Will the Americans Abandon Us?
Will the Americans Abandon Us?
A man gestures at U.S military vehicles driving in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria. on 28 April 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Avoiding a Free-for-all in Syria’s North East

President Donald Trump has ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from north-east Syria. This risks chaos and drives home the urgent need for a deal that restores Syrian state sovereignty to its north east, assuages Turkish security concerns and allows for some degree of Kurdish self-rule.

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What’s new? President Trump's surprise decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria followed previous warnings that he justified their presence only as part of the campaign to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). Trump said the mission is accomplished, though ISIS remains active in both Syria and Iraq.

Why does it matter? The U.S. has not laid the political groundwork for withdrawal without precipitating new conflicts. Its Syrian partners fighting ISIS, led by Kurdish fighters, will be vulnerable to attack by either the Syrian regime or neighbouring Turkey. The ensuing conflict could have devastating humanitarian consequences and provide ISIS with the chance to regroup.

What should be done? The U.S. needs to press Turkey not to attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). It should encourage the SDF to reach a stabilising deal with the Syrian regime, as, in parallel, Russia engages the SDF, the regime and Turkey. More space and time granted by Washington, even if limited, could allow for an orderly U.S. exit.

I. Overview

On 19 December, days after U.S. President Donald Trump spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, U.S. officials announced that the U.S. had begun to withdraw its military forces and civilian personnel from north-eastern Syria. Trump had told Erdoğan that such was his intent, but to most everyone else, the news came as a surprise and, to many, a perilous one: if made precipitously, the move risks leaving chaos in its wake. Washington’s Syrian partners in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), led by Kurdish fighters, will be vulnerable to attack by either the Syrian regime or neighbouring Turkey, which considers them terrorists. The ensuing conflict could also provide ISIS with the opening it needs to regroup.

It almost certainly was unwise to commit the U.S. to an open-ended military presence in Syria’s north east, as U.S. officials had previously done. But if the U.S. is to pull out its troops, it should ensure that its partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) can survive without them. At this point, the U.S. has not yet laid the political groundwork that would allow it to withdraw responsibly.

As it reaches the final stages of its military campaign against ISIS, the U.S. needs to press Turkey not to attack the Kurdish forces and simultaneously to facilitate a stabilising deal between the Kurdish-led SDF and the Syrian regime. It will not be easy. Talks earlier this year between representatives of Syria’s north east and Damascus stalled after the regime refused to bend on demands for decentralisation and local autonomy. The regime’s negotiating position may become even more inflexible now that the U.S. has announced its departure and thus the guarantee of its military protection is set to expire.

Still, an imminent U.S. withdrawal should drive home the urgent need for a deal – one that restores Syrian state sovereignty to Syria’s north east; moves Syrian forces to the border with Turkey, with Russian backing, thus assuaging Turkish security concerns and forestalling an attack on the SDF; and allows for a degree of Kurdish self-rule. In recent months, the U.S. had not encouraged the SDF to seek such a deal; that posture must now change. The SDF needs the space and time to bargain seriously with Damascus. The alternative could be a military free-for-all resulting from a conflict among the SDF, Turkish and Syrian forces that could have devastating humanitarian consequences and regenerate ISIS.

II. “Enduring Defeat”

Trump’s decision to pull military forces out of Syria is the latest wild swing in U.S. Syria policy during his presidency, as the U.S. national security staff has repeatedly battled the president’s own instinct to avoid open-ended engagements in the Middle East.[fn]See Aron Lund, “The Making and Unmaking of Syria Strategy under Trump”, The Century Foundation, 29 November 2018.Hide Footnote Until Trump’s about-face, those officials tied the presence of U.S. troops to ISIS’s “enduring defeat”, which, per their expansive definition, required fundamental change to Syria’s political system and the exit of Iranian-commanded forces from Syria.[fn]Briefing on Syria Meeting and U.S. Strategy”, U.S. Department of State, 27 September 2018. Ambassador James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement, elaborated on the logic of “enduring defeat” in his 29 November testimony to a House of Representatives foreign affairs subcommittee: “First of all, you cannot ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS – that’s what we experienced, including me personally in Iraq in 2010 to 2012, of any terrorist organization –if you don’t deal with the root causes of it. Well, the root causes of ISIS, mainly in Syria but to some degree in Iraq, have been, first of all, the horrific behavior of the Assad regime against its own people, giving those people no other chance but to turn to whomever would take up arms against Assad, and that was, unfortunately, including terrorists. Secondly, it is the role of Iran, spreading its tentacles around the Arabic Sunni world. This is an outside force that creates malignant antibodies if we – that is, the international community – do not respond in a proper way. We did not respond in a proper way to Iran’s encroachment into these areas so the peoples of the area, in desperation, fell victim to the false claims, the false promises of ISIS and other terrorist organizations. So we do have to do all three. We cannot just rely on the military defeat of the Caliphate right now along the Mesopotamia, the Euphrates, along the Iraqi border. We have to go after the root causes, and our policy is aimed at that”. “U.S. Policy in Syria”, C-SPAN, 29 November 2018 (at minute 15:12).Hide Footnote Now Trump has reasserted himself. “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency”, he tweeted on the morning of the 19 December withdrawal announcement.[fn]Tweet by Donald J. Trump, @realDonaldTrump, U.S. president, 7:29 am, 19 December 2018.Hide Footnote

