What a U.S. Withdrawal From Syria Would Mean for the Kurdish Forces Left Behind

(Bloomberg) -- A withdrawal of the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, as ordered by President Donald Trump, would most immediately affect their local military partners, the Syrian Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The group’s battlefield successes have been a major component of the U.S.-led effort to defeat the jihadist group Islamic State in Syria, and the YPG now controls approximately a third of the country. Without the U.S., the group faces a deeply uncertain future, including the prospect of an inflamed conflict with Turkey.

1. What is the YPG?

As the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party of Syria, it seeks autonomy for Syria’s Kurds and has shown a willingness to work with any power capable of advancing that goal. The party itself was formed in 2003 as an offshoot of the PKK, a group that seeks an autonomous region for Kurds inside Turkey, has fought Turkish forces on and off since 1984, and is outlawed by Turkey and considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union. Turkish officials estimate the YPG has from 7,000 to 11,000 fighters.

2. How did the YPG and U.S. become allies?

Gradually. The YPG wasn’t part of the Free Syrian Army, the Western-backed coalition that was the main opponent of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the early years of the Syrian civil war. Some rebels accuse the YPG of collaborating with Assad, who has supported the PKK and whose decision to withdraw forces from several majority-Kurdish areas in northern Syria in mid-2012 allowed the YPG to establish control there. In 2015, when the Syrian Democratic Forces were created under U.S. auspices to fight Islamic State, YPG members formed its backbone. The U.S. began providing material support to the SDF and backing its operations with air power but initially said American weaponry was only for the coalition’s non-YPG elements. That changed in May 2017, when the U.S. declared Kurdish forces were needed to retake Islamic State’s Syrian headquarters of Raqqa.

3. What would a U.S. withdrawal mean for the YPG?

Trump’s announcement of a U.S. exit from Syria has elicited concern about the fate of the group. It has one eye on Turkish forces massed to the north, who have repeatedly attacked it despite being part of the same coalition against Islamic State. It has the other eye on Syrian government forces to the southwest, who with the help of their Russian allies are determined to recapture all of prewar Syria. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton has said the U.S. won’t depart Syria until Turkey agrees not to go after the Kurds. Said Trump, “We want to protect the Kurds, but I don’t want to be in Syria forever.”

What a U.S. Withdrawal From Syria Would Mean for the Kurdish Forces Left Behind

4. What might follow a U.S. withdrawal?

Turkey has announced plans to extend its anti-YPG offensive into territory U.S. forces would vacate under Trump’s plan, including the town of Manbij, and already the Turkish military has sent hundreds more vehicles and troops into Syria. The YPG has gone so far as to invite Syrian army units to move near Manbij to counter Turkey’s buildup.

5. What’s Turkey’s objective?

Essentially, Turkey wants to dismantle the embryonic proto-state Kurdish forces have established in northern Syria amid years of civil war, saying it could be used by the PKK to launch attacks on Turkish territory. (The Turkish government strongly objected to the U.S. arming the Syrian Kurds for this same reason.) Turkey captured the Kurdish stronghold of Afrin in early 2018, and Manbij is the last major Syrian town controlled by Kurdish forces west of the Euphrates.

6. Does the YPG have allies other than the U.S.?

After Trump’s withdrawal announcement, French officials met with members of the group and expressed their continued support, earning a rebuke from Turkey. German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to react with “restraint and responsibility” in response to the U.S. pullout plan. Russia has welcomed the deployment of Syrian army units near Manbij at the invitation of the YPG, but mostly because that bolsters the Assad government’s claim over Syrian territory.

7. Who are the Kurds?

They are an Indo-European people, mostly Sunni Muslims, numbering about 30 million, whose homeland is divided among Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Kurds have been persecuted in those countries in a variety of ways: stripped of their citizenship, excluded from some professions, barred from giving their children certain names and restricted in speaking their own language. They’ve pushed for equal rights and autonomy over their affairs and periodically rebelled. National authorities have responded at times severely, expelling Kurds from their villages in Syria and attacking them with chemical weapons in Iraq.

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