The uprising and subsequent civil war in Syria have divided the political left the world over. The left has splintered into roughly three camps: those who oppose the uprising and see it as part of a US and Arab Gulf-backed war to topple an anti-imperialist regime; those who support the uprising as a revolutionary movement against a brutal dictatorship; and those who might have mixed feelings about the uprising, due in part to the prominence of Islamist forces, but enthusiastically support the Kurdish-led movement for autonomy in the country’s northeast. There are, in fact, many sides in the Syrian conflict. Besides the various Kurdish forces as well as ISIS, the opposition is highly fragmented, and the loyalist side is composed of many competing factions and states with sometimes opposing agendas. Regardless of their approach to these divisions, the only thing that the various segments of the left seem to agree on is that US policy in Syria has been a disappointment, if not a disaster. Views range from some who advocated humanitarian intervention to protect non-combatants to those who see the United States as a major force in the escalation of the civil war by calling for the ouster of Asad and facilitating the flow of aid to rebel forces.
As US troops tasked with containing ISIS remain in Syria, even after President Donald Trump declared their withdrawal, the situation in northeast Syria highlights the tragedies and dilemmas of a US foreign policy defined by military-centered interventions. Such a strategy of realpolitik replicates many of the disastrous errors of US polices in the Cold War era while posing greater challenges to efforts to advocate for a different path.
Kurdish Struggles in Northeast Syria
When protests broke out against Asad’s regime in 2011, reactions were initially split in predominantly Kurdish regions of Syria. There were protests in Kurdish majority areas, mostly led by non-affiliated Kurdish youths who felt alienated from Kurdish party politics. Some Kurdish parties, such as the Kurdish Future Movement led by Mashaal Temmo, supported the broader opposition and opposed the regime. Traditional Kurdish parties, gravitating around the Syrian branch of the Iraq-based Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which by 2011 had splintered into some 20 different parties, created the Kurdish National Council (KNC) in an attempt to coalesce around a common stance. The KNC made demands for Kurdish autonomy and federalism but boycotted the predominantly Arab opposition, which rejected its claims for Kurdish autonomy in Syria. In 2013, Burhan Ghalioun, the first leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an opposition coalition based in Istanbul, told an Iraqi Kurdish news outlet that “there is no such thing as Syrian Kurdistan.”
The primary rival of the traditional Kurdish parties in Syria is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which was founded in the late 1970s in Turkey to pursue Kurdish independence. In some ways, the PKK is as much a Syrian organization as it is a Turkish one. A disproportionate number of its fighters have been Syrian, and Damascus had encouraged Syrian Kurds to join the organization during its presence in the country. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, much of the party’s armed forces, as well as its leadership, with Abdullah Öcalan at its head, were based in Syria under the protection of President Hafiz al-Asad and only left in 1998 when Öcalan and his organization were expelled by Damascus under the threat of a Turkish military invasion.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a safe haven in Syria and Syrian-occupied Lebanon allowed the PKK the space it needed to organize, recruit, train fighters, recuperate, raise funds, launch media operations and otherwise conduct the business of rebelling against the Turkish state out of the reach of Ankara. Damascus saw the sheltering of the PKK in Syria and Lebanon as a point of leverage in bilateral relations with Turkey, and this leverage allowed the organization a large amount of leeway. Before the PKK had any presence in northern Iraq, it was given a training camp in the Beqa‘a valley of Lebanon. The primary restriction on PKK activities, besides not mobilizing Syrian Kurds against Damascus, was to refrain from conducting cross-border raids into Turkey directly from Syrian territory. The PKK thus made the establishment of bases in the Kurdistan region of Iraq a priority. Damascus even encouraged the PKK to recruit Syrian Kurds in hopes that it would redirect Kurdish grievances away from Hafiz al-Asad’s regime and toward Ankara instead.
The eventual expulsion of Öcalan from Syria, however, led to his eventual capture and imprisonment by the Turkish state in 1999. The PKK officially created affiliate parties in Iraq, Iran and Syria—the last of which is the PYD, formed in 2003. Between its official founding and 2011, the PYD operated as a banned political party in much the same way that its local Kurdish rivals did, staging cultural events emphasizing Kurdish identity in the form of music, literature and language. The PYD’s armed forces, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) were first announced in 2012 and there is some evidence that a precursor to the YPG was founded as early as 2004 after the Kurdish uprising that began in Qamishli.
The Rise of Rojava Amid the Syrian Civil War
Two decades of state sanctioned PKK presence in Syria provided the PYD with the organizational, institutional and military strength to capitalize on the vacuum provided by the withdrawal of most of the Asad regime’s forces from Kurdish majority areas of the country. In 2012, when Damascus wanted to focus its coercive apparatus on uprisings in the south and northwest, the regime and the PYD agreed to a sort of non-aggression pact. This arrangement allowed the PYD to establish several autonomous zones with the hope of consolidating them into a predominantly Kurdish territory commonly referred to as Rojava, which means West in Kurmanji Kurdish and serves to distinguish between Kurdish populations in Turkey (North), Iraq (South) and Iran (East).
