Has America used the Kurds in Syria only now to dump them? Observers who believe in moral debt, rather than the cold logic of realpolitik, understandably are concerned about the implications for the Kurds of an immediate US withdrawal from Syria. After having served as boots on the ground for the military effort against ISIS, the Kurds – so the thinking goes – have once again been betrayed. They will now be left alone to face Turkish aggression. That, at least, is the conventional wisdom.
The problem with this scenario is that it’s wrong. To wit: Turkey’s relations with Iraqi Kurds significantly improved after the US left Iraq. Turkey followed up the Obama administration’s decision to leave the country with political, diplomatic and economic engagement with Iraqi Kurds. Ankara recognized the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), and even opened a consulate in Erbil in 2010.
Now, if that history is any guide, America’s departure from Syria will pave the way for Turkish political and diplomatic engagement with Syrian Kurds. One might argue that it was easier for Ankara to engage Iraqi Kurds because they were not considered terrorists. Yet, for decades, Ankara denounced the two dominant Kurdish groups in Iraq as supporters of terrorism for sheltering members of Turkey’s Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK.
To be sure, there are important differences between the respective Kurdish factions in northern Syria and northern Iraq. This notwithstanding, the US decision to leave Syria will go a long way in alleviating Turkish fears of a permanent Kurdish-American military alliance. For Ankara, there is only one thing more dangerous than Kurdish nationalism: Kurdish nationalism supported by a superpower. And Turks, not surprisingly, have always preferred to negotiate with the Kurds when they are alone and cornered. Thanks to Donald Trump’s unexpected decision, Ankara now will have the upper hand.
Turkish fears about Western intentions to carve up the Middle East go back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, during which time European imperialism supported ethnic separatism within the Ottoman empire. The memory of Ottoman territorial disintegration still fuels conspiracy theories in modern Turkey, about US support for Kurdish separatism. Many Turks believe that the Kurdish nationalist movement in their country has the support of Washington, despite the US designation of the PKK as a terrorist organization. Conspiracies are resilient creatures that survive even the bluntest of realities – the CIA’s support for the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999 did nothing to change perception in Turkey.
So when the Pentagon established a military partnership with Syrian Kurds of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, conspiratorial suspicions turned into self-fulfilling prophecy. By doing so, the US was actively and openly supporting the Kurds in Syria. The fact that America saw the Syrian Kurds as the most effective fighting force against ISIS, and had no intention to support Kurdish nationalism, held no traction with Turks.
Today, the Trump administration’s decision to leave Syria is likely to change the balance of power in favor of Turkey. Ankara has gained the upper hand in the north. Russia, the other major military actor in northern Syria, has good relations with the Kurds, but has much more at stake in better relations with Ankara. Moscow sees Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, as the weakest link in the transatlantic alliance – and as evidence, Turkey is the only NATO country to actually buy a missile-defense system from Russia. Indeed, breaking NATO is much more important to Moscow’s grand strategy than the Kurds. Vladimir Putin, therefore, won’t stand between Ankara and the Syrian Kurds.
To that end, Erdogan will opt for pragmatism and diplomacy over military action. He can afford to do this because after local elections in March, his AKP party will have less need of support from a virulently anti-Kurdish, nationalist party. In addition, he knows that an invasion of northern Syria will not serve Turkey’s interest, as it would only worsen the economy and political stability. Indeed, the last thing the already weak Turkish economy needs is a series of PKK terrorist attacks before the start of the next tourist season.
During the early part of this decade, Erdogan began negotiations with the PKK. But the US partnership with Syrian Kurds, which began in 2014, derailed those talks by fueling Turkey’s sense of insecurity. Now, the end of the Kurdish-American alliance may provide a crucial opportunity for Turkey to re-engage the PKK from a newly acquired position of strength.
At the same time, Syrian Kurds now will have to make a difficult choice between Damascus and Ankara. Bashar Al Assad’s regime now controls much of Syria and his brutal regime will never forget the Kurdish betrayal in support of the US; he will not reward the Kurds with autonomy. Thus, the departure of US forces may allow for diplomacy between Ankara and Syrian Kurds, and this will resonate with renewed peace talks between Ankara and the PKK.
What might have appeared like wishful thinking a month ago now is not outside the realm of possibility. If the KRG could be turned into a Turkish zone of influence after the American departure 10 years ago, a similar scenario in northern Syria could turn into a win for all parties: peace for the Turks and Kurds, and an exit from Syria for the United States.
Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.