If nothing else, the Kurds of the world now know they are the world’s most-loved ethnic group. For that, they owe a debt of gratitude to Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Had the two leaders not made the infamous December 14 telephone conversation that purportedly inspired Trump’s tweet announcing a sudden US withdrawal from Syria, the massive outpouring of moral support for Syrian Kurds from Western capitals and the Washington establishment would perhaps never have occurred. But more about the bright side later.
In the immediate term, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), which governs over a quarter of war-torn Syrian territory, has to gird for all kinds of catastrophic scenarios, from a barely disguised Turkish invasion to a tightening of Syrian coercive measures. Whether or not the US President changes his mind again, the Western-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) clearly cannot count on American support for the rest of Trump’s presidency.
With any luck, the Turks and their local proxies will not rush into the area with indecent haste and end up destabilising the only part of Syria that has a semblance of law, order and stability, not to mention the richest oil fields. The hope also is that the French and British forces already present in the Kurdish-controlled portion will act as a deterrent against the designs of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Russia.
The SDC decision to send a team to Paris to ask France to fill the gap that will be left by the withdrawing Americans may well be a case of too little too late. But, for their part, European countries, including Germany, should not sit idly by in the wake of the events that were summed by Carl Bildt, the European Council on Foreign Relations co-chair, as “a morning of alarm in Europe”.
Hypothetically speaking, replacement of the US contingent by elite troops from the Kurds’ European and Arab partners could be a blessing in disguise for the local population, who in any case had been living in fear and anxiety since Trump announced at a rally in Ohio in March that “very soon, we’re coming out”.
Until the outcry sparked by Trump’s latest announcement, few in the international community had noticed the sheer meanness of his move, also in March, to not spend the $230 million that had been set aside for recovery efforts in northeastern Syria.
US officials had then claimed the freeze on aid meant for areas cleared of ISIS would be offset by $300m pledged by coalition partners when the extra money could have actually supplemented the stabilisation efforts. Now that the balance of power has tilted abruptly in favour of the Syrian Kurds’ foes, whether the pledged sums would materialise is open to question.
While the security challenges thrust on the SDF by the imminent US withdrawal are undoubtedly grave, to view the situation as all doom and gloom would be to miss the big picture. With one tweet, Trump inadvertently unlocked an enormous reservoir of goodwill not just for Syrian Kurds but presumably the Middle East’s entire Kurdish population spread across four countries.
Public memory can be short, but it is evidently not so in regard to the Kurds’ sacrifices — about 4,000 dead and 10,000 wounded — since the launch of the international coalition campaign to defeat ISIS in 2015. Moreover, it is clear that the SDF’s ongoing campaign to root out ISIS diehards from their remaining strongholds is being noticed and appreciated by its beneficiaries far and wide.
Except for a few oddballs and social-media mavens with known sympathies for Islamists, Russia or Syria, the international commentariat has been overwhelmingly critical of the new Trump-Erdogan axis and supportive of the Syrian Kurds. The stinging broadsides have come not just from the “never-Trumpers” but also Western liberals who were previously opposed to military entanglements abroad and had backed President Barack Obama’s decision in 2011 to withdraw all troops from Iraq.
Admittedly, Trump’s simultaneous decision to withdraw 5,000 US soldiers from Afghanistan in the face of a brutal offensive by the Taliban has compounded the concerns of Western politicians and moderate Arab regimes. But until the December 19 tweet went out, a consensus of this scale on a major foreign-policy issue was almost impossible to imagine in Washington. The unifying force of the backlash was further underscored by the resignations of a Trump appointee (Pentagon chief Jim Mattis) and an Obama-administration holdover (anti-ISIS coalition pointman Brett McGurk) in quick succession.
The expected turbulence in the coming days may not produce the kind of cross-border and cross-ideological unity that many Kurds dream of. But it has certainly created an opening for them to mobilise international public opinion in their favour, with the protection and preservation of the de-facto autonomous region in northern Syria as the immediate objective.
(In arrangement with Rudaw Media Network, Erbil, Iraq. Arnab Neil Sengupta, a freelance journalist, divides his time between Delhi and Dubai. He can be reached at [email protected])