Original article by Paul Iddon, Global Comment, US.
On March 23, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) group’s self-styled caliphate, after capturing its last sliver of territory, the eastern Syrian town of Baghouz. While these Kurdish-led forces successfully combated and rolled back the threat of the marauding caliphate, afflicting it with its first ever defeat by breaking its siege on the Kurdish city of Kobani by January 2015, they fear for their future now that their usefulness for the United States and its coalition allies as a partner on the ground against ISIS has decreased substantially.
In December 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria. He later backtracked on this decision and decided to keep a fraction of these troops in the country. The Kurds fear that a complete U.S. withdrawal could soon see them crushed by either Turkey or the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The SDF sacrificed 11,000 of their men and women to destroy the ISIS caliphate in Syria. Twice that number were wounded. Without the SDF, and its major Kurdish component the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the U.S. would have found it much harder to destroy the Syrian wing of the caliphate. Thanks to this large infantry force Washington only had to send a little over 2,000 troops to Syria to fight ISIS and provide the SDF with supporting airstrikes.
While the U.S. is retaining a small force in Syria for the foreseeable future, to help the SDF combat ISIS remnants and sleeper cells it’s clear that it’s commitment is waning. Trump’s December declaration shook the confidence in the SDF, with some wanting to try and make a deal with Damascus to keep some of the hard-won gains they’ve made since achieving de-facto autonomy in 2012.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Turkey are trying to negotiate some kind of a 20-mile deep “safe zone” along Syria’s northern border to prevent further conflict. The U.S. has already said this will be free of the YPG forces Turkey opposes. In reality, this means preventing the Syrian Kurdish forces from having any presence in their major cities, including their administration’s capital city Qamishli and Kobani, from where they bravely repelled ISIS’s relentless siege when Turkey, which had a large force including tanks just across the border, sat idly by.
It’s hard to see how the Kurds could agree to such an unfavourable settlement, especially one done primarily in order to placate Turkey, which invaded their northwestern region of Afrin early last year, subjected it to a brutal occupation, and has killed their forces unprovoked by firing artillery over the border into their heartland regions.
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga also contributed to the defeat of ISIS in their region across the border. Baghdad for years had made sure the Peshmerga never acquired modern weaponry. When the Iraqi Army infamously abandoned Mosul and large parts of northern Iraq the Peshmerga, many fighting with antiquated Soviet-era arms, held the line against ISIS with U.S.-led coalition support. It successfully took the offensive and secured key routes for the Iraqi Army to recapture Mosul in 2017. Hundreds of Peshmerga were killed defending the Makhmour region and the oil-rich Kirkuk region. In the former, they permitted the Iraqi Army to transit their positions to attack Mosul. In late 2016, the level of coordination between the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga, which traditionally fought each other in the pre-2003 era, was hailed a historic. It did not, however, last.
Despite this cooperation, Iraq used the Kurdish independence referendum in 2017 as a pretext to attack the Peshmerga, seizing both Kirkuk and Makhmour along with several other territories, from them. Today, every major front-line on which the Peshmerga fought to defend against ISIS has been taken over by Iraq. This was a slap in the face for the sacrifices made by these Kurdish forces – over 1,700 Peshmerga gave their lives in the ISIS war and many more were maimed and wounded – to defend their lands and help Iraq rid itself of ISIS.
Today, another issue facing the SDF is the status of the thousands of ISIS members from foreign countries currently residing in displaced person camps in their territory. While the Western press is fixated on the stories of former ISIS brides few Western countries are taking the responsibility to repatriate and put their own citizens who went to Syria to join ISIS, when it was undertaking numerous unmentionable crimes against humanity, on trial. This means the SDF, which doesn’t even have an independent nation-state nor even a recognized autonomous region, have to ensure these members don’t once again escape and regroup or attempt to murder civilians in these camps. This is truly a logistical nightmare. Western countries could ease this enormous burden by simply taking responsibility for their own citizens.
“If nothing is done, ISIS will strengthen and multiply, returning stronger than ever and rendering the SDF’s enormous sacrifices in vain,” the northeast Syria-based Rojava Information Center recently warned. “If ISIS is going to be truly defeated, the UK and the international community which worked to militarily defeat ISIS need to provide concrete material and legal support, not just close their eyes and hope the problem goes away.”
This present situation is quite disgraceful. Given their enormous sacrifices against ISIS the Kurds deserve more than to be used and then cynically discarded, which is sadly a trend they are not unfamiliar with historically.