of Europe, NATO and beyond. The abdication of the US position not only strengthens the position of Turkey, Iran, Assad and Russia, it also exposes the national interests of EU countries and NATO allies.  The Turkish-Russian cooperation blocks the access of European countries to energy resources and markets in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. At the same time, the new regional alignment opens a new corridor for Iran to the Mediterranean as well as to Israel, two redlines for the US.  

The shifts in regional alignment caused by US withdrawal also opens the door to a more aggressive spread of terrorism to the West.  Until now, the autonomous Kurdish administrations of northern Syria and of Iraq have been serving a security function by securing Europe’s borders from extremist Islam.  It is unlikely that Turkey, Iran, Russia or Assad will do the same. The future of terrorism has become more dangerous than ever.  

Finally, US credibility has already been dramatically damaged for its allies around the world.  In the long run, this will lead to the undermining of American values such as fundamental freedoms, democracy and liberalism as the US becomes increasingly isolated on the international stage.



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