President Trump first made the policy shift – unbeknownst to the State Department or the Pentagon – during a 15 December telephone call with Turkish President Erdoğan. Over the previous month, Turkey had stepped up its pressure on Washington over the U.S. presence in north-eastern Syria. It had become clear to Ankara that ISIS’s “enduring defeat” meant Washington’s continued sponsorship of the SDF and support of an SDF-controlled territorial entity. The SDF is led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian manifestation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey; Ankara accordingly considers it a terrorist organisation and any U.S. support for it intolerable. When the U.S. military established observation posts along the Syrian-Turkish border in late November – to protect Turkey from cross-border infiltration, U.S. officials claimed – Ankara only grew angrier, viewing the move as a hostile act designed to shield its mortal enemy, the PKK.[fn]David Vergun, “U.S. Setting Up Observation Posts on Syria-Turkey Border”, U.S. Department of Defense, 21 November 2018.Hide Footnote

On 12 December, Erdoğan announced that Turkish forces would intervene in Syria “within days”. This declaration set off alarm bells in Washington.[fn]Turkey will launch new military operation in Syria within days: Erdoğan”, Hürriyet Daily News, 12 December 2018.Hide Footnote The Pentagon warned that an attack on Syria’s north east would be “unacceptable”.[fn]Ryan Browne, “US warns Turkey not to attack Syria”, CNN, 12 December 2018.Hide Footnote When Trump spoke to Erdoğan on 15 December, U.S. officials expected him to forcefully reiterate that message. He did not. Instead, he shocked his own staff by telling the Turkish president that an attack by Turkey made no sense since the U.S. would be imminently withdrawing from Syria. Summarising the mood among some, a top official, referring to the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam decades ago, reportedly commented, “I was not hired to preside over another Saigon”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior U.S. official, December 2018.Hide Footnote

[President Trump] has consistently emphasised that his interest in Syria is limited to defeating ISIS.

Stunning as it was, Trump’s decision should not have come as a real surprise. He has consistently emphasised that his interest in Syria is limited to defeating ISIS.[fn]For example, see Monica Langley and Gerard Baker, “Donald Trump, in exclusive interview, tells WSJ he is willing to keep parts of Obama health law”, Wall Street Journal, 11 November 2016.Hide Footnote In March 2018, he undercut a previous open-ended commitment to remaining in Syria by declaring, unprompted, that the U.S. would withdraw its forces from Syria “very soon”.[fn]Michael Crowley and Nahal Toosi, “Trump wants ‘out’ of Syria ‘very soon,’ contradicting top officials”, Politico, 29 March 2018. For the iteration of U.S. Syria strategy that President Trump upended with his March and April remarks, see “Remarks on the Way Forward for the United States Regarding Syria”, U.S. Department of State, 17 January 2018.Hide Footnote In subsequent internal deliberations, he opted to pull out of Syria even at the potential cost of leaving a vacuum that, his aides warned, could be filled by Russia and Iran.[fn]Matthew Lee and Josh Lederman, “Trump wants out of Syria, but don’t say ‘timeline’”, Associated Press, 6 April 2018.Hide Footnote

In the ensuing months, Trump’s national security staff – with an assist from French President Emmanuel Macron[fn]Syria air strikes: Macron says he convinced Trump not to pull out troops”, BBC, 16 April 2018.Hide Footnote – convinced him to remain in Syria as part of a regionwide strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran.[fn]Karen DeYoung, “Trump agrees to an indefinite military effort and new diplomatic push in Syria, U.S. officials say”, Washington Post, 6 September 2018.Hide Footnote But that consideration could only override his hard-wired preferences for so long.

In truth, from the outset the Trump administration’s plan to use the U.S. presence in Syria’s north east to curtail Iranian influence in Syria was both unrealistic (a few thousand U.S. troops were never going to make a discernible difference to Iran’s influence) and impracticable. It also risked inviting a dangerous counter-escalation by the Syrian regime and its allies. The withdrawal announcement arguably solves those potential problems.

But if it might address some problems, it could create another: for all their talk of ISIS’s “enduring defeat”, U.S. officials may have given it a new lease on life. Indeed, if a rushed withdrawal prompts a military free-for-all involving the SDF, Syrian regime and Turkish forces, ISIS could exploit the ensuing chaos to stage a comeback. More broadly, and ironically, by stretching the concept of ISIS’s “enduring defeat” to include an assortment of dubiously related goals over an unlimited timeframe – rather than setting a discrete goal and planning for a managed exit – U.S. officials may have missed the opportunity to secure the counter-ISIS campaign’s gains after a U.S. withdrawal. Instead, they may have set up the U.S. for a sudden, wrenching exit that raises the risk that ISIS’s defeat could be at least partially undone.

