Donald Trump likes to lead alone, go with his gut, as he puts it. A few weeks ago, he announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria who, along with a French contingent, serve as a shield for the Kurds in the Rojava region (Syrian Kurdistan.) These Kurds took a hammering from the Turkish army in Afrin last year, after an offensive from Jihadist organizations renamed as the Free Syrian Army, as part of Operation Olive Branch. Permitted through an agreement with Russia, this operation has led to the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Kurds, to be replaced by Jihad-observing Syrians.
Until recently in the Rojava region, the impact of these events was very fresh and there was a great deal of concern for the future. After defeating ISIS in Raqqa, the Kurds now find themselves stuck between an aggressive Turkey determined to eliminate them, and a hostile Syrian regime. The US withdrawal will be a death blow, although this now appears to be postponed for further down the line.
Last year, Donald Trump decided to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. His generals, including James Mattis, protested that such a withdrawal would open up a route to Kabul for the Taliban. The US president has the particularly of never having been carried to power by a populist wave, but of having created the populist wave himself, one which he continues to recognize two years after his election. Donald Trump governs first and foremost for his electorate. In doing so, he has lost many of his collaborators, including recently General Mattis, who favoured a more independent perspective over loyalty to the president.
The Rojava Kurds, who have been scorned as second-class citizens and in many cases had their identification documents confiscated, wish to establish a no-fly zone to guarantee their safety. This would be unacceptable to Turkey. Trump has decided to pull out when there is an adversary determined to crush them. However, the Kurds showed a great deal of courage against Islamic State, and also showed reserve in their treatment of their prisoners, including Jihadist women, in contrast to ISIS hostages or Guantanamo Bay detainees. Whatever the propaganda purpose may be of this behaviour or political perspectives, we are far from the usual practices of the region, regardless of military formations.
Donald Trump’s reckoning seems coherent in preferring Turkey (an ambiguous and fickle NATO member, currently far from aligning with the organization’s general goals) instead of guaranteeing the survival of a minority seen as important since the fall of Raqqa (the US can also sell US Patriot missiles and prevent Turkey from buying the Russian S-400 anti-missile system.) But this apparently rational thinking leaves Russia to decide Syria’s fate and gives Turkey a greater margin for manoeuvre.
Nonetheless, it was Donald Trump who took the reins in the Middle East again in 2018 in deciding to isolate Iran, imposing an embargo on Tehran despite Europe’s powerless protests. The US had Israeli and Saudi backing for this. With its heightened sense of nationalism, Iran can hold out, but it will have to cut back its regional ambitions. Turkey has considerable influence over its southern borders, and despite financial difficulties President Erdogan enjoys wide support from an electorate enthusiastic for a dark nationalism and sentiments of revenge on a Europe that has scorned the country for so long.
In Iraq, where the Shiites are in power as a result of the US election war of 2003, the situation has improved favourably. Although Iraqi Kurds had a tough year after the independence referendum of 25 September 2017, the economy is buoyant again and it is the Barzani Kurds who seem best placed in Iraqi Kurdistan. The safety of Rojava Kurds will be consolidated if they manage to form an alliance with the Damascus regime, subject to certain concessions. Damascus will need to reinforce its military capacities, and after Afrin has no interest in seeing part of the Syrian border occupied by forces dependent on Ankara.
The United States has been timid towards Syria both under the presidency of Barack Obama and his successor, and so far it is Vladimir Putin, with tactical nous and brute force, who has put himself forward as the arbiter of a complex transition.