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World & Nation

Why are Syria’s Kurds accusing the U.S. of betrayal?

Syrian Democratic Forces
Fighters for the Syrian Democratic Forces drive to encircle the Islamic State group’s bastion of Raqqah in February 2017.
(Delil Souleiman / AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump’s announcement late Sunday that he was pulling U.S. troops from northeastern Syria was met with fierce criticism in Washington and elsewhere. Here is why it is so controversial:

Who are the Kurdish fighters?

They are one of the many groups involved in Syria’s civil war, which began in 2011. When troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad retreated from Kurdish-majority areas in the north, a Kurdish party known as Democratic Union Party of Syria and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, rose to defend and administer those territories.

How did they become important to the U.S.?

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In the beginning of the war, they weren’t. The U.S. instead was giving support to the Free Syrian Army, a disparate group of rebel factions fighting Assad that had also clashed with the Kurds.

But in 2014, Islamic State extremists began a blitz from the shadowlands on the Iraqi-Syrian border. They scythed through northern Iraq, adding to territories they had already taken in Syria to expand their caliphate.

In September of that year, they laid siege to Kobani, a Kurdish-controlled city along the border with Turkey. The city was about to fall to the extremists when the U.S. intervened, using airstrikes and the YPG’s help to push them back.

The effort became a blueprint for a partnership between the Americans and the Kurds. Unlike various Syrian rebel groups, the YPG was eager to fight Islamic State.

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Washington lavished the Kurdish fighters with weapons and training and dispatched special forces teams and air power to pave the way for their offensives against the extremists. And it made them the core of a grouping of militias it called the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.

Earlier this year, the Kurdish-led forces, with backing from a coalition made up of the U.S. and dozens of other countries, took Islamic State’s last territory in Syria and eliminated its caliphate. The victory had cost the lives of more than 11,000 SDF fighters.

In the meantime, the Kurds used U.S. and coalition largess to secure control of northeast Syria and self-administer a territory largely independent of Assad.

So if the caliphate is gone, why is the U.S. still supporting the Kurds?

Though Islamic State holds no significant territory, the coalition and its allied militias are still hunting thousands of extremists hidden in the remote deserts of Syria.

The Kurds also serve the purpose of denying Assad — and his allies in Russia and Iran — control of a strategic area. Northeast Syria is arguably the country’s richest region, with oil, water and minerals. It is also a major passageway linking Syria to Iraq.

With U.S. protection, the Kurds have leveraged those resources to finance a quasi-governmental bureaucracy of 140,000 civil servants serving a population of more than 2 million people. The U.S. has promoted them as a model for what Syria’s future government should be.

Trump, however, has never been convinced by these arguments. He has long advocated an end to America’s presence in the country. In December, he said the U.S. was withdrawing its troops, then succumbed to political pressure not to. On Sunday, after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he said it was time to pull out.

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So why does Turkey want to push out the Kurdish fighters?

Turkey believes the YPG is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, a Kurdish separatist movement that has waged a decades-long insurgency, and regards both organizations as terrorist groups. The government’s fear is that the party will establish a safe haven in northern Syria — as it has done in northern Iraq — and launch attacks into Turkey.

The U.S.-Kurdish partnership came to overshadow most of Turkey’s policy with Washington, with Erdogan repeatedly pushing the U.S. to let Turkey and the Syrian factions it supported take control of the fight against Islamic State in Syria.

Over the last two years, Turkish army units have conducted two cross-border offensives against the Kurdish fighters, overrun their territories and installed Syrian rebel factions loyal to Turkey in their stead.

What does Turkey want to do?

Turkey’s aim is to expel the Kurdish fighters from a 20-mile buffer zone along Syrian-Turkish border. It then plans to replicate what it has done in other Syrian territories under its control: rebuild them using Turkish firms and resettle the 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey in this so-called safe zone.

Of course, Turkey’s other goal is to completely crush the Syrian Kurdish fighters and stop their nascent state.

What might the Kurds face in an invasion?

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If past is prologue, then Afrin provides an answer. The Kurdish-controlled enclave near Aleppo was overrun by Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies in 2018. Hundreds of civilians were killed in indiscriminate shellings, and hundreds of thousands of Kurds were displaced.

It didn’t get better for the Kurds when the fighting subsided. Human rights groups accuse Turkey of engineering demographic change in the area when it resettled Syrian refugees, mostly Sunni Arab Muslims, in the homes of Kurds who had fled the violence.

The mostly Islamist rebel factions that control the area view the Kurds as both atheists and separatists and have used their power to abuse the population. Local activists have reported dozens of incidents of unlawful arrests, torture and disappearances, according to Human Rights Watch.

What have the Kurds said?

Hours after U.S. troops began to withdraw from their positions in Syria, the SDF issued a statement accusing them of not meeting their responsibilities to their allies.

It added that “Turkey’s unprovoked attack on our areas will have a negative impact on our fight against [Islamic State] and the stability and peace we have created in the region in the recent years.”

“As the Syrian Democratic Forces, we are determined to defend our land at all costs.”

Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the SDF, said in an interview with Arabic-language broadcaster Al-Hadath that Trump’s decision had come as a shock and called it “a stab in the back.”


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