The Case Against American Presence in Rojava – Part 1
With the exception of the occupied canton of Afrin, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), commonly known as Rojava, is experiencing a period of relative calm and stability. The conventional phase of its Syrian Democratic Forces' (SDF) war against ISIS has been over for weeks and, as a senior NES foreign affairs declared recently, "the military commands are re-training and replenishing their forces after the battles. They’ve been at war continuously for a number of years... and many of them need mental and psychological rest." The work of "developing the autonomous administration system and organizing the women's and minorities' councils" is also ongoing, as is the task of implementing "civilian and military measures regarding any possible attack by Turkey".
And now that close to 400 United States Army personnel will stay on in Syria for an undetermined period of time, it is expected that the NES will use this period of calm and stability toward effecting further democratization in the areas under its control. It is also expected that the minimal but sustained American presence in Syria will be deployed by the NES as bargaining leverage in peace negotiations with the central government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, over the process of transition to a decentralized post-war Syria. Or, at least, this is the conventional wisdom.
However, the geopolitical tug of war in Syria, involving Turkey and the United States on one hand, and Russia and the al-Assads’ Syria on the other, continues to pull strategic, popular, and political opinion on the revolution in Rojava to one side or another. I have been among observers that have called for the US withdrawal from Syria, while emphasizing the inevitable necessity of tactical and transitional cooperation between the SDF and the Americans in the meantime. The position is contradictory but, if the revolution in Rojava was to protect itself and its peoples against the onslaught of a once-insurgent ISIS at one stage, and sporadically, against potential repeats of disastrous scenarios such as Turkey's ongoing ethnic cleansing in the Rojava canton of Afrin, the Americans were the only devils with whom a deal could have been struck. Such is the plight of subaltern revolutions and peoples caught up in inter-imperialist dynamics, in a world stage devoid of Leftist parties or states capable of aiding their struggle and survival.
Nonetheless, a central question remains: is the continued American presence in Rojava the product of the NES's own volition, or is it, once again, that the decision makers in Rojava must rely on the Americans as a matter of necessity? Either way, we must ask whether an American (or Russian) guarantor is the right choice, in the short and long term, for the future of the revolution in Rojava.
The United States
The Americans are to blame, of course, for at least one half of the mess in which Rojava finds itself presently and, especially, for the onset of the ISIS episode in the first place. This story has been told many times before, but let us review it quickly for the purpose of situating later arguments.
Among many other factors, it was the lopsided American support for Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-centric government in Iraq, which alienated tribal Sunni Iraq, followed by the abrupt US military withdrawal from this country – after wreaking chaos on Iraq’s stability for a decade – that created the perfect environment for the emergence of ISIS. Between these two mistakes, and that of equipping an undertrained and sectarian Iraqi army with American weapons, it was only a matter of time before the Iraqis lost their top grade US weapons to ISIS in the battle of Mosul, thus creating, effectively, the most modernly weaponized jihadi force that the world has yet encountered.
In Syria, the American strategy was no less naive. Equipping the Sunni-Arab nationalist opposition – sectarian forces even less trained in war and political strategy than their Iraqi counterparts – with the same weapons distributed in Iraq meant that, once ISIS began to show up across the border in Syria, the jihadi stockpiling of American weapons only accelerated with the mounting failures of opposition forces.
Therefore, in 2014, at the back end of failed American policies in both Iraq and Syria, the revolution in Rojava found itself faced with an army of gun-slinging jihadi cowboys, when the conquering ISIS arrived just outside Kobane. As such, after the near-fall of Kobane to ISIS, retaking it with American help was, ironically, a matter of necessity for the protectors of the revolution in Rojava.
As I will demonstrate, Rojava is not entirely blame-free for finding itself, five years after the Battle for Kobane, in yet another mess created by the Americans – and by Trump in particular. For now, I must return to the coordinates of the present moment and ask: If the war against ISIS is finally over, then why the continued American presence in Rojava?
The immediate answer to this question is “Turkey”. I have already demonstrated the true nature of the joint Turkish-American plans for Rojava, so here I will focus on why Rojava finds itself in a situation where the Americans can entertain transferring their interests in Syria to Turkey, without seemingly missing a beat.
