Q&A

Trump Wants U.S. Troops to Guard Syria’s Oil. The Kurds May Not Welcome Them.

After capitulating to U.S. demands for years, Syrian Kurdish leader Ilham Ahmed has some conditions of her own.

Ilham Ahmad, the president of the executive committee of the Syrian Democratic Council, attends a press conference at the European Parliament in Brussels on Oct. 10.
Ilham Ahmad, the president of the executive committee of the Syrian Democratic Council, attends a press conference at the European Parliament in Brussels on Oct. 10. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

The Syrian Kurds lost 11,000 fighters in the U.S.-led campaign to defeat the Islamic State. They agreed not to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. And in the weeks leading up to Turkey’s Oct. 9 invasion of northern Syria, they dismantled their defenses along the Turkish border. 

So it came as a shock to Ilham Ahmed, the president of executive committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), when U.S. President Donald Trump stepped aside as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began a bloody incursion into northern Syria, a campaign that, according to Ahmed, has so far killed at least 250 Kurds, including a large number of children, and forced 300,000 to flee their ancestral homes. Another 300 people have disappeared. 

After the abrupt withdrawal, Trump made another reversal, announcing his intent to maintain a small U.S. force in northeastern Syria to keep Assad and his Iranian backers from seizing the region’s rich oil fields. 

But this time, the Syrian Kurds will not cave so easily to U.S. demands. 

“If the U.S. presence in the area is not going to benefit us when it comes to stability, security, and [stopping] the genocide and ethnic cleansing, they won’t be welcomed,” Ahmed told Foreign Policy, speaking through a translator. 

It’s not clear that the Kurds have much leverage to stop the U.S. military from maintaining a presence in northeastern Syria. But the one advantage they have now is Russia’s backing—and Moscow is not likely to look fondly on a residual U.S. presence near the coveted oil fields. 

In addition to a guarantee from the U.S. president that her people will be safe, Ahmed also wants the United States to recognize the SDC as a legitimate Syrian political party and to support its representation in the newly formed Syrian constitutional committee

Proposed during a peace conference hosted by Russia in 2018, the United Nations-facilitated committee is tasked with rewriting the Syrian Constitution. The 150-member group consists of representatives from the the Turkish-backed opposition, Assad’s government, and civil society; the Kurdish-led autonomous region in northeastern Syria was conspicuously left out. 

“The United States has helped us militarily, but they have never helped us politically,” Ahmed said. 

Ahmed is seeking to meet with Trump directly in Washington, likely alongside Gen. Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the SDC’s military arm. She sat down for an interview with Foreign Policy on Thursday at her office in Washington. 

Foreign Policy: After two weeks of fighting and a tentative U.S.-brokered cease-fire, Russia and Turkey now seem to have carved up northern Syria. At this point, what is the best outcome for you?

Ilham Ahmed: There is no clear answer. What we hear about is the intention to stay for the U.S. forces. But how they are going to do that they don’t know, we don’t know. We want to be leading our lives with our human dignity protected.

There is an ethnic cleansing campaign being carried out against our people, not only against the Kurds but major demographic components of northeastern Syria. The area targeted by Turkey is not just a Kurdish area. The majority of the people from that area are Syriacs, Arabs, and Christians. They cannot go back to their homes. It is very urgent to stop this Turkish project and to stop its consequences.

FP: Are Turkish-backed forces adhering to the cease-fire?

IA: No, they are not. They are still attacking the Kobani area and the border town of Ras al-Ain. 

Just look at the videos that were leaked from their activities. We’ve seen video of the Syrian National Army mutilating a body of a Kurdish fighter, shouting jihadi slogans, and stepping on her dead body. Today, we saw a video of them kidnapping an Arab woman—they were claiming that she was a fighter, but she is a civilian. They carry out public executions, looting, confiscating people’s properties. Some of their leadership are Islamic State. 

FP: What future do you want for your people?

IA: Our project is to have a decentralized state, where there are local civilian councils, local governments that guarantee the rights of the different Syrian groups, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, gender equality, and that the rights of the Kurdish people are guaranteed in the Syrian Constitution. 

We are not as weak. We are still strong, and we can speak about these issues. 

FP: Abdi thanked Trump for his efforts to stop the war, but in your testimony before Congress, you criticized the U.S. administration. Why? 

IA: Yes, Gen. Mazloum thanked Trump for his intervention in stopping the Turkish incursion and that he worked on stopping the war. I criticized the surprising announcement of the force withdrawal and the catastrophe that happened right after the withdrawal. I will always criticize this. 

FP: Do you feel that the U.S. government betrayed you?

IA: We were promised a lot from many U.S. officials, not just Trump: that they were going to stay until they reached a political agreement, until they made sure that the Islamic State was totally defeated, and to enable stability and security in northeastern Syria. None of those were achieved before they withdrew. The worst thing was allowing the Turks to use the Syrian air space. 

FP: Now that the United States has mostly left, are you negotiating with Assad’s regime?

IA: Before, U.S. officials urged us to wait, and they always told us if you reach out to the regime, we will withdraw from the area. After the Turkish incursion, of course we started to look for other options. Now, I am not going to wait for any suggestion or recommendation from any other country. 

FP: You are also talking with the Russians. Do you trust them?

IA: We used to trust the Americans, and unfortunately the air space was opened for Turkey. But the Russians, too, we cannot really trust them when it comes to this. We have previous experience with the Russians in Afrin. 

FP: Does the United States staying in northern Syria at this point complicate things for you? 

IA: It has pros and cons. It will complicate things, but at the same time, it could carry some positive aspects. We need some assurances from the United States: first, contributing to the political solution in Syria and not to let the political solution be only in the hands of the Assad regime. We also want to participate in the political process. We have been excluded up until now. One of the conditions is the political settlement, that we need to be represented. 

FP: So if the United States does not agree to those conditions, will you tell Trump that U.S. troops can’t stay in the region?

IA: Of course. 

FP: Turkey views the SDF as an offshoot of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). What are your ties with the PKK?

IA: We don’t have organizational relations with the PKK. We are not part of the PKK. We don’t take our orders from the PKK. But we must ask ourselves why the PKK in the first place was established and why it was designed as a terrorist organization: because it is fighting inside Turkey to defend the Kurdish people. Because Turkey is a NATO state, they designated the PKK as a terrorist organization. The PKK never targeted the interests of the United States or any other NATO country. It is only an issue for Turkey.

FP: Trump has said the United States should wash its hands of the Middle East, where people have been fighting each other for hundreds of years over “bloodstained sand.” What is your response to that?

IA: It is not the people, it is the governments, the totalitarian governments, who are fighting. It is not people versus people. It is government or authority versus people. If Turkey did not intervene, we—all the Syrians, the Kurds, the Arabs—we can easily live with each other. For eight years in northeastern Syria, we were living together, Arabs, Kurds, and Syriacs, and we were the most successful part of Syria. 

People are people just like any others. They want peace and they want stability and they don’t like fighting.

This interview has been condensed and edited for publication. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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