Trump’s tweet notwithstanding, ISIS is not yet defeated. It retains a stubborn territorial foothold along the banks of the Euphrates near the border with Iraq, where its fighters have held off the SDF for more than a year.[fn]Falih Hassan and Rod Nordland, “Battered ISIS keeps grip on last piece of territory for over a year”, The New York Times, 9 December 2018.Hide Footnote It has underground cells that continue to carry out bombings and assassinations beyond that river enclave in both Syria and Iraq. It also has an unknown number of sympathisers among local communities that the organisation ruled for three years.[fn]See Liz Sly, “America’s hidden war in Syria”, Washington Post, 14 December 2018.Hide Footnote

Effectively defeating ISIS does not require a long-term U.S. military presence in north-eastern Syria. An ongoing U.S. military deployment could in fact stoke destabilising resentments over the medium term, as the Syrian regime and others encourage loyalists and disgruntled locals to engage in violence and sabotage.[fn]Crisis Group interviews and communications, January-May 2018. See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°190, Prospects for a Deal to Stabilise Syria’s North East, 5 September 2018.Hide Footnote Eventually, U.S. forces were going to – indeed should – leave. But this ought to have been preceded by a minimum of preparation. Instead, promises of a sustained presence were followed by the announcement of a swift exit. An abrupt, uncoordinated U.S. withdrawal could expose the U.S.’s Kurdish allies to deadly attack by Syrian regime and Turkish forces, with the ensuing chaos allowing ISIS to make a resurgence.

III. Kurds Betrayed, Again

The most immediate and troubling effect of the U.S.’s withdrawal announcement is to leave the north east’s residents and the U.S.’s main local ally in the counter-ISIS campaign, the Kurdish-led SDF, in the lurch.

In recent months, the SDF has engaged in talks on future administrative and political arrangements with the Syrian regime, albeit without success. Trump’s March 2018 remarks which suggested the U.S. was leaving had spurred the SDF to initiate talks with Damascus; in July and August, an SDF-linked civilian delegation met with government officials in the Syrian capital. Behind the scenes, Russia also was playing a brokering role. Negotiations quickly reached an impasse, however. Damascus suggested only minor adjustments to local civil administration within the regime’s current structure, while the SDF-linked representatives insisted on negotiations over Syria’s constitution and more substantive decentralisation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, YPG/PYD officials, north-eastern Syria, July-August 2018. See Crisis Group Report, Prospects for a Deal to Stabilise Syria’s North East, op. cit.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, once the Trump administration had (seemingly) decided to remain indefinitely, U.S. officials assured their SDF partners that the U.S. was staying, relieving any pressure to deal. U.S. officials shifted their tone on negotiations with the regime, discouraging the SDF from pursuing talks.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. officials, December 2018.Hide Footnote

Now, the SDF will need to resume the talks in earnest, albeit from a far weaker bargaining position. Historical YPG/PKK ties with Damascus could help push them forward, but the impasse previously reached demonstrates the wide gap between what the SDF wants and what Damascus is willing to give. That gap must be closed if the two sides are to arrive at a deal that can plausibly forestall a Turkish attack on the SDF.

Both sides have reasons to deal. The SDF undoubtedly has the greater incentive; it is the party facing the prospect of Turkish invasion somewhere along Syria’s long northern frontier. Ankara is justifiably confident that it can crush an SDF deprived of U.S. military support after overwhelming the YPG earlier this year in Afrin, an enclave in Syria’s Aleppo province with more difficult hilly terrain. But Damascus also needs an agreement. Without a deal, the regime risks losing more Syrian territory to Turkey. Syria is still protesting Turkey’s “salkh” (skinning off) of coastal Iskanderun from Syria in 1938.[fn]On the anniversary of the crime of skinning off Liwa Iskanderun… A right does not die so long as demands are behind it”, SANA, 29 November 2018 (Arabic). Iskanderun – today, Turkey’s Hatay province – joined Turkey in a 1939 referendum whose integrity Syria still disputes.Hide Footnote Since 2016, Turkey has seized additional territory in Aleppo to pre-empt the YPG’s westward advance along Turkey’s southern border and deployed Turkish troops to observation points around rebel-held Idlib governorate. It remains unclear how or when Turkish forces will leave. For the regime, a Turkish invasion of north-eastern Syria could mean indefinitely ceding the Syrian territory richest with oil and wheat.

Turkish officials have only limited confidence in the Syrian regime’s ability or willingness to secure Syria’s Turkish border.

Turkish officials have only limited confidence in the Syrian regime’s ability or willingness to secure Syria’s Turkish border and neutralise what Ankara sees as a YPG/PKK threat. In Afrin, Turkey continued its offensive despite the entry of pro-regime paramilitary units into combat alongside the YPG.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Prospects for a Deal to Stabilise Syria’s North East, op. cit.Hide Footnote Still, the deployment of Syrian army forces along the north-eastern frontier could make Turkey think twice. Turkey may not be prepared to attack the official military forces of its sovereign neighbour, particularly if Russia extended these forces its protection.

