Polat Can spent much of the past five years fighting the Islamic State alongside other members of the U.S.-led coalition in northern Syria. A commander in the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, Can received military training from the United States and then watched his own fighters die in battles that advanced America’s interests in the Syrian civil war. He and his comrades expected the alliance to pay off: When the war ended, the United States would make sure the Kurds get a say in the redistribution of power and resources in Syria and perhaps a semi-independent state. But since President Donald Trump announced this past December that the United States would be withdrawing from Syria, he feels betrayed.
“We became comrades in arms with the American, French, and British soldiers, all of us in one trench,” Can told Foreign Policy in an interview by phone from Syria. “Friends must be loyal to each other and ensure each other’s safety. They should not betray each other or give up their friends in difficult times.”
The Kurds are a long-oppressed minority scattered across Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. Their fighters made up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S.-backed alliance operating in northern Syria that routed the Islamic State in successive battles over the past several years. Without American backing, the Kurds now find themselves sandwiched between two old rivals: the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, and the Turkish regime just across the border.
Turkey views the Kurdish militias in Syria as affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—a Kurdish nationalist group known as the PKK that is responsible for a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. Turkey and other NATO members classify the PKK as a terrorist organization—one that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sworn to vanquish.
Erdogan has been sending more troops to the Syrian border and threatening to conduct military operations in the area controlled by the SDF. He has also proposed creating a 20-mile “security zone” in Syria manned by Turkish troops along the border. Turkish forces already invaded and expelled Kurdish fighters from Afrin—a district in northern Syria that borders Turkey—prompting no significant response from the United States.
“The Kurds see what Turkey is doing with their brothers in northern Kurdistan,” Can said. “It is very important that we protect our people, protect them from the Turks, from al Qaeda and its extremist Islamic factions in the areas controlled by the Turks, and protect them from the injustice of the regime.”
The only other power in the region capable of deterring Turkey is the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. “For the YPG, the current choice is stark: Face a military incursion by Turkey (risking death and forced relocation) or cut a deal with Assad and at least live to see the next day,” said Dana Stroul, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near Policy.
Days after the United States announced its planned withdrawal, Kurdish forces reportedly opened negotiations with Russia. Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters called on the Assad government to protect the strategic town of Manbij from Turkish forces. For the SDF, these steps were meant to create a shield against Turkey. But for Russia and the Assad regime, the U.S. withdrawal creates a tempting opening.
“Both Russia and the Assad government want to prevent Turkey from gaining even more power in Syria and are willing to cut some deal with the SDF, which would be preferable for the Kurds,” explained Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “All of these actors are circling like vultures over the U.S. zone in Syria, hoping to pick at the corpse of the SDF.”
The SDF served two main purposes for the United States in Syria: Its fighters helped defeat the Islamic State, and it provided a bulwark against Iran’s influence. Without the United States, it will become much easier for the Syrian regime, which has strong links to Iran, to reassert control in the area—which is both strategically and economically valuable.
“Currently, the U.S. presence on the ground effectively prevents any Iranian attack on Deir Ezzor, East Euphrates, Rigga, and all oil-rich areas,” Can said. “Let us not forget that Iranian forces are deployed strongly among the Syrian army. Therefore, the entry of the regime into the region means an Iranian entry.”
The resurgence of the Islamic State is another specter that haunts the U.S. withdrawal. In a recent guerrilla-style attack, the Islamic State targeted a popular shawarma restaurant in Manbij famous for attracting American service members. The attack killed 15 people, including four Americans. A week later the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on a joint convoy of the SDF and the U.S. military.
“IS has seized on the announcement of U.S. withdrawal as a strategic messaging opportunity. It is reminding the world that it is not defeated and still poses a deadly threat,” Stroul said, referring to the Islamic State.
For now, the SDF continues to work with the United States, said Kino Gabriel, the spokesperson for the alliance. “Basically everything is going on as it was before and nothing has changed. For ourselves we are going to continue working with the international coalition and even with the U.S. troops as long as they are here,” he said. But without U.S. support, the coalition’s resources will be limited.
Can said the battles against the Islamic State continue. “There are fierce battles every day and victims of our side, as well as victories against Daesh.” But he added, “Daesh will not give up easily and hopes to return strongly after the U.S. withdrawal.”
But if the Turkish military enters northern Syria, the SDF may divert its focus to defending the region. “Turkish threats to occupy the Kurdish areas of Rojava [northern Syria] prompted many Kurdish leaders, fighters, and experts to think about leaving the Deir Ezzor front and heading to the northern border to prevent Turkey and terrorist jihadist groups from invading the region,” Can said.
Without the United States at the negotiating table, the Kurds hold few bargaining chips.
“There were promises from the coalition countries, led by the United States, that they would ensure a peaceful and political solution for us in Syria,” Can said, “and that we would have an important role in shaping the future of Syria.”