Throughout the course of the West’s long and bitter campaign to destroy Daesh, the Kurds have proved themselves to be one of the most effective allies.
In an age when western governments on both sides of the Atlantic are reluctant to commit large numbers of ground troops, the fact that the Kurds have been prepared to fulfil the role of capturing vital territory from Daesh has made a significant contribution to the success of the United States-led coalition’s operation against Daesh’s self-styled Caliphate.
Working in conjunction with American and British special forces, militias such as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been instrumental in helping to liberate more than 99 per cent of the territory that Daesh once controlled in northern Iraq and Syria.
The two British SAS soldiers who were reported to have been seriously injured by a Daesh missile strike in Syria recently were taking part in a joint operation with the Kurds, in which a Kurdish fighter was killed. For, while the main military campaign against Daesh is winding down, coalition forces are still carrying out operations against the last remaining pockets of Daesh resistance, which are now mainly confined to remote areas of Syria not controlled by the Al Assad regime.
There is therefore much that still needs to be done if we are to ensure that Daesh is not able to regroup, and the Kurdish groups clearly have a vital role in tackling the last remnants of Daesh’s ‘Caliphate’.
Whether the Kurds will be minded to maintain their support for the coalition cause is a moot point following US President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement over the Christmas break that he intends to withdraw the 2,000 American troops based in Syria. Trump has reached the conclusion that Syria is “lost” so far as Washington is concerned, and that Russia and Iran have emerged as the dominant foreign powers in post-conflict Syria.
This is certainly true — neither America nor Britain are involved in the negotiations over Syria’s future.
But the prospect of American forces being withdrawn before the fighting is over, and before the negotiations over Syria’s future are concluded, has been received with dismay by the Kurds, who fear that they are about to be abandoned to their fate by their erstwhile Western allies.
It would not be the first time the Kurds have found themselves in such a predicament. Kurdish hopes of creating an independent homeland, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, were thwarted after they failed to secure effective western support.
Now many Kurds fear that history is about to repeat itself as, deprived of the protection that the presence of American troops in the region affords, they will find themselves at the mercy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is fiercely opposed to any notion of Kurdish independence.
Erdogan certainly pulled no punches when he addressed the issue at a recent session of the Turkish parliament, where he warned that he would “not make concessions” to the Kurds, and that preparations for an offensive against Kurdish groups based in northern Syria were nearly complete.
The Turkish leader was responding to remarks made by John Bolton, the US National Security Adviser, who was in Ankara to discuss the arrangements for the US withdrawal, and wants assurances that the Kurds will not be subjected to Turkish aggression.
This is a big ask for Ankara, which regards the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the group that has overseen the operations conducted by Kurdish opposition fighters, as an offshoot of the PKK, the Syrian-based Kurdish group that has carried out numerous attacks against Turkey.
The Turks fear that the Kurds, emboldened by their battlefield successes in Syria, will revive their campaign for independence once the withdrawal of American and other coalition forces — including British special forces — has been completed.
This may well be the case, but the greater concern must be the negative impact the diplomatic spat between Turkey and the US will have on the campaign to finish off Daesh.
The only party that is likely to benefit from any deterioration in relations between Washington and Ankara over the fate of the Kurds is Daesh, especially as Kurdish fighters will be more concerned about defending their own territory if they fear they are about to come under attack from the Turkish military. This is how the Kurds responded this time last year when Turkey invaded a Kurdish enclave in northeastern Syria, prompting Kurdish fighters to abandon their fight against Daesh to defend their homeland.
If the West’s priority remains the complete destruction of Daesh, then it is vital that the Kurds receive the assurances they require to continue the fight against Daesh forces in Syria. The only beneficiaries of a diplomatic rift between Washington and Ankara will be those we are trying to destroy.
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence editor and chief foreign affairs columnist.