The U.S. can play a salutary role in restraining Turkey as the SDF and Damascus negotiate. The U.S. has obvious coercive leverage over Turkey, such as the sanctions it deployed against Turkey to secure the release of detained pastor Andrew Brunson.[fn]American pastor Jonathan Brunson was held in Turkey for nearly two years on espionage charges, eventually prompting the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Turkey to press for Brunson’s release. A Turkish court ordered Brunson’s release in October 2018. See Adam Goldman and Gardiner Harris, “U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Turkish Officials Over Detained American Pastor”, The New York Times, 1 August 2018; Carlotta Gall, “Turkey Frees Pastor Andrew Brunson, Easing Tensions With U.S.”, The New York Times, 12 October 2018.Hide Footnote But the Trump administration has also worked enough to repair bilateral ties with Turkey, including with measures like the Manbij “roadmap” and now the withdrawal from north-east Syria, to have generated some goodwill.[fn]In June 2018, Turkey and the U.S. announced a “roadmap” for defining and implementing agreed-upon governance and security arrangements in the SDF-held eastern Aleppo town of Manbij. See Crisis Group Report, Prospects for a Deal to Stabilise Syria’s North East, op. cit. The two sides have since moved forward with the phased implementation of the agreement, although not always swiftly enough for Ankara’s liking. Turkish and U.S. officials, Crisis Group interviews, Ankara and Washington, November 2018.Hide Footnote Trump should use it to get Turkish agreement not to launch an attack in the north east. After Trump’s announcement, Turkey’s Erdoğan said he would delay any new military action.[fn]“The phone call we made with Trump, as well as the contacts of our diplomatic and security units, and the statements made by the American side led us to wait for a while [for an operation east of the Euphrates river] …. Of course this is not an open ended waiting process". Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “Turkey to delay operation east of Euphrates, Syria”, Anatolian Agency, 21 December 2018.Hide Footnote

Still, it is Russia’s genuine backing of an agreement that would be critical. Russia is well positioned to take into account both Syrian and Turkish concerns in that it supports a return of Damascus’ sovereignty over the entirety of the territory while also having an interest in maintaining strong ties to Ankara. In the earlier case of Afrin, Russia was unwilling to support a merely symbolic regime return that would have left the YPG in effective control and Turkey’s security concerns unaddressed.[fn]In Afrin, Russia stressed to the YPG that only the full return of the regime, including its army and security services, could avert a Turkish attack. The YPG refused, and so Russia stood aside as Turkey invaded. The YPG’s counter-offer of a token Syrian military deployment on the border and the restoration of the symbols of the Syrian state, including flags, was not accepted by Damascus. By the time the Syrian regime decided to send Syrian military forces into Afrin in support of the YPG, Turkey was already mid-offensive and would not be deterred. Ibid.Hide Footnote This time could be different: as Russia did with Israel and Jordan in Syria’s south west earlier this year, it could work toward a solution that genuinely returns the north east to regime control while also meaningfully addressing Turkey’s security concerns.[fn]Ahead of the Syrian regime’s offensive to retake Syria’s opposition-held south west, Jordan’s foremost concern was a rush of would-be refugees toward its border, while Israel was worried about Iranian-linked military units approaching the occupied Golan Heights and establishing a permanent presence. See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°187, Keeping the Calm in Southern Syria, 21 June 2018. Russia and the Syrian regime sequenced their offensive and pursued negotiated settlements with rebels in a way that dispersed an initial buildup of displaced people along the Jordanian border and then cut off the Jordanian border entirely as the offensive proceeded toward the Golan. Despite some unconfirmed reports to the contrary, there was seemingly no large-scale involvement by Iranian-controlled units in the offensive. Israeli officials now say that the Iranian-linked presence in the south west is at tolerable levels. According to one Israeli official: “It is very limited for now. Not a significant concern at present. We keep watching, of course”. Crisis Group interview, November 2018.Hide Footnote For neighbouring countries with non-existent or dysfunctional relationships with the Syrian regime, indeed, Russia appears prepared to be their interface with Damascus.[fn]According to one Western diplomat: “It’s that way with everyone – the U.S., the Jordanians, the Arabs. Nobody wants to talk to the regime – wants to, or can. Everyone talks to the Russians because they can. How messed up is this situation that Russia is the moderate intermediary?” Crisis Group interview, Amman, October 2018.Hide Footnote

Whether Russia will be willing to argue on behalf of the SDF is a more difficult issue. In the south west, Russia has smoothed the return of the Syrian regime: deploying military police, mediating between state authorities and locals, and interceding to secure the release of individual detainees. But it has not stopped the regime in its tracks, or prevented the Syrian state from exercising sovereign control over Syrian citizens.[fn]One Syrian aid worker said: “Even Russia doesn’t try to minimise the power of Syrian intelligence. The Russians say, ‘You’re a Syrian citizen, this is your government. It can do what it wants if it has something against you’”. Crisis Group interview, Amman, October 2018.Hide Footnote Given its ties to the SDF, Russia is likely interested in arranging preferential terms for it under restored regime authority – but preferential within limits, if the past is a guide.

Still, Russia’s interests would be served by helping Syria’s Kurds. Russia’s chief priority in Syria appears to be restoration of the Syrian state’s sovereignty over the entirety of Syrian territory. It has an incentive to prevent Turkey from taking over more of the country, including the north east, and to broker an arrangement for the SDF that allows the regime to return with minimal violence. In so doing, it could claim to have assisted all three constituencies and thus bolstered its regional position: Syria by allowing it to restore its sovereignty; Turkey by limiting the Kurds’ authority and denying them control of the Turkish border; and the Kurds by avoiding a military attack against them.

IV. Conclusion

A U.S. withdrawal from Syria is not necessarily the wrong decision, or a trigger for lethal conflict; it is the “how” of that withdrawal that is acutely important. While another U-turn cannot be excluded, Trump seems to have set the U.S. on a course toward leaving Syria, but details remain unclear. There may yet be some flexibility on the move’s pace; any additional time, even limited, could allow the U.S. military and coalition allies to prepare an orderly exit.