While, on the whole, this area of Syria is predominantly populated by Syrian Kurds, there are also other significant and diverse populations, including Sunni Arabs, Assyrian Christians, Turkmen and Armenians, just to name a few. In 2015, the PYD created an umbrella organization called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in an attempt to broaden its local ruling coalition while sidestepping possible US restrictions against material support for the PYD. (Turkey considers the PYD to be synonymous with the PKK, which is classified by Ankara and the United States as a terrorist organization.) While dominated by its own cadres, the SDF was also an attempt to more successfully include Arabs and other communities from the local population.
Just as the organizational structure of PKK-aligned bodies have pragmatically adapted and changed names over time, so has their autonomy project in Syria in an attempt to balance the often competing demands of confederalism and state-building, ethno-linguistic inclusion and Kurdish nationalism, and decentralization and the organizational structure of a vanguard party.
US Military Intervention in Syria
Considering the background of the PYD, it is somewhat ironic that it became a close US ally. At the height of US involvement in northeastern Syria, there were approximately 2,000 to 2,500 US troops present under the aegis of Operation Inherent Resolve, which began in 2014 during the Obama administration. This operation was framed as a counterterrorism campaign against ISIS and began with an air campaign at Sinjar Mountain in Iraq. US troops were supporting forces led by the PKK and the Iraqi Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) Peshmerga who were fighting to reclaim the mountain where ISIS had targeted the local Yezidi population for annihilation and slavery. In Syria, US forces gave limited support—in the form of air strikes on ISIS fighters and resupply drops—to local Kurdish forces led by the PYD and the PKK in Kobani, which was under siege by ISIS.
In October of 2015, after repelling ISIS forces from Kobani, the PYD-allied umbrella organization SDF partnered with the US-led coalition to retake Syrian territory conquered by ISIS. The SDF was created to better include non-Kurdish groups in northeastern Syria, but also, according to commander of the US Special Operations Command at the time, General Raymond Thomas, as a rebranding to address US concerns about being allied with a PKK-affiliated group. This joint campaign reclaimed swathes of territory that were well outside the predominantly Kurdish regions of Syria. The SDF is led by the PYD’s military force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), but it also includes other groups drawn from Assyrian Christian, Arab and Turkmen militias, as well as local conscripts from all backgrounds. In some cases, this capture of territory connecting pre-existing cantons came with accusations of ethnic cleansing by local Arabs.
When Donald Trump announced on Twitter in December 2018 that US forces would be pulling out of Syria, there was an immediate backlash in Washington, which led to the administration walking the decision back—only to change course again in October of the following year. The backlash came from a range of different directions—from backers of Kurdish popular struggles, to military hawks who sought to expand US leverage against Iran. The October 2019 announcement that Trump was ordering all US forces out of Syria was in turn altered to allow for US troops to stay in the country, but only to “secure the oil.”
When Trump finally ordered the withdrawal of US forces from Kurdish areas, the bargaining position of the PYD vis-à-vis Damascus was dramatically weakened. Asad, after the fall of rebel held Aleppo in December 2016, had vowed to retake all of Syria. For the PYD and its allies, the presence of US troops in Syria served to shield them from attacks by Turkish and Syrian regime forces. Ankara, for its part, saw the US withdrawal in October 2019 as a green light to invade northeastern Syria in what Turkey dubbed Operation Spring Peace. Like Turkey’s capture of Afrin from the PYD in early 2018, this incursion led to the displacement of tens of thousands of mostly Kurdish Syrians in the border region.
The US redeployment and the subsequent Turkish invasion illustrate the dilemma posed by US military support for Kurdish forces. On the one hand, the US presence served as a security guarantee for the PYD and its allies. But, without a simultaneous effort to broker a negotiated settlement between Kurdish-led forces and Ankara and Damascus, the US presence created a situation in which US forces would need to be committed indefinitely, especially given previous difficulties negotiating a satisfactory agreement between Kurdish movements and the Asad regime. For instance, Moscow, which has much more leverage over Damascus than the United States, has failed on several occasions to negotiate a settlement to the so-called Kurdish question in Syria.
There is a multipolar environment around the US presence in Syria in the sense that the United States is already, albeit by pragmatic necessity, liaising with Turkish, Russian and Syrian regime troops, as well as the SDF and PYD in northeast Syria. Former Special Presidential Envoy to the coalition against ISIS, Brett McGurk, called this situation “great power diplomacy” with Russia and saw US policy goals primarily as defeating ISIS and “caging Iran” in Syria.