In 2014, US airstrikes against ISIS positions in Kobane enabled Rojava’s People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) to mount a resistance that has since become known as the Stalingrad moment of the war against ISIS. Of course, the US deployed the narrative of a “war on terror” only as a pretext to attach itself to the YPG/J, and as a means to preserve its many interests in the Middle East, one of which is to obstruct the Iranian Shiite Corridor, a path laden with missile depots that stretches from Iraq to Western Syria and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, ending right at Israel’s doorstep. Importantly, after Russia’s entry into the scene of the Syrian civil war in 2015 in favour of al-Assad, the US could no longer afford to back a losing side.
In return, the YPG/J sought to wipe out ISIS by taking over oil fields in central Syria that funded the group’s reign of terror, developing a tactical and limited relation of military interdependence that led, eventually, to the creation of the SDF in 2016 under American auspices. 'Officially' an all-Syrian (and not ‘Kurdish’) force, the SDF would allow the US to arm the YPG/J without violating NATO and US anti-terrorism laws and, more importantly, without ‘directly’ offending and alienating Turkey.
The elimination of ISIS from Rojava's southern borders was strategically necessary for yet a more important reason: with the evidence of cooperation between Turkey and ISIS surfacing everywhere, if Turkey were to attack Rojava from the north at some point, the SDF would face the impossible task of containing two ruthless armies from two sides in a decidedly losing war. Therefore, ISIS would have to be exterminated in its entirety if Rojava were to even survive an attack from NATO's second largest army. The extended cooperation between the SDF and the US ultimately culminated in now abandoned plans for a 30,000 strong border force over January of last year, angering Turkey, and, arguably, providing justification for Turkey’s atrocious Operation Olive Branch in Afrin.
Importantly, the decision-makers in Rojava allowed the Americans to build as many as 21 large and small bases throughout the SDF-controlled areas. While this fact may seem unimportant in the grand picture of the war in Syria, who in Rojava, Syria, the Middle East – or the entire world for that matter – dares to get near an American base, let alone force American soldiers to leave them? Certainly not a US-dependent NES, for starters. Therefore, what may innocently pose as American-led ‘anti-ISIS coalition’ bases are, in fact, bastions of imperialist occupation of Rojava.
This is indeed why Americans can negotiate over the future of Rojava with only 400 Americans soldiers present in Rojava. And whether it is Turkey that protects these bases – by taking over from NES – or a coalition from the Arab League, the coordinates of (and parties to) such a colonial transaction will be American by choice and design. The NES will, of course, never accept any such transaction, but that will most certainly entail either having to cut a rushed deal with al-Assad, or, what is worse, contending without air support against the Turkish Armed Forces’ (American-made) jets in what would likely be a losing battle.
Aware of this impasse, the Russians have exploited Rojava’s “weak hand” to cut deals with Turkey, and against US interests. Infamously, they allowed the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) to enter Syrian airspace last year to bomb YPG/J positions in Afrin in exchange for the evacuations of eastern Ghouta and northern Aleppo by Turkish proxy forces. And, at the moment, the Russians are finalizing the sale of their S-400 missile system to Turkey, likely in exchange for guarantees on the shape and future of north and east Syria, in what is a mockery of Turkey’s NATO membership.
All the same, reducing this love triangle between Turkey, Russia, and the US to a mere calculus of immediate interests in geopolitics and arms deals risks erasing the wider coordinates of a longterm shift in Turkish foreign policy that pushes this country away from American leadership: just as Turkey walked away from EU membership during Erdoğan’s reign, surely if gradually, the decision-makers in Turkey must know that the current world order under US hegemony is shifting toward a new and multipolar order led by Russia and China, among others. Indeed, the Trump administration's foreign policy has been above all the harbinger of such a shift in approach, and it could be said that James F. Jeffrey is only playing rearguard action in order to maximize American interests during this transitional period.
The US is accepting its place in a coming world order and making adjustments to position itself well within this new reality. And here, ultimately, one way or another, sooner or later, a Turkey under AKP leadership will break away from the NATO alliance. The decision-makers in Rojava must base their strategic and transactional policy with respect to Turkey on the emerging coordinates of such a shifting landscape.