In whatever time is left, the U.S. needs to do all it can to press and persuade Turkey not to launch an attack on SDF-controlled territory while allowing SDF-Damascus talks to proceed.[fn]Crisis Group described the outlines of such a deal in Crisis Group Report, Prospects for a Deal to Stabilise Syria’s North East, op. cit.Hide Footnote The SDF fought alongside and on behalf of the U.S. to expel ISIS from its territorial seat, from which it plotted or at least inspired terror attacks worldwide. Abandoning the SDF would have lasting negative consequences for the U.S.’s ability to cultivate counter-terrorism partners; it would also be wrong.

Russia also should use what time it has to ensure the post-U.S. phase does not devolve into chaos. Russia should initiate talks with Turkey, the Syrian regime and the SDF aimed at effecting a transition in north-eastern Syria that would avert a violent free-for-all. This transition will likely require the return of Syrian regime forces to the Syrian-Turkish border as well as a political arrangement leaving Syrian Kurds with a measure of local self-rule.

Beirut/Brussels, 21 December 2018

People gesture at a U.S military vehicle travelling in Amuda province, northern Syria, on 29 April 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said
People gesture at a U.S military vehicle travelling in Amuda province, northern Syria, on 29 April 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Will the Americans Abandon Us?

Our Senior Analyst for Syria Noah Bonsey visits the north east of the country to meet a Syrian Kurdish organisation that has made the region relatively secure, yet knows that it still has far to go in its struggle – particularly for long-term U.S. support.

QAMISHLI, Syria ­– Abd al-Menaam picks me up as usual from the customs shed on the Syrian bank of the Tigris river. As we drive west toward the town of Qamishli, we pass beneath a hilltop command centre bombed by Turkish warplanes some five weeks earlier. Glancing across from the driver’s seat, Abd al-Menaam asks: “Can it really be that the Americans had no idea those strikes were coming?”

The Turkish attack killed twenty members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish military formation controlling much of northern Syria. To Abd al-Menaam and many Syrian Kurds, this is a real shock: despite deepening relations between the YPG and U.S. forces on the ground, the latter had neither deterred the Turkish strikes nor provided sufficient warning for the YPG to evacuate the buildings targeted.

Beneath his query lies a deeper question I hear countless times during my trips to northern Syria: “Will the U.S. abandon its Kurdish allies?” It’s a question with no definitive answer, and a reminder of a fragility partially obscured by impressive wins against Islamic State, or ISIS. The YPG is entering explosive geopolitical territory, surrounded by adversaries and competitors, with no guarantees from its American partners.

On this trip and subsequent visits to Ankara and Washington, part of my job is to explore means of ensuring that the advance of U.S.-backed, Kurdish dominated forces in northern Syria is not simply the prelude to another deadly conflagration of the country’s six-year-old war.

Northern Syria, Western Kurdistan

This is my fifth trip to northern Syria in the last two years, and it begins in familiar fashion with a quick ride in a small metal barge, ferrying me and a couple of aid workers across the muddy Tigris from Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

Crossing the river Tigris into northern Syria, June 2017. Noah Bonsey

I lived in Damascus for a couple stints before the war. I made close friends there, learned Arabic, and still speak it more-or-less fluently (with a comical American accent). Yet I'm also conscious of my outsider status, and particularly at entry and exit since crossing borders is a privilege that my contacts here don’t have. Even as I write this, I worry about making the experience of entering a war zone seem exotic, since nobody around me has the option to write about their experience as an excursion. This imposes a responsibility I share with all my Crisis Group colleagues: to faithfully represent and respect the voices that we hear in the parts of the world we cover. My privilege inheres not just in physically crossing borders, but in reaching audiences that my interlocutors cannot.

My privilege inheres not just in physically crossing borders, but in reaching audiences that my interlocutors cannot.

Two young Syrian Kurdish security types check my bags where we step off onto the Syrian river bank. I throw my bag in Abd al-Menaam’s car, and we make the short drive up to a new customs building where a young employee checks my passport and papers. The formalities and atmosphere have all the trappings of a Middle Eastern border crossing, minus one key thing: the symbols of an internationally recognised state.

There are no flags around the border point and the official inks the territory’s stamp on a loose piece of paper, not my passport. There is an alphabet soup of militias, parties and administrative entities that figure on the north-east Syrian stage, many of them officially tied to the self-styled “Democratic Self-Administration” that administers YPG-held areas. But most of the lines of real authority in the three cantons of their administration’s “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria” run through cadres with years of experience in a 40-year-old armed organisation with its origins in Turkey and with deep pan-Kurdish ambitions: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

Browse the slideshow to see where Noah travelled during his field research in Syria in June 2017. International Crisis Group/KO

The PKK’s name is rarely used here, however. Most Western countries, including the U.S., list it as a terrorist organisation, thanks to its long and often intense war with the Turkish state. Kurds simply call the territory they now run in northern Syria “Rojava”, which is Kurdish for “the west”, or the western part of the lands populated by the 30 million Kurds split for the past century or more between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and other neighbouring states.