By allying with Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria, the United States was able to take advantage of the organizational and military capacities of the PYD and its allied forces while avoiding the necessity of committing a large number of ground troops or having to rely on either Damascus or its Arab oppositions. This approach, however, created several related problems for the United States, including strained relations with Ankara, which sees the PYD as a security threat. There was also seemingly no clear plan for what the United States would do once its local forces had routed ISIS forces and taken control of much of eastern Syria. In the end, Trump was outmaneuvered by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who took advantage of the US redeployment to take more territory from the PYD and its allies.
As Iraqi Kurdish forces have learned the hard way over the last few decades, the United States did not partner with the PYD in Syria out of support for Kurdish aspirations for self-rule. It should have come as no surprise, then, to find out that US support has proven to be fickle and relatively short lived. As a result, PYD-allied Kurdish forces have been left in a much weaker position vis-à-vis Ankara and Damascus, both of which are hostile to Kurdish-led autonomy in the northeast. As a consequence of US abandonment, the PYD has once again been forced to rely on Russia as a mediator with Damascus, so far unsuccessfully.
Different Paths to Disaster
The former Special Envoy of the Netherlands for Syria, Nikolaos van Dam, has taken US and European diplomats to task for attempting to effect change in Syria without committing sufficient resources. He also consistently warned against trying to force the Asad regime to negotiate from a position of relative weakness, correctly noting that Damascus would see the situation as a struggle to survive. The problem, as van Dam admits, is that the Asad regime has also been generally loathe to negotiate meaningful concessions even from a position of relative strength. In other words, the strategy of justifying military intervention as a tool to weaken the regime and gain leverage for the opposition always took the risk that negotiations would lead to a dead end. As a result, any intervention was most likely to lead to both an open-ended military commitment and the escalation of conflict and civilian suffering.
It was just such a risk that Obama sought to avoid with regards to the armed opposition against the Asad regime, but he nevertheless opened the door to a similar consequence in northeast Syria, made all the worse due to the realpolitik nature of US alliances. Working with the SDF, the United States may have temporarily aided Kurdish autonomy, but full autonomy and security for the Kurds was never a goal. And now it is clear that the United States does not have the ability to sustain such support either through military means or political leverage through negotiations.
Meanwhile, the United States has failed to absorb the human consequences of the conflict in Syria to which it has been a party. In 2016, over 12,000 Syrian refugees were admitted to the United States, but this is a low figure in per capita terms compared to countries like Germany. With the imposition of the racist travel ban, in the fiscal year of 2018 only 62 were admitted. In the current climate, after hyping ISIS as a domestic security threat falsely associated with migrants from the Middle East, calls to disengage from Syria are too often framed within some version of a heartless mantra of America First.
It is important to prioritize the people of Syria on all sides of the conflict. US policies, however, have only increased civilian suffering by escalating the militarization of the conflict and encouraging a bloody stalemate that has devasted the country and displaced huge swathes of its population. At the very least, US policy in the future must avoid repeating these mistakes. At best, a productive US policy should contribute to a negotiated settlement for Syria’s long and brutal conflict through international consensus. The United States must learn to stop treating a country like Syria or the Kurdish regions as a front in a larger regional geopolitical contest. To do so, the United States needs to divest itself of what are often misguided strategic interests defined by highly exaggerated threats.
[Sean Lee is an assistant professor in political science at the American University in Cairo.]
 Edward Luttwak, “In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins.” The New York Times, August 24, 2013.
 “Burhan Ghalioun: There Is No Such Thing as Syrian Kurdistan,” Rudaw, April 17, 2012.
 Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence (New York: NYU Press, 2007) pp. 100-1.
 Michael Knapp, Ana Flach and Ercan Ayboga, Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan (London: Pluto Press, 2016), pp. 133-4. See also Jordi Tejel, “Le Rojava : heurs et malheurs du Kurdistan syrien (2004‑2015),” Anatoli 8 (2017), p. 140.
 “La terza via del Rojava: il modello delle comuni e delle cooperative,” Dinamo Press (December 15, 2016). See also Michael Knapp, Ana Flach and Ercan Ayboga, Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan (London: Pluto Press, 2016), p. 50.
 Aspen Security Forum, July 21, 2017. “SOCOM: Policing the World.”
 Amnesty International, “‘We Had Nowhere Else to Go’: Forced Displacement and Demolitions in Northern Syria,” (October 2015).
 Julian Borger, “’Secure the oil’: Trump’s Syria Strategy Leaves Pentagon Perplexed,” The Guardian, November 8, 2019.
 Mahmut Bozarslan, “Syria Rejects Russian Proposal for Kurdish Federation.” Al-Monitor, October 24, 2016.
 Brett McGurk, “Hard Truths in Syria,” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2019).
 Nikolaos van Dam, Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017).
 Katie Zezima, “The US has Slashed its Refugee Intake. Syrians Fleeing War are Most Affected,” The Washington Post, May 8, 2019.