How Afghanistan affects Syria's Kurds

The SDF is critical in the US's war on ISIS across the region

The news last week must have hit Washington’s main partner in north-eastern Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), like a punch in the gut: US troops had quietly pulled out of three military bases, including one near the crucial Al Omar oilfield and another near the city of Qamishli.

After serving as the tip of the spear in the 2019 defeat of ISIS, the SDF’s greatest fear has been abandonment by its main ally, leaving it exposed to Turkey, which views it as a terrorist group. Then US president Donald Trump first stirred such fears in late 2018, when he announced a full US withdrawal from Syria – which some Syrian Kurds described as a “stab in the back” – before walking back the decision.

Last month’s disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan renewed Syrian Kurds’ sense of dread, which seemed justified by news of the US’s departure. But the outlet that reported it turned out to be Iranian, and Washington issued a prompt denial.

“We remain committed to the 'Defeat Daesh' mission with our partner forces, the SDF,” Centcom told The National, referring to the 900 US military personnel in Syria as part of the coalition to defeat ISIS, Operation Inherent Resolve.

Still, the US pullout from Afghanistan seems doubly bad for Kurdish militant groups in Syria, as well as Iraq, where some 2,500 US troops are also focused on defeating ISIS. First, it serves as a lesson to US partners everywhere to not put one’s faith in Washington. Second, the global focus on Afghanistan, and the crucial role Turkey looks set to play there, is likely to give Ankara more of a free hand in dealing with foes across its southern border.

Ankara views the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated a terrorist organisation by the US, has led an insurgency in south-eastern Turkey for decades and is headquartered in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq. Turkey has already used the Afghan distraction to launch a series of strikes, targeting Kurdish fighters and their purported allies in Iraq.

The day after the Taliban took Kabul, a Turkish air strike near Sinjar, in north-western Iraq, killed three Yazidi fighters, including Hassan Saeed, founding chief of a local coalition to fight ISIS.

This was possibly the Turkish military’s most high-profile assassination in years. Turkey views Saeed and his resistance group as another offshoot of the PKK. But Saeed, who created his Sinjar-based militant group after ISIS’s 2014 genocide against Yazidis, had been scheduled to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi that day, demonstrating his group’s inclusion in Iraq’s Security Services.

A week later, Turkish drones hit more than two dozen mostly agricultural targets in eastern Kurdistan, near the Iranian border – a demonstration that Ankara can strike anywhere in northern Iraq, not only the western areas that are its usual targets. The Iraqi government is unlikely to speak out against Turkey’s increased aggression because the two have embraced closer ties of late. Last week, Baghdad announced a major arms purchase from Turkey, including drones, helicopters and other advanced weaponry, although the deal is yet to be finalised.

In Syria, Turkish strikes over the past fortnight have killed some two dozen SDF fighters, including commander Sosin Ahmed, widely hailed for her bravery against ISIS, and Salahuddin Shahabi, commander of the group’s Hasakah-Qamishli headquarters. Kurds have controlled much of north-eastern Syria since the early days of the war against President Bashar Al Assad. Turkey has conducted two major assaults on the area, seizing Afrin in 2018 and a stretch of borderland from Ras Al Ain to Tal Abyad the following year, amid accusations of ethnic cleansing.

ANKARA,TURKEY - DECEMBER 17: Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi signs guest book during his visit to Anitkabir, the mausoleum of the founder of Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, Turkey on December 17, 2020. Iraqi Prime Minister accompanied by Minister of Agriculture and Forestry of Turkey, Bekir Pakdemirli during his visit. (Photo by Emin Sansar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Kurdish forces continue to hold about 10,000 ISIS members in prisons and as many as 60,000 ISIS-affiliated women and children in camps – keeping a lid on a possible ISIS resurgence. In addition to the Turkish military, the SDF has been battling the last pockets of ISIS resistance and the Syrian government, which launched an assault on Qamishli in April, gaining a chunk of territory. Meanwhile, Iran-backed groups have launched assaults on US forces in Syria and Kurdish militants in Iraq in recent months.

Although supposedly under Russian protection, the mainly Kurdish area of north-eastern Syria stretching from Ain Issa to Tal Tamar has endured more than 800 Turkish attacks since the October 2019 ceasefire. But the targeted drone strikes are new and represent a possible expansion of Turkey’s operations in northern Iraq to north-eastern Syria. For Turkey’s beleaguered but still in-charge Justice and Development Party (AKP), the robust campaigns in Iraq and Syria may be an effort to court Devlet Bahceli, head of the AKP’s parliamentary partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party.

Mr Bahceli has long sought to outlaw the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party, a move under consideration by a Turkish court. If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan curbs his legal and military pressure on Kurdish groups, he may find himself further isolated politically.

The central question is whether the US has given tacit approval to Ankara. Last week, Wayne Marotto, spokesman of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, said its mission was to defeat ISIS, not respond to Turkish strikes. The SDF criticised the US for “not taking any responsibility” and called on Moscow to uphold its end of the ceasefire.

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SDF and other anti-ISIS outfits play a key role in the fight against Turkey’s main military foe in Afghanistan, ISIS-Khorasan

In an interview last week, US envoy Joey Hood seemed to suggest that Turkey, as a Nato ally, had privileges. “Turkey needs to take actions in its own national defence against terrorist activity,” Mr Hood said. “We have close co-ordination with Turkey.”

A bipartisan group of more than two dozen members of the US Congress sent a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month, calling for an investigation into whether Turkey’s drone programme violates US law. Assuming that review does come to pass, politicians should stress that Turkey has been assassinating, one after another, military leaders who are not only US allies, but key figures in the fight against the world’s major terrorist group of the past decade.

Another element members of the US House of Representatives may want to highlight is that the SDF and other anti-ISIS outfits play a leading role in the fight against Turkey’s main military foe in Afghanistan, ISIS-Khorasan. According to experts on ISIS’s Afghan branch, the group has received as much as $100 million in funding, as well as strategic guidance and training, from the core ISIS outfit in Iraq and Syria.

Thus, the more Ankara erodes the ability of Kurdish and Yazidi militant groups to combat ISIS, the greater the chance Turkish forces could face ISIS-K attacks in Afghanistan, like the one that killed some 180 people at Kabul airport last month. By undermining the fight against ISIS and its affiliates, Turkish strikes in northern Iraq and Syria are possibly putting the world – and the Turkish military itself – in greater danger.

After its Afghan disaster, the US could regain a measure of international respect by using its significant military presence to de-escalate Turkey-Kurd tensions, encouraging stability in the region and beyond.

Otherwise, why stick around at all?

Published: September 5th 2021, 2:00 PM
David Lepeska

David Lepeska

David Lepeska, a veteran journalist who has reported widely across the region and contributed to top outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, is the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National