My papers in order, Abd al-Menaam and I are pretty much free to move about as we please. First comes the long, hot drive to the town of Qamishli, through the oil fields and past the big nodding-donkey oil wells that used to provide income to the Damascus government. A few of the great iron beams are still dipping up and down, pumping oil out into a network of makeshift oil-refining outfits that produce a coarse kind of diesel that is steadily ruining truck and other engines all across northern Syria.

The road takes us along the border with Turkey, so close and yet so far. Since three million Syrian refugees poured in over the past five years, the border has been more or less sealed off. I see new apartment buildings past the border watchtowers, and connect to the Turkish signals on my mobile phone, but only the hardiest smugglers risk trying to cut through the wire fences or climb new sections of concrete wall.

All Quiet in Qamishli

It’s rare that I hear sounds of war, though, even in areas recently captured from ISIS. The truth is that in general these areas feel remarkably safe – at least to a foreign visitor. Of course feelings are more raw in newly liberated places, where old ISIS graffiti still adorns some walls and trust between residents and their new rulers remains thin. And there have been occasional bombings in Qamishli and in other YPG-held areas. But those have become fewer and further between, at least in the last year.

It’s early afternoon when we reach Qamishli. I link up with my friend and colleague Yazer Uthman, and we head to the city’s open-air market to buy food for iftar, the breaking of the fast at sunset during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. These long June days are very hot, but Yazer notes that the “Ramadan atmosphere” is stronger than in recent years – more of the city’s residents seem to be fasting, perhaps due in part to the prevailing sense that security has improved.

Yazer at Qamishli’s market, shopping for food for iftar. June 2017 Noah Bonsey

But while stability may be increasing in much of YPG-held territory, the margin for political competition is not. My Crisis Group colleagues and I generally make a point of meeting with opposition figures during our visits, many of whom are aligned with the PKK’s Iraqi Kurdish rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Upon arrival in Qamishli, however, I learn that most of the figures I’ve met on previous trips have either been arrested, or departed the country fearing detention. The YPG’s Democratic Self-Administration justifies these measures by citing the opposition’s refusal to register with it as political parties; for their part, the YPG’s Kurdish opponents reject registration because they do not recognise the Self-Administration’s authority nor wish to legitimise the YPG’s unilateral military and political dominance. These parties maintain some popular support within the Kurdish community, but have no means of countering the YPG’s current ascendancy. Indeed, some YPG officials I meet complain that arrests of opposition figures are counterproductive, saying they target individuals who pose no tangible threat, while fuelling local and international criticism of authoritarian tactics.

Government troops at a checkpoint in central Qamishli. Parts of the city are still under government control. March 2017. Heiko Wimmen

The YPG is not alone, of course. It has an arrangement with the Damascus regime that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are allowed a symbolic presence in a few blocks in the centre of town. I can walk on foot or drive through areas that are technically under regime control, looking up at posters of Assad and passing by regime military personnel. More meaningful are a few places that the Assad regime controls firmly, like Qamishli airport, where I don’t go. Planes still fly to and from Damascus and it’s widely understood there are Russian and Iranian elements there. At the same time, several small bases in YPG areas host the few hundred American military personnel currently based in the north, who are also hard for me to approach. For now, the balance of daily power in civilian areas is firmly tilted in favour of the YPG, not the regime. Occasional arrests or even clashes punctuate an ongoing back and forth between these two competitors. They have to deal with each other, but don’t necessarily like each other.

As iftar time nears, Yazer briefs me on recent local developments. We discuss potential meetings and trips for the days ahead. When the sun sets, we gather with his family for an animated meal.

One central subject of conversation is who’s still here and who’s gone. People feel that huge chunks of their communities and many of their neighbours have left because of the general instability created by the war, the economic hardship that has followed, and conscription. The regime now wants all males up to the age of 42; men do have a concern that if they stray too deep into the pockets it controls they could end up detained, and ultimately sent to some far-flung front. More importantly, there’s a second conscription run by the YPG for males between eighteen and 30 years old, which has expanded the ranks of YPG and subordinate forces, but also pushed many youth out toward Turkey and Europe. On the other hand, there are a lot of new inhabitants who have arrived from parts of the country that are less stable.

“Democratic Self-Administration”

On my second day, Yazer and I begin with a visit to Ahmed Suleiman, a friend and leading member of a small political party that has sought to chart a middle course between the YPG and its rivals. We discuss a recent Russian attempt to jump-start talks among Damascus, the YPG, and other Kurdish parties – thus far to no avail. Our chat touches on one of the Syrian war’s central questions: the extent to which Moscow might be willing and able to pressure the Assad regime toward meaningful political concessions. For now at least, that extent appears minimal.

That evening we drive a half-hour west to the town of Amuda, for a meeting with two senior local officials. One is the head of foreign relations, and the other a kind of power behind the scenes. It’s hard to be concise about names and titles due to the variety of political facades and acronyms used by PKK affiliates and spin-offs in the region. The civilian authority is the Democratic Self-Administration, the YPG is the armed force and the political wing is called the PYD, the Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat or Democratic Union Party. The two men have requested the meeting to discuss Crisis Group reports based on fieldwork I and fellow Crisis Group colleagues have conducted on previous trips. They have made clear that I should stop by before attempting to travel further afield.

