Middle East Eye: The scenario of the US withdrawal from Syria raises concerns for the SDF


A state of fear and depression prevails among the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern and eastern Syria, according to a report by the Middle East Eye website, citing officials and observers.

The report clarifies that the reasons for the prevailing situation are related to the scenarios of the expected US withdrawal from northern and eastern Syria, and the damage that the step may cause.

US General Eric Kurella, commander of the US Central Command in the Middle East, had visited northern and eastern Syria a few days ago, but his high-level move did little to address fears that the SDF would become collateral damage of the war in Gaza.

In light of the Turkish air strikes and fears of a US military withdrawal, Washington’s allies, according to the report, are increasingly concerned that they will be eliminated as collateral damage of the war in Gaza.

Another concern of SDF officials is the escalation of attacks launched by Türkiye since October 7, when the war broke out in the Gaza Strip.

Ankara intensified its bombing of the Autonomous Administration’s infrastructure in northeastern Syria, including power stations, the electricity network in the region, and oil fields.

This came in response to attacks launched by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in northern Iraq, which resulted in the deaths of the Turkish army.

Mahmoud Musalat, co-chair of the Syria Democratic Council (SDC), said, “We asked the United States to restrain Türkiye, but they refused to do so”.

He added, “The entire region is on fire, and no one will respond to Türkiye’s aggression against us when everyone is busy with Gaza”.

The Turkish strikes come amid fears that the war in Gaza will accelerate what Janda Muhammad, another senior SDC official, described as “a possible Afghanistan-style withdrawal”.

She said that such a step would have chaotic consequences for the region.

The state of depression among SDF officials was exacerbated by Washington’s approval to sell F-16 fighter jets to Türkiye.

Muslat said, “The Americans told us that Türkiye won’t use aircraft against their allies (SDF), but we believe that Türkiye will do whatever it wants”.

US support for the SDF has long been a point of contention with its NATO ally, Türkiye.

Ankara considers the SDF and its military mainstay, the People’s Protection Units, to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is listed as a terrorist organization.

But Washington refused to sever its ties with the Kurdish forces over the past years, and considered them an ally in the war against ISIS.

Recently, relations between Türkiye and the United States witnessed a thaw, which raised the concern of the SDF.

In January, Ankara agreed to Sweden joining NATO, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also worked to repair relations with Greece, steps that helped the Biden administration move forward with the sale of F-16 aircraft.

According to Darine Khalifa, an expert on Syrian affairs and senior advisor at the International Crisis Group, says that since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, Türkiye has followed a new strategy in the bombing campaign in northern and eastern Syria.

She added, “The Turks are exploiting the situation in Gaza, of course; Specifically, they weaken the Kurdish-led administration’s ability to extract and refine oil, in a severe blow to their financial resources”.

The fact is the region is considered very critical, since it contains 95% of Syrian oil and gas reserves.

In a press conference last month, Mazloum Abdi, the leader of the SDF, said that Turkish strikes on commercial sites and infrastructure had cost the financially strapped latter 50% of its budget.

Abdi himself is hiding with US soldiers at al Shaddadi military base to avoid assassination by Turkish drones, according to Middle East Eye.

Aaron Lund, a researcher at the Century Foundation, added, “Basically, Kurdish fighters have become vulnerable to Turkish strikes”.

He considered that Türkiye’s focus on striking energy infrastructure since October had made “life miserable for local civilians, and increased tension between the United States and the Syria Democratic Forces”.

The US forces arrived in northeastern Syria in 2015 as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, against the “Islamic State” organization.

The group was defeated territorially in 2019, but there are still approximately 900 US soldiers in the region.

Some US officials, such as Brett McGurk, Biden’s senior advisor for the Middle East in the White House, hope that Washington will be able to conclude an agreement for a large-scale US withdrawal from the northeast, after an agreement between the SDF and Damascus.

Reports in February that the Pentagon was reviewing those long-standing plans sparked consternation among supporters of the continued presence of US forces.

Debate has raged in Washington between Remainers and Leavers since the Trump administration staged a surprise exit in 2019, which was partially reversed.

Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria, considered that the US withdrawal would be tantamount to free violence for all.

He added, “The Turks will advance, the Syrian army will advance, the Iranians will advance, and ISIS attacks will escalate”.

But the same former official, who has long criticized what he called “the forever forgotten war” in America, said that the United States has two options.

“Either they remain in Syria indefinitely or consider a transitional process where the Syria Democratic Forces go to the Syrian government”.

He continues, “Withdrawal is likely to strengthen Russia’s role as a power broker in Syria”.

In addition to facing Turkish bombing and the economic crisis, the regions of northern and eastern Syria are grappling with ethnic tensions.

In August of last year, Arab tribes revolted against the SDF in Deir al Zour Governorate.

Fabrice Balanche, a specialist in Syrian affairs at Lyon II University, said that Arab tribal leaders and the SDF will have no choice but to conclude an agreement with the Government in Damascus if the United States withdraws.

He added, “There is a sense of when the United States will leave, not if it will leave”.

“I don’t see how the Syria Democratic Forces can survive for another year, maybe two years,” Balanche said, “northern and eastern Syria are collateral damage to Gaza… I don’t have much hope for her future”.

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