Syrian Kurds fear Turkish assault as U.S. troops depart

The Syrian Kurdish militia that proved the key U.S. ally in the defeat of the Islamic State is in a precarious position as U.S. troops withdraw amid repeated military threats from Turkey.

“Neighboring Turkey, which has fought Kurdish separatists at home for decades, is openly hostile to the Syrian Kurds along its border who have gained territory, sophisticated weapons and powerful alliances as a result of Syria’s eight-year civil war,” largely thanks to their partnership with the United States, the New York Times said on Sunday.

Mazlum Kobani, leader of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), oversees forces controlling a third of Syrian territory, and vowed to protect the semi-autonomous region.

“They have gained in Syria what they are not going to be able to get anywhere else,” Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, said of the SDF. “They want to preserve that.”

Washington is yet to use its strong relations with Kobani to push for a longer-term deal between Turkey and the SDF, so the threat remains, especially after SDF forces cleared ISIS from its last stronghold in March.

“The more powerful Mazlum’s forces get, the more they scare Turkey, which has threatened to send troops across the border to get rid of what it considers a growing security threat. Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters have dug extensive tunnels near the border to fight back in case the Turks attack,” said the NY Times.

The U.S.-SDF partnership suffered a blow in December when President Trump said the United States would withdraw its 2,000 troops from eastern Syria.

“It was not only the Kurds who were shocked by this decision,” Amjad Othman, spokesperson of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political umbrella of the SDF, told the U.S. show PBS Newshour. “All the people in this area were fearful.”

U.S. plans have since changed repeatedly, with the latest plan calling for anywhere from 400 to 1,000 soldiers left in Syria.

“If the US pulls out or even leaves just a small, residual force, the Kurds will find themselves I think in a very precarious position,” Mona Yacoubian, an analyst at the U.S. Institutes of Peace, told PBS Newshour. “The semi-autonomous area that they've managed to carve out of northeastern Syria...will indeed come under threat should the U.S. withdraw.”

The Syrian Kurds fear a repeat of Afrin, where Turkish forces invaded and drove out Syrian Kurds last year. “By all accounts, at least from the Kurdish side, this has led to forced displacement, atrocities, even ethnic cleansing,” said Yacoubian. “So I think that the Kurds view as a very serious existential threat the prospect of any sort of Turkish invasion.”

Little is known about the 52-year-old Kobani, including his real name. He does admit to being a longtime member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought an armed insurgency for self-rule against Turkey since 1984 and is labelled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the EU. Ankara views the SDF as an extension of the PKK.

Can Acun, a researcher with SETA, a pro-government think tank in Turkey, feared Kobani and the SDF could use Syria as a base for future attacks on Turkey. “Turkey doesn’t want northeast Syria to become a safe zone for the P.K.K.,” he told the NY Times.

Kobani said Turkey still had a pre-Syrian war mentality, before the threat of ISIS and others emerged. “The Turks are focused on the period before 2011, but we are looking ahead,” Kobani told the New York Times. “If we end up on our own, we’ll continue the war as we did in the time before the coalition.”