Given this shifting landscape, we must ask to what extent the US is willing to appease the NES at the expense of alienating Turkey. If, as the Pentagon claims, the US presence in Syria means to contain Iran's access to Israel (a hypothesis to be investigated at another time and place), then the US’s other base in al-Tanf, right under the belly of al-Assad territories, should, in the event that open war between Iran and the US breaks out, suffice for the purpose of cutting Iran's access to Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and the Mediterranean at large.
But time is also of the essence in such considerations because, despite all appearances, Iran is the big loser of the Syrian war. Much has been written about the lack of a clear US strategy in Syria (a correct evaluation, in many areas), but what is becoming increasingly clear is that the US grand strategy was all along centred on playing a long, atrocious war against Iran in Syria. Already under severe US sanctions, spending billions of dollars in Syria over the past decade has bankrupted the Iranian economy and, critically, alienated the Iranian populace from this reckless, costly war. That is, given the comparative size of the Iranian and American economies and militaries, a long engagement in a proxy war entails entirely different challenges to the baselines of life and industry in the US and Iran. Indeed, the economically and politically beleaguered Islamic Republic just cut its line of credit to the al-Assad regime.
What is more, what was supposed to have become a profitable period of reconstruction in Syria for Iranian companies and industries, during the post-war phase, is proving not as successful as previously imagined: Syrians, resentful of the Iranian role in derailing the Syrian revolution, refuse to buy Iranian goods, while the Russians are actively working to push the Iranians out of Assad-controlled areas. There are even reports of skirmishes between Russian and Iranian proxies. The Russians know that Iran's plans to further entrench its sectarian policies in Syria will only further alienate the country's repressed and wounded Sunni majority – a future contrary to Russian and al-Assad plans for a stable and intact postwar Syria.
While unlikely for the time being, the IRI regime could very well fall inside Iran by the force of a popular pro-democracy and anti-austerity movement. What would become of Rojava's strategic import to US plans in such a case?
If the Americans indeed leave Syria at some point, and do not transfer their interests to Turkey or other proxies, then the Russians will immediately take their place as the kingmakers in north and east Syria. But in the meantime, and as long as the Americans are present in Rojava, the Russians will discourage al-Assad from negotiating with Rojava, while maintaining efforts to pry Turkey further away from NATO and arms deals with the US, such as the F-35 program.
This Russian strategy may even involve allowances for partial Turkish invasions into Rojava, in order to sweeten the deal for Turkey. Indeed, if the Russians are giving important military technology in the S-400 system away to Turkey (and by extension to NATO), then Russia must be willing to bend, to a considerable degree, to Turkish will on the future of Rojava. This is a mounting and serious threat the decision makers in Rojava must be well aware of.
The continued presence of Americans in Syria is not helping Rojava, either. Insofar as the US remains in Rojava and bars the NES from negotiating with Assad, Russia will continue its flirtations with Turkey and, as for al-Assad, he will have no reason to seriously engage Rojava in peace talks. Importantly, given the US concession and silence on Afrin, the presence of Trump in the White House, and the ongoing love affair between James F. Jeffrey and Turkish interests in the region vis-à-vis NATO, the US presence in Rojava is not much of a negotiating leverage for Rojava in peace talks.
The proponents of the theory that the “American leverage” will strengthen the SDF’s negotiations with al-Assad forget that, if and when Rojava strikes a deal with al-Assad under US auspices, the gains and agreements of such a deal are by no means irreversible. Assad is ruthless enough to renege on all agreements and moral conventions, later on when the Americans leave. That is, the problem with the leverage theory is that it presumes that decentralization – if consented to by al-Assad at any point – is irrevocable. The bottom line is that without territorial sovereignty – that is, without formal recognition by the international community, which al-Assad will never consent to and the Americans have so far not condoned – Rojava's logistical fortunes in a frontal assault against either Turkey or al-Assad's forces will remain the same: as a sub-state entity, the SDF cannot procure anti-aircraft guns, which puts Rojava at a decisive disadvantage against any army covered by an air force, whether now or in the future.
