The warning signs were there all along, yet President Donald Trump’s brusque decision to pull U.S. forces out of northeast Syria nevertheless stunned Syria’s Kurds. Overnight, their dream of establishing an autonomous Kurdish region has been dashed, and they must now choose between a return to the mountains in a bid for survival, or staying put, awaiting a resurgent Assad regime and what it has in mind for them after six years of self-rule.
The fear of betrayal by superior powers is written into the Kurds’ DNA. Their birth as one of the world’s largest nonstate nations from the wreckage of the Ottoman empire derived from a broken promise by the victors of World War I, or this is how the Kurds see it. Divided over four states—Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria—since then, they have fought and died in search of freedom and nationhood. Their successes invariably proved short-lived; each time, a vacuum they had exploited disappeared. Powerful allies on whose support they thought they could rely abandoned them.
They had pressed for advantage in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which allowed Iraqi Kurds to establish a federal region; and again following popular protests in Syria in 2011, which evolved into a civil war, thereby creating a vacuum in the northeast that Syrian Kurds were quick to fill. When the Islamic State emerged on the scene in 2014, the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria readily joined the U.S. alliance forged to fight the group, which posed a direct threat to them. They had hoped that loyal support for the United States would translate, at war’s end, into Washington’s backing for steps toward Kurdish national objectives.
It was not to be. Just over a year ago, the U.S. refused to come to the aid of Iraqi Kurds when the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, Masoud Barzani, ignored Washington’s insistence that he not stage a referendum on Kurdish statehood. The plebiscite itself, along with the warnings from the United States, gave Baghdad an opening to retake territories in northern Iraq long claimed by the Kurds, thereby setting back Kurdish aspirations for independence by years.
A second warning signal came in 2018, when the United States stood by as Turkish forces overran the majority-Kurdish district of Afrin, in northern Syria, pushing out fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian manifestation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. The YPG had taken control of northern Syria in 2012, when Syrian government forces were tied down fighting rebels elsewhere in the country. Lacking manpower, Damascus was resigned to letting them do so. It also remembered its relationship with the PKK dating back to the 1980s; if faced with the choice, it preferred the secular YPG, which harbors ambitions only for the Kurdish north, over Islamist rebels seeking to overthrow the regime.
Both Barzani’s Peshmerga fighters in Iraq and the YPG in Syria proved outstanding and reliable assets in the anti-isis coalition’s drive to defeat the group. Yet neither would receive the reward to which they deemed themselves entitled. They might have lived with that knowledge, while quietly continuing to build their relationship with Western states in the faint hope that the future might bring greater returns.
But what hurt was that Washington appears to have gone further, turning its back on them and leaving them at the mercy of the post-Ottoman states. They should be excused, perhaps, for now believing that the United States has simply used them essentially as if they were private security companies, part of a tactical alliance in pursuit of its own, eventually diverging, strategic agenda. Now the contract with the YPG seems to have expired.
Iraqi Kurds have the advantage of controlling a federal region that has been on reasonably good terms with Baghdad, and of having representatives in the central government that can help moderate Iraq’s approach toward the Kurds. The YPG, by contrast, is surrounded by enemies—Turkey, the Syrian regime, and even Barzani’s Kurds, who view them with suspicion.
So what is next for the YPG? It could choose to put up a fight, but the low-lying terrain does not favor them, especially against armies. It has two other options: withdraw into the mountains of northern Iraq, where the PKK has long had its stronghold and where it could yet survive fire from Turkish forces; or strike a deal with the Syrian regime to preserve some of its post-2012 gains.
Over the summer, the YPG had already initiated talks with Damascus, but these soon foundered over the Assad government’s stubborn refusal to give the Kurds an inch, and the YPG’s belief that the U.S. had its back. If Kurdish negotiators return to Damascus now, they will find an Assad even less willing to compromise, because Trump’s announcement of an unconditional troop withdrawal has left them twisting in the wind. The best they can hope for is an alliance with Damascus to keep Turkish forces out of Syria—President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has pledged to target the YPG—but would Bashar al-Assad give the Kurds a measure of self-rule in the north in return?
There is no good way forward for the Kurds. But the worst can yet be avoided. It now falls on Russia, which holds most of the cards in Syria, to bring Ankara and Damascus to the table. For Turkey, the bottom line is a border with Syria not under the control of the YPG/PKK, which it considers its mortal enemy. For Assad, it is a Syria free of Turkish troops and a return of the Syrian security apparatus to all parts of the country, including the Kurdish north. It can live with the YPG, but only in its “proper” place: defanged, compliant, and a useful ally against Ankara.
The question now is whether Russia’s diplomats can rise to the task of preventing the worst-case scenario: a YPG fight to the death with Turkey, the Syrian Kurdish population’s panicked flight into northern Iraq, and, perhaps, the return of an isis keen to do what it knows how to do best: exploiting chaos.