Above all, they want to push back about the way we say they are linked to the PKK. They accept that they adhere to the secular, Marxist-inspired thinking of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been in jail in Turkey since 1999, and his prescriptions for local governance. Indeed, Öcalan’s picture is inescapable in north-east Syria – along roads, in town squares, and in the offices of some “self-administration” and YPG officials.

The two men insist that their north Syrian structures are “completely separate organisations” from the PKK, echoing the official line. Adding nuance to their argument, they say we put too much emphasis on the PKK link relative to other matters, like positive aspects of their governance. They worry that we are making it easier for Turkey to justify attacking them, as it has done in the airstrikes a few weeks before my visit. I point out that denying the PKK link isn’t convincing, and that to be credible they will have to do more to strengthen the local character of governance and security arrangements in the areas under their control. I note that their north Syrian cantons are expanding while forces around them are weak and while the U.S. needs them in the fight against Islamic State, but these circumstances will eventually change. To protect what they’ve achieved, I suggest, they need a more distinct, separate identity to obtain external security guarantees, either from the U.S. or in an understanding with Turkey, or both.

Field interviews are a mix of listening, learning, explaining and researching.

Field interviews are a mix of listening, learning, explaining and researching. Getting to know officials like this is a huge part of it. I know one of them from before, and this is my first meeting with the other. I throw in how we as Crisis Group view the broader conflict challenges they face locally, with regard to Turkey, with regard to the complex U.S. position toward them. At first the conversation is tense, but it warms as the evening goes on. I tell them of policy insights I have from trips to see officials in Ankara and Washington DC, places they can’t go. The more I and my interlocutors learn from each other, the more we can build our relationships, the more valuable that experience and the lessons that come from it can be.

The result is a friendly ending. My interlocutors say they are satisfied that I understand their concerns, and tell me I can travel where I like. But this is a mixed blessing. They want me to take a minder during my visits to Arab-majority towns to the west: Tel Abyad, Manbij and Ain Eissa (roughly 50km north of Raqqa). This, in theory at least, is partly for my security, but it’s also to check that what is said to me is consistent with what we write in our reports. The arrangement is not ideal, but acceptable under the circumstances. In the coming days I do not feel like anyone is watching me too closely.

On the Road to Manbij

The next day I wake up early, link up with the minder and head to Manbij, which is the westernmost edge of YPG-held territory. One extension of the YPG is an alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes Arab elements and captured Manbij in August 2016. It’s a hot, five-hour drive west. The road is busy, now part of a new direct land route to Aleppo, Damascus and other areas controlled by the regime. Residents of YPG-held areas are hoping that the opening of this trade route will eventually lead to lower prices and fuller shelves in local shops, now that ISIS no longer controls the link between YPG and regime-held territory. I also see a lot of displaced people on the road, moving north west to get away from the escalating U.S.-backed campaign to capture Raqqa.

To get to Manbij, I have to cross the Euphrates river. The water is bright blue, a contrast to the muddy white brown of the Tigris. People are jumping in and swimming. At the same time, as we approach the bridge, we pass dozens of vehicles and hundreds of people lined up waiting to pass through a YPG checkpoint. They’re fleeing the recent fighting, the sun is beating down, it’s Ramadan, and they don’t know where they are going to sleep tonight. The YPG constrains movement of displaced persons as part of a robust, sometimes draconian security effort to prevent ISIS infiltration into areas under YPG control. Most of those trying to cross the river have likely already passed some preliminary screening. Still, to be allowed entrance into Manbij generally requires having somebody there to vouch for you.  

A bombed building in Manbij. The battle to liberate the city was the toughest thus far of the anti-ISIS campaign in Syria. June 2017. Noah Bonsey

As we drive into Manbij, the city seems relatively full, even in the middle of the day in Ramadan. That’s even more striking because Manbij was the toughest battle thus far of the anti-ISIS campaign in Syria. It went on for weeks longer than expected and the city still bears many scars, with bullet-riddled walls and blown up buildings. Now the YPG and its local allies are establishing an impressive degree of security, all things considered. It is still able to function as a city. The YPG, prodded by the U.S., has made some small but important adjustments to the way they govern there. It’s noticeable as soon as I set foot in the city. I don’t see Öcalan posters, I don’t see YPG flags, the only flag flying is the one for the local military council. I meet local youth recruited into the security forces. The relative stability is persuading people to stay, others to return, and attracting many internally displaced.

Manbij is an Arab-majority city, but it’s pretty diverse, and the new local civil council charged with administering the city is fairly diverse too. One of the top figures is Arab, an anti-regime activist in the early days of the uprising there. There are also Kurds in the council and people from other minority groups. We chat about what they have accomplished in Manbij and the challenges ahead. I am trying to get a sense of how they are actually running things, and how much responsibility the PKK-trained cadres – who remain the backbone of governance in YPG-held areas – are placing in the hands of local council members.

The flag of the local military council flying in Manbij. At time of Noah's visit, there were no YPG flags flying in the city. June 2017. Noah Bonsey

Unease in Tel Abyad

After several hours in Manbij we double back north east to Tel Abyad, a mostly Arab city on the Turkish border that was captured from ISIS in June 2015. Here the population appears less at ease with their YPG rulers. I see YPG flags, I see Öcalan’s poster in one of the town’s squares. As an outsider visiting, it feels like a bit of an occupation. The social contract is not explicit, but nevertheless seems clear: in return for civil obedience, the YPG brings security, services and the basic needs of life. On this trip, as on a previous visit in March, I have time to check what I’m hearing in offices by talking with local residents. People seem to appreciate the stability, which is pretty good by current Syrian standards. The economic situation is difficult, but it could be worse. There is food in the markets, and a bit more electricity than in Qamishli, because it’s closer to a big Euphrates hydro-electric dam.

