The seizure of the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin on Sunday by Turkish forces is a rerun of one of modern history’s saddest recurring themes: The Kurds struggle for survival while their friends among the great powers stand aside and watch.
The Kurds’ plight is especially painful for U.S. military commanders, because the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been America’s key ally in defeating the Islamic State in Syria. U.S. commanders fear that the decisive gains won against the jihadists since 2014 may be slipping away as the SDF leaves the Islamic State front in eastern Syria to combat the Turkish assault on Afrin in the northwest.
Seeing the photographs of pro-Turkish Islamist militia men strutting about the center of Afrin on Sunday, it seemed eerily possible that jihadist allies of the Islamic State were back in control in northern Syria, thanks to “NATO ally” Turkey.
The Kurdish defeat in Afrin was probably inevitable. The United States made clear months ago that Afrin was in the Russian-controlled zone and America wouldn’t intervene there. Russian forces, who had six outposts in the enclave and had promoted themselves as Afrin’s protectors, withdrew their troops two months ago and gave Turkey a green light for its assault. If the Kurds were betrayed in Afrin, it was by the Russians.
The U.S.-Turkish confrontation now moves about 60 miles east to the town of Manbij, which is controlled by the SDF and its U.S. military advisers. Turkey is demanding that the Americans and the Kurds withdraw to east of the Euphrates River. That would be a policy mistake, in addition to an amoral abandonment of a faithful ally. The Turks don’t have disciplined forces that could maintain security in Manbij, Acceding to Turkish demands would spread chaos and make the ruinous situation in Syria even worse.
To understand this complex battlespace, it helps to visualize Manbij, a mixed, Kurdish-Arab market town about 30 miles south of the Turkish border. I traveled there last month with U.S. Special Operations forces, and heard tales of the Islamic State fighters who ruled the city until the SDF, backed by U.S. air power, assaulted in May 2016.
The Turks had demanded that their forces, rather than the SDF, clear the city back in 2016. But U.S. commanders concluded that Turkey lacked the military muscle to do the job. U.S. commanders knew that SDF control of Manbij would be a political problem, but they saw no other choice — the same dilemma they faced in 2017 in opting for an SDF assault on Raqqa. A viable Turkish alternative didn’t exist. The Syrian Kurds did the fighting and dying against the Islamic State. The world owes them a debt.
Today, Manbij is stable. The markets are stuffed with merchandise, and the city is booming. The Manbij Military Council coordinates security. It’s a Kurdish creation, but it seems to have considerable Arab buy-in. Indeed, Arabs have moved toward the security and stability of the Kurdish-controlled areas, for the simple reason that they’re relatively safe and orderly.
When I visited, Turkish-backed militias were arrayed across a two-kilometer no-man’s land at the western edge of Manbij. They regularly sprayed warning fire at the U.S.-backed SDF positions. The Turks say that President Barack Obama pledged back in 2016, when the SDF attacked Manbij, that it would retreat, after the battle, back east of the Euphrates; in the Turkish narrative, this is recalled bitterly as “the promise that wasn’t kept.”
The problem is that if the United States did what Turkey wants, the result would be bloody chaos in Manbij that might cascade south and east, unraveling the stability that was bought at such cost. A reasonable goal would be a gradual withdrawal by the United States and SDF from Manbij, as the Afrin conflict ends and there’s a deescalation in northern Syria. A sudden retreat would risk disaster, not least for Turkey, whose appetite in northern Syria vastly exceeds its ability to swallow and digest.
The United States and its SDF allies have a strong position in northeast Syria, which is useful for three reasons: to check Russia in the great-power competition in Syria; to prevent Iranian hegemony across the “land bridge” from Iran to Beirut; and to maintain leverage for the bargaining in Geneva that will eventually set the framework for a new Syrian state.
Muddling through is never a tidy option. But it’s the right approach now, as the United States tries to sustain its partnership with the brave, embattled Syrian Kurds. It’s an awkward alliance but a useful one. Betraying the Kurds isn’t just wrong, it’s foolish.