Moreover, insofar as the Americans are present in Rojava, the retrograde international Left and its media will not echo calls for help from the revolution in Rojava. The same reticence applies to the possibility of regional alliances: with American interests so starkly involved in all calculations concerning Rojava, it is unlikely that any sympathetic regional or international actors may come to Rojava's aid, if necessary.
Finally – and this is critical – with the Turkish commercial and humanitarian embargo against Rojava firmly in place, the continuation of hostilities with al-Assad will only make economic life and administration more difficult on the people in Rojava, which risks further pushing the sectarian factions within the SDF back to al-Assad's embrace. Rojava would not want to go Iran's way, overestimate its capacity to continue this war of attrition, and lose democratic legitimacy on the inside.
Indeed, even Brett McGurk professes that Rojava's only leverage to negotiate with Assad is in the here and now, when he is still weak, vulnerable, and recovering. This situation may change drastically in a few months, when Arab reconstruction capital (and the guarantees that come with it) start pouring into the country. In practice and for the time being, Al-Assad cannot impose centralized rule over Rojava, even if that is the inevitable ‘principle’ of an agreement between the two parties. In fact, as a matter of necessity al-Assad will publicly refuse any acknowledgment of the possibility of a federalist future for Syria, lest he authorize, in the same move, the prospect of federal autonomy for Syria's Sunnis (and so sign his own political death sentence). How realistic are Rojava's calls for an open acknowledgement of the transition to a federalized, decentralized Syria, on Assad's part?
In all scenarios, sooner or later the SDF is going to have to contend with al-Assad, so the NES might as well maximize any gains by striking a deal with him sooner rather than later. Such an agreement might allow the YPG/J to retake Afrin under the auspices of an ‘all Syrian’ force (which Turkey won't dare resist), while putting an effective end to the civil war in all of Syria (with the exception of Idlib) in order to undercut the state of emergency that justifies Turkey’s continued presence in Syria and its right to impose economic sanctions on the north and the east of the country. The NES could use such a respite from the Turkish threat and embargo to replenish the economic life of Rojava, and thereby re-strengthen its democratic mandate against the possibility of an Assad invasion, should the latter decide to go to war with the SDF in future to consolidate his hold over Syria.
This is because the most dangerous scenario of all for Rojava is an even more friendly rapport between Russia and Turkey. Turkey has already and seriously derailed SDF plans for a strong transition to a decentralized postwar Syria, and even if barred from attacking Rojava directly, it is expected that Erdoğan's government will do everything in its power to reduce the NES's hold over the future of Rojava. Thus, minimizing this Turkish leverage trumps all other strategic priorities.
All the same, fears that Russia and al-Assad might allow a full occupation of Rojava by Turkey – so that Erdoğan may take care of al-Assad's YPG/J problem – are unfounded. The occupation of Afrin was authorized under a different set of circumstances: In the first place, the canton of Afrin was a small chunk of land surrounded by Turkish forces from all sides; secondly, this brave canton was not a party to the SDF-US agreement and so its self-defence was carried out by the units of the YPG/J, who were not equipped with the SDF's American weapons; thirdly, fearing for the lives of civilians in Afrin, the YPG/J quickly withdrew from urban centres to put an end to Turkey's indiscriminate aerial bombings of the area. Turkey's occupation of Afrin will be made infinitely more difficult, therefore, if extended to the large mass of land to the east of the Euphrates with its large urban centres. Indeed, as Mazlum Kobane declared recently, Turkish intervention could trigger Syria's "second great war".
This is also why I do not believe that a joint operation between al-Assad and Turkey is a possibility, as Al-Assad would not want another big war on his hands: the Iranians are fizzling out of Syria, the Russians aim to wrap up the war and stabilize the country, while Turkey's behaviour in Idlib does not inspire a lot of confidence, insofar the prospect of Turkish withdrawal from occupied Syrian territories is concerned.
All these reasons make up my case against continued American presence in Rojava. In order to initiate such a post-American strategy, the people and decision-makers in Rojava should declare American presence in Syria as "unwelcome". Such a move will allow the Russians to more readily disallow the prospect of a Turkish incursion, while forcing the Americans to either take Rojava's interests seriously or go back to where they came from.