US withdrawal from Syria will endanger Kurds, Arabs, Christians

Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria will embolden our adversaries, including Iran, Russia and Syrian leader Bashar al Assad, and weaken and betray our Kurdish and Arab partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

A withdrawal would also endanger the civilian population living inside the safe haven that is now under SDF control — approximately 35 percent of the country and home to some 6 million people.

The inhabitants of this area are ethnically and religiously diverse, including Kurds, Arabs, Muslims and a Christian minority estimated to include some 100,000 people.

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If President TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE moves forward with the withdrawal of troops, we need to use all our leverage to persuade Turkey to not launch another assault on Syria because it would potentially endanger both our partners in the SDF and the civilian population.

It could also bring Turkey into conflict with the Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian regime. This is not in Turkey’s interest. Although it may be difficult for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to admit publicly, the small U.S. presence in northern Syria may still be better for Turkey than the alternative.

In order to avoid what the Crisis Group describes as a potential “free-for-all” in northeast Syria, we could — in coordination with Turkey — establish a no-fly zone over Syria’s northeast to protect the 6 million people whose lives depend on maintaining the safe haven.

This would be similar to the no-fly zone over parts of Iraq that protected Kurds and Shias from Saddam Hussein beginning in the early 1990s. The no-fly zone over Iraq was done in coordination with Turkey and enforced by American, British and French aircraft patrols.

Ambassador James Jeffrey, special representative for Syria engagement, hinted at such a possibility and made a comparison to the no-fly zone over Iraq in a briefing at the State Department on Dec. 3.

The Syrian Kurds are widely recognized as our most reliable military partners on the ground. They also deserve recognition for protecting the non-Kurdish civilian population, including Christians. On my last trip to Syria in the spring, I visited several churches in the region.

The Kurdish forces in the SDF are predominantly Muslim but embrace secularism and have demonstrated they are willing to die to protect Christians and Yezidis. Unlike the regime, they have defended and promoted the religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity of the region.

Signs in Qamishli now appear in three languages: Arabic, Kurdish and Syriac. This was unheard of under Assad. If U.S. troops are withdrawn and Turkey launches an assault, Kurds will become embroiled in a battle with Turkey.

Who will then protect the civilian population? What will happen to the churches that are still left standing after almost eight years of war?

The Syriac Military Council issued a statement Thursday, warning: "There is a serious risk of the end of the presence of Christianity in this region if we do not have security in place when the U.S. leaves." 

Trump’s withdrawal decision prompted General Mattis to resign his post — perhaps the first time in American history that a secretary of Defense resigned in protest over the president’s policies. Sources close to Mattis claim it was the very real possibility of a Kurdish bloodbath that triggered his decision.  

One day later, Brett McGurk also resigned, our top envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. McGurk made clear that he could not defend the withdrawal decision, much less execute it. 

Mattis and McGurk know all too well that the fight against ISIS was ineffective until we partnered with the Syrian Kurds. In January 2015, the Kurds helped deliver the first major victory against ISIS by liberating Kobani, a small town in northern Syria near the border to Turkey.

By defeating ISIS inside Kobani, the Kurds thereby also protected Turkey from encroaching Islamic State militants. If Trump (and Erdoğan) have forgotten this, Gen. Mattis, McGurk and the U.S. military have not.

Abandoning our Kurdish partners now would be a colossal betrayal and would endanger the civilian population. In light of a U.S. troop withdrawal, there are two ways we could continue to offer protection to the population on the ground: by pressuring Erdoğan to call off his assault in Syria, and through a coordinated no-fly zone over the region where U.S. troops are now located. 

Syrians deserve the same protection afforded to the Iraqis in 1991 with a no-fly zone. The Baathist regime in Damascus has been under the control of the Assad family since 1970.

Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, over 500,000 people have been killed. Over 11 million Syrians have been displaced internally or made refugees, half the pre-war population. And Assad is not done yet.

Unless a deal is struck between Assad and the SDF, he will continue to kill his own people in order to retake the third of the country currently under SDF control. A no-fly zone would contain the regime and pressure Assad to enter into a deal with the SDF. 

The United States already coordinates with Russia regarding access to the airspace over Syria in order to avoid hostile encounters. A no-fly zone would be the next logical step. In the State Department briefing on Dec. 3, Ambassador Jeffrey hinted at this possibility, saying:

“Remember we were present not in northern Iraq but over northern Iraq in Operation Northern Watch for 13 years. That can be a UN force. Under 2254 there is language on a UN-managed and operated ceasefire. That can be partner forces.”

Erdoğan has repeatedly threatened to attack the Syrian Kurds. Starting in late January, Turkey launched an assault on Afrin, west of the Euphrates. He now wants to go after the Kurds to the east of the Euphrates.  

In justifying the intervention, Erdoğan insists that the Syrian Kurds are identical to the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). However, the Afrin operation went beyond targeting the Kurdish forces. It also endangered and displaced the civilian population. 

In research I’ve conducted on the ground in Syria and Iraq since 2015, I found that many Kurdish women and men joined the SDF for reasons that have nothing to do with the PKK. Many joined the SDF (or its predecessor the YPG) because that was their only way of defending themselves from the Islamic State.

Numerous Kurdish women told me they joined because they suffered gender discrimination in their own society and felt empowered by the training they received in the SDF. Erdoğan chooses to ignore these distinctions, but we should not. 

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We decided to partner with the Syrian Kurds, who risked everything to defeat ISIS and ensure the safety of their homeland. This helped protect Europe and the United States from terrorist attacks. Four years of partnership should not be tossed aside because of an impetuous presidential tweet. 

If we withdraw U.S. troops as Trump recklessly tweeted and fail to protect our partners and the civilian population, this is what will happen next:

The Islamic State will have an opportunity to regroup and could once again pose a terrorist threat to Syria and Iraq. Assad will continue slaughtering his own people, and Putin will help him. Turkey will attack the Kurds, and Iran will entrench itself in Syria long-term.

Civilians will flee, adding to the millions of Syrian refugees already in neighboring countries and Europe. A coordinated no-fly zone could limit the damage of a troop withdrawal and protect the safe haven in northeastern Syria. 

Amy Austin Holmes is an associate professor at the American University in Cairo, a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Scholars Program and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. You can follow her @AmyAustinHolmes.