The civil council in Tel Abyad - a mostly Arab city near the border with Turkey that was captured from ISIS in June 2015. June 2017. Noah Bonsey

I’ve mainly come to see a local official close to YPG leadership who coordinates the efforts to build civil councils in areas liberated from Islamic State. He has been the pointman for setting up the Tel Abyad Council, the Manbij Civil Council and now he is doing the same for Raqqa. On this visit he lets me spend the day with him and join in the conversations he’s having as he goes about building up these new administrations. I try to make the point to him that the lighter touch in Manbij is a step in the right direction, and argue that in Raqqa they will need to go further.

The Americans

After two nights in Tel Abyad I head south to Ain Eissa, a town nearly half way to Raqqa city that was captured from ISIS in 2015 and is now the temporary headquarters of the new Raqqa Civil Council. I spend a day meeting with many of the members of that council, getting a sense of their concerns. I ask them: what challenges do you face, in your order of priority? What are you looking for in terms of external support? How do you feel about your relationship with the YPG cadres, are you given enough space?

The council includes folks from a pretty wide range of society in Raqqa and its adjacent countryside. By everyone’s admission it is not yet a sufficiently representative sample of the population, but they are preparing to administer the city and plan to expand the council’s ranks once it is completely captured. It’s fascinating to watch them gearing up for it.

The U.S. is backing the campaign to capture Raqqa and is more and more involved in all these processes. In Ain Eissa, I cross paths with American personnel liaising with the new council, but we don’t chat in person. While it is easy for me to meet U.S. officials in Washington, I have yet to do so inside Syria. Indications of the American presence dot northern Syria, however, and U.S. military personnel have made a habit of appearing very publicly at YPG bases and other sensitive areas if they think there’s danger that Turkey might be preparing to attack. In so doing, they are playing an ambiguous, but thus far largely effective role somewhere between monitors and human shields.

Having such a powerful ally has a potential downside, of course. The Americans might leave. That’s why YPG officials and other Syrian Kurds so often probe me for an answer to the question: “Will the Americans abandon us?”

Wrapping up in Qamishli

Crisis Group on the Ground Crisis Group Senior Analyst for Syria Noah Bonsey in Qamishli. September 2016. Yazer Uthman

I return to Qamishli in time for the Champions League football final. Yazer and I discuss Manbij as we watch Juventus collapse; the electricity stays on through the end of Real Madrid’s victory ceremony, much to the chagrin of the neighbourhood’s many Barcelona fans.

The following morning we go together to meet a top official, a Syrian cadre with a PKK background. Our conversation touches on a major problem for the PKK and YPG: that the former’s activity and full range of objectives inside Turkey are a threat to what the latter has built in Syria. That’s because Ankara, with its powerful military, will not acquiesce to YPG-rule dominated by PKK-trained cadres in Syria while an active PKK insurgency is continuing in Turkey. Turkey may share a lot of blame for the continued rebellion, but it’s a huge risk for the YPG in Syria to allow their long-term security to be pinned to the PKK’s agenda in Turkey.

On this fifth trip and my recent visit alongside Crisis Group colleagues in March, I hear more brainstorming among YPG officials about the need to think through compromises that might be necessary, and more defining of the YPG’s best interest in Syrian terms than I had on previous trips. From our perspective at Crisis Group, this is encouraging: the central goal of our engagement with YPG, PKK and Turkish officials is to find means of averting mutually damaging escalation in their trans-border conflict, and doing so will ultimately require concessions on both sides.

[The] central goal of [Crisis Group's] engagement with YPG, PKK and Turkish officials is to find means of averting mutually damaging escalation in their trans-border conflict.
Back in Qamishli, Yazer and his family invited Noah for dinner. (Photo from previous visit by Noah and other Crisis Group colleagues). March 2017. Heiko Wimmen

Over the course of our meetings with YPG officials, we have repeatedly advised that their relationship with the U.S. is not a substitute for de-escalating conflict with Turkey. As the 25 April Turkish strikes showed, even now the YPG cannot count on Washington to completely deter an Ankara determined to attack. And, as ISIS continues to lose ground in Syria, interest in Washington in maintaining robust partnership with the YPG may wane, leaving the latter further exposed before both Turkey and the resurgent Syrian regime and its allies.

On this trip and in other recent conversations, I do see some signs that our message is resonating. At this point I am meeting with people who I’ve met several times before, often senior officials. Many of them have strong memories of our previous conversations, both with me and with my colleagues who sometimes join me. They bring up points that we’ve raised in previous chats. In a couple of cases, relatively senior people have come back and said: “You told me this more than a year ago and it turned out you were right”. On other issues, I could say the same to them in return. In northern Syria, as in Ankara, and indeed with most of our interlocutors, building relationships entails learning from each other.  

This commentary is part of Crisis Group’s series Our Journeys, giving behind the scenes access to our analysts’ field research.

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