OPN 191011 Kurds-1570798076822
Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians arrive to Tall Tamr town, in the Syrian northwestern Hasakeh province, after fleeing Turkish bombardment on the northeastern towns along the Turkish border on October 10, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

President Donald Trump has made waves, yet again, with his latest decision to withdraw US troops from Kurdish-held territory in Syria, wanting to put an end to what he called “Endless Wars.” It’s not the first time that he says that, but now, it seems that the decision is final, and steps have already started to secure the safe withdrawal of 100 soldiers from Syria. It took everybody by surprise, no doubt, including the Russians, Turks, and the Syrians themselves, who all heard of it through the news and read it via Trump’s Twitter account. The Kurds are the only party that seems to have received prior-notice, just hours before Trump made the historic announcement on Monday.

Immediately, troops started withdrawal from two military bases, one near Tal Abyad in the eastern countryside of Al Raqqa, and the other in Ras Al Ayn, in the countryside of Al Hassakeh. Simultaneously, the SDF has sent 100 trucks of reinforcements to both towns, expecting a full-fledged Turkish invasion. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been toying with the marching on both — along with Tel Rifaat in northern countryside of Aleppo and Kobani — since last December. That operation was repeatedly delayed, first because of Trump’s indecisiveness on Syria, and secondly, due to Turkish national elections last March.

The only deal that is available for the Kurds is to accept the unconditional terms of surrender set forth by Damascus and Moscow.

- Sami Moubayed, Syrian historian

On 9 October, the Kurds announced that “all citizens of Syrian Kurdistan,” men, women, and elderly, are required to pick arms to fight the Turks. It was going to a battle like none before since outbreak of the Syrian conflict nine years ago, due to the absence of US backing. Unless they reach an immediate and unconditional deal with Damascus, the Kurds will soon be facing a battle on multiple fronts simultaneously. The first will be Kobani, Ras Al Ayn, and Tel Rifaat, while Al Hassakeh and Al Qamishly are going to be attacked by the Syrian and Russian armies, in addition to Mabij, Al Malkieh, and the Conoco and Al Omar oilfields. That shouldn’t be difficult for the two armies, who have recently accepted a freeze of operations in the northwestern province of Idlib, freeing their forces for a military operation elsewhere. The Turks have no interest — at least not anymore — of taking the major Kurdish cities. Their one goal is to clear the border area from any Kurdish presence.

A long and protracted battle

While a negotiated surrender is expected vis-a-vis Russia and Syria, the real challenge will be the Turkish battlefront, which is 460-km in width, stretching from the western bank of the Euphrates to the meeting point of the Syrian-Iraqi border, and anywhere between 35-40 km in depth. That is the exact same amount of territory that Erdogan has been demanding from the US as a buffer zone, which was rejected earlier this summer by the Trump Administration. The battles will neither be easy, nor quick — especially now with winter approaching. In a last-ditch attempt at forcing Trump to reconsider, they are threatening to release the 6,000 Daesh prisoners held in their prisons, 1,000 of whom are foreign fighters, and to open the gates of the Al Hol camp, which houses the families of many. On Tuesday evening, it was claimed that Daesh carried out three suicide attacks in their former self-proclaimed capital of Al Raqqa, but the number seems to have been exaggerated by the Kurds in order to raise red flags in the US.

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Meanwhile, Erdogan has launched an incursion that involves Turkish ground troops and Syrian proxies from the National Liberation Army, the Zinki Brigades, and Ahrar Al Sham. Judging from the lack of American response to the latest Al Houthi attack on Aramco oilfields in Saudi Arabia, the Turkish president feels that the US will not lift a finger to defend the Kurds. So far, only lip service has been offered to them by Trump, along with a tweet threatening to destroy the Turkish economy, should Erdogan carry on with his invasion.

This of course is not the first time that Erdogan invades Syrian territory. Its actually the fourth time since 2016. The first invasions of Jarablus, Al Bab, and Azaz were okayed by the Russians, who in return, got him to abandon the armed opposition in east Aleppo. Then came the invasion of Afrin last year, for which in return, he abandoned fighters of the southern provinces and East Ghouta in the Damascus countryside. This time around, he will overrun the three border towns, certain that neither the Americans and nor the Russians or Syrians will stop him.

Kurdish options

At present, the only deal that is available for the Kurds is to accept the unconditional terms of surrender set forth by Damascus and Moscow. In exchange, they will be getting none of the perks that had been promised in the past, vis-a-vis limited autonomy or statehood. They won’t get to keep their light or heavy arms, their checkpoints, or any symbols of their statehood. They also will not be getting any military support from the Syrian Army, as suggested for Afrin last year. But the devil is always in the details. What will happen to Kurdish heavy weapons, when/if they are surrendered? Will dynamics change within Turkey, if the Kurds strike within Turkish territory, killing civilians or striking towns and villages on the border? What will happen to the schools and language of the Kurds? Are the Syrians going to grant them this very basic concession, or will they re-impose total government hegemony on the entire area? Will Erdogan use the geographic area to relocate the millions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey, and will that be done in coordination with Damascus, or independently of it. And finally, who will administer the fault lines between the Syrian and Turkish armies, making sure that the two sides don’t overlap or confront each other?

— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.