By Ben Brodt
One of the lasting legacies of the Trump Administration is America’s smaller footprint in the Middle East, especially in Syria. Having declared the fight against ISIS won, with the Caliphate territorially defeated, President Trump issued the order to withdraw from northern Syria in October 2019, widely seen as a greenlight for a Turkish invasion of the region.
President Trump and Secretary of Defense Esper were blasted for “abandoning our allies” in the fight against ISIS. In another instance of the Trump administration challenging long standing alliances, the US left the Kurdish de facto government to fend for themselves against the Turkish offensive. However, the US withdrawal from the region might not be a bad thing for the Kurds, after all, and it might not be a bad thing for us either.
By late 2019, the Syrian Civil War had become predictable. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA), Syria’s national defense force, controlled most of the territory and population. Their last offensive was in the northwest province of Idlib, where they were slowly but steadily pushing back the Al-Qaeda affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS. After this group was defeated, it was inevitable that Assad and his proxy partners would turn their eyes east toward the Kurdish controlled areas, the last pieces of land not under Syrian government control.
The US could have stuck around with its Kurdish partners, but the recapture of all of Syria by the SAA was inevitable. Russia has far more invested in Assad’s government than us in its opponents, and it is a mistake to engage Russia over our relatively small interests in the region. Russia will back Assad until the end of the conflict. If the US escalated its response, Russia would have reciprocated, creating needless conflict and further hurting the Syrian people.
By leaving the conflict before the inevitable loss of the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), the Kurdish majority administration which controls most of Eastern Syria, the US was able to avoid costly peace negotiations and focus more on more vital strategic interests with a greater probability for success.
Almost immediately following the withdrawal, however, the SDF signed a ceasefire agreement with the Assad regime. This was in both sides' best interests. the Syrian government wanted one less front to be fighting on, in order to focus on keeping Turkey out of the north of the country and defeating the last pocket of rebel held territory. The SDF no longer had to worry about attacks from the SAA, and could also receive support in their resistance against Turkish occupation.
All of these events transpired almost two years ago, now. Since then, the campaign to recapture Idlib has been painstakingly slow, but steady. After the recapture of Idlib, Syria must confront the problem of the Turkish occupation of its northern territories. This fight will probably be even more difficult than Idlib, and may even require international intervention and condemnation. Between these two massive campaigns ahead of it, the SAA will no longer have the will or ability to continue the fight for a third campaign against the SDF, which enjoys recognition from many Western nations.
This truce has significant implications for how Syria will look post-conflict. By signing a truce (even if temporary) with the SDF, the Assad government has given legitimacy to them, the only rebel group with such legitimacy. Additionally, the US still has interests in aiding the SDF, and post conflict resolutions will likely see the US lobby on the behalf of the SDF. An autonomous administration may be set up for the Kurds in Syria, much like the one in Iraq.
Realistically, this is probably the best chance for any type of self-governance Syrian Kurds will get for a long time. By receiving legitimacy from the Syrian government, the SDF have the ability to create an autonomous zone like the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. The creation of two autonomous Kurdish regions could have serious implications for other Kurdish separatist movements in Iran and Turkey and the possibility of a truly independent, unified Kurdistan.
The US could benefit from an autonomous or fully independent Kurdistan for a number of reasons, the first being energy security. While the US has many strong oil trading partners in the Persian Gulf, the addition of one more would only help to diversify our sources.
The second reason this would be beneficial to the US is because it would disrupt our adversaries in the region, namely Iran and Syria. Syria's loss of its eastern provinces would mean significant reduction in oil production, hurting their economy and their military posture. Iran, on the other hand, would likely see an uptick in Kurdish separatist violence, creating a difficult security dilemma that would force them to focus domestically.
Lastly, the creation of a Kurdish state would create a beacon of liberal, Western values in the Middle East. The administration that the SDF has set up is already incredibly progressive, with equal rights for minorities, equal access to education for men and women, and seats reserved in parliament for women and ethnic minorities.
Many have decried the US withdrawal from Syria in the context of former President Trump’s America First strategy, without considering the possible positive consequences of this decision. Our abandonment of the SDF has given them a unique chance for a post conflict power sharing agreement and could give us a new, pro-Western, strategic partner that enjoys legitimacy from the Syrian state.