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Kurds Scramble For Security Arrangement Ahead Of U.S. Withdrawal From Syria
A woman fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), composed mostly of Kurds, is shown patrolling Qamishli in February 2019. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

Kurds Scramble For Security Arrangement Ahead Of U.S. Withdrawal From Syria

Turkey offers to oversee Trump’s proposed 20-mile buffer zone inside Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria

As the United States and Turkey continue to spar over the latter’s plans to attack the Kurds in Syria, Kurdish authorities are busy currying diplomatic favor with regional players after Washington declared its intention to withdraw American troops from the war-torn country.

“Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions,” President Donald Trump recently tweeted. “Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds,” he added.

The threat to Turkey, a NATO ally, came after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to press ahead with a proposed military operation against the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG forces, which Ankara considers an extension of the banned PKK.

The American chief executive also called for the creation of a 20-mile “safe zone” along Turkey’s border with Kurdish-held areas in Syria. On Tuesday, Erdogan indicated he would honor the request, cryptically telling parliamentarians that such a buffer “will be created by us.”

Nevertheless, analysts are doubtful that the Kurds can secure guarantees against a Turkish mission if Ankara controls the safe zone. Accordingly, the Kurdish leadership is weighing all options and has started planning politically and militarily for the uncertain period ahead.

“On the military front, they are still engaged in battles against pockets of Islamic State fighters in the Deir Ez Zor Province in eastern Syria along the border with Iraq’s Anbar Province,” Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, a reporter and political analyst based in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, told The Media Line. “Most of their forces have been directed against the ISIS threat, which shows that they are not expecting a Turkish campaign against them at present.

“The Kurds see it as a positive that the U.S. will not allow Turkey to attack them,” he continued, “but at the same time they worry what this buffer zone entails. Will the U.S. allow Ankara to create it inside Turkey or in areas controlled by their own soldiers, or will it be monitored by international observers?”

Van Wilgenburg noted that the Kurds nonetheless have opened communication channels with the Assad regime and Russia to determine whether these players can offer them protection in the event Ankara does attack.

According to Behnam Ben Taleblu, a Fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the proposed American troop withdrawal could have a lasting impact on the manner in which it is perceived by regional allies.

“It’s unlikely now that the Kurds will take at face value what U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has framed as one of America’s ‘aims:’ namely, to safeguard local partners who helped combat the Islamic State.

“Ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East often fear losing the support of a liberal great power,” he elaborated to The Media Line. “Conversely, this has been a consistent hallmark of Iranian propaganda—that at some point the West, particularly America, will turn its back on its friends.”

Aykan Erdemir, a policy analyst and former Turkish politician, told The Media Line that the Syrian Kurds “are hedging their bets by speaking with both Damascus and Moscow. The rapid shifts in Washington’s Syria policy and discord within the Trump administration have reinforced Kurdish sentiments that they need to diversify their relations for their survival.

“Syrian Kurds would prefer to sustain the relative autonomy they have achieved in territories they controlled,” he stressed, “but if they have to choose between Assad’s authoritarian regime and direct rule by Erdogan and his Syrian-Arab proxies, they are more likely to go for the former.”

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