WASHINGTON — The United States should help create and then support a semi-autonomous region for Syrian Kurds before Washington withdraws its military forces — to both keep faith with an ally and to protect it from a sometimes ally.
A key to creating such a region is for the Kurds to reach an accommodation with the Syrian government regime in Damascus, analysts said.
“Failing to achieve a settlement between Kurdish and regime officials would harm U.S. interests in various ways,” Will Todman, an analyst and fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote on Tuesday. “It could motivate a devastating armed conflict with Turkey, impede the campaign to defeat the Islamic State group, and set the stage for a new bloody, long-term struggle for self-determination in the Middle East with wide-reaching regional implications.”
Turkey and the U.S. are NATO allies but are at loggerheads over Kurds. The Kurds are a critical part of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition but Turkey sees them as terrorists.
Kurds in Syria are the majority in two sections of the country — one small enclave in the northwest and a larger entity in the east and northeast. The former has been overrun with Turkish troops, and Kurds fear a similar fate awaits the larger enclave once U.S. troops and protection depart.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish leaders have repeatedly declared their intentions to push east militarily to rout the Kurds and secure areas that border Turkey as “safe zones.”
On Monday, Sen. John Kennedy introduced legislation to permit President Donald Trump to authorize the use of the military to defend Kurds in Syria.
“There must always be a moral component to America’s foreign policy, and it’s our moral responsibility to be loyal to our allies,” Kennedy (R-La.) said in a news release. “The Syrian Kurds were indispensable in our fight against ISIS in Syria, and we shouldn’t leave them high and dry.”
Earlier this month, National Security Adviser John Bolton said U.S. troops will remain in northeastern Syria until Turkey agrees not to move against the Kurds.
“Shaping the outcome of the Kurdish question at this critical juncture and preventing a new conflict in Northeast Syria are among the few remaining positive steps it can take in Syria,” the CSIS analysis said. “To do so, the United States should work to discourage potential spoilers to such a deal and then forge an international coalition to act as guarantors to the agreement.”
On occasion, Kurds refer to this territory in Syria where they are the majority as Rojava or western Kurdistan. It is distinct from the Kurdish semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq, which serves as a model for what could be restructured in Syria.
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up roughly 10 percent of the pre-war population with an estimated 2.5 million people. In the context of the large Middle East dynamic, the Syrian Kurds are the smallest entity in numbers, behind the concentrations of Kurds in Turkey (16 million), Iran (8 million) and Iraq (6 million), according to the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq.
“The Trump administration should utilize a combination of tools to achieve this aim: the timing and sequencing of the withdrawal of U.S. troops, offers to continue to provide air support to the campaign to defeat (ISIS), limited sanctions relief, reconstruction assistance, and moves toward political norm,” Todman said.