Stuck in the Middle in Syria

By Joshua Keating

This article originally appeared in Slate.

In 2019, President Donald Trump made a controversial decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Northeast Syria, essentially greenlighting a Turkish-led invasion of areas controlled by America’s Kurdish allies. He recently downplayed the consequences of that decision. “They’ve been fighting like they have been for a thousand years, OK? Nothing’s happened,” the president insisted. Sinam Mohamad’s job, as the representative of the Syrian Democratic Council in the U.S., is to convince people in Washington that things are still happening, and that America has responsibility for those things.

The SDC is the legislature of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the semiautonomous Kurdish-dominated state that since 2014 has controlled the region known in Kurdish as Rojava. (The political leadership in this region is often referred to in shorthand in the U.S. as the “Syrian Kurds,” though its leaders stress that it is multiethnic.) Mohamad, who has worked on behalf of the SDC in Washington since late 2017, recently established a diplomatic office in Washington which is registered to lobby the U.S. government.

The relationship between the Syrian Kurds and the U.S. has always been a bit awkward and contradictory. Rojava has been celebrated by U.S. politicians on the left and right as an independent, secular, and (by the region’s standards) democratic entity that has stood apart from the Assad regime and been the most effective U.S. military ally in the fight against ISIS. But its ideological links with the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group in Turkey that the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, have been a sticking point in relations between the U.S. and Turkey, a key regional player. Trump may have concluded last year that keeping Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan happy was more important than protecting the fledgling pseudo-state in Northeast Syria, but Mohamad is seeking to make the case that her government is still a vital ally in need of military and financial support.

Mohamad faces the daunting task of coaxing support from a country that’s weary of engagement with conflicts in the Middle East. Trump is hardly the only one who is skeptical of U.S. deployments in the region. While Trump often says that he “brought our soldiers back home,” about 600 U.S. troops remain in Syria, down from the 1,000 who were on the ground before his withdrawal order. More troops were recently deployed to the area after clashes with Russian forces patrolling the region. I asked Mohamad what would have to take place for the remaining troops to be able to head home.

“I think maybe if they want to withdraw, that will happen after there will be a settlement or a political solution in the region,” she said. “I hope that they will not withdraw from there unless there is civilization, unless we will have stability.” As far as U.S. interests in the region, she pointed to the continuing threat of ISIS sleeper cells, the presence of Iranian proxies in the region, and the ongoing problem of displaced people.

“As the consequences of this [Turkish] invasion of the region, we have a large number of displaced people. They left their houses, they left their homes, they left everything, and they are now living in the camps,” she says. She claimed there are “human rights violations happening every day” in areas occupied by the Syrian National Army, the Turkish-backed rebel group now occupying a number of formerly Kurdish-controlled areas, including her hometown of Afrin. “They kidnap the women, they rape them, and we don’t know where are they now. There are many women now in the custody of Islamist groups who are backed by Turkey.” A grim report recently submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council alleged that these rebels “may have committed war crimes in Afrin and surrounding areas in the north—including hostage-taking, torture and rape—along with killing and maiming scores of civilians.” (The report also included allegations of the arbitrary detention of civilians and torture by the Syrian Democratic Forces—the U.S.-backed armed wing of Mohamad’s government.)

Trump’s reversal also upended the political status quo on the ground in northeast Syria. Kurds faced brutal repression under Bashar al-Assad’s rule, and there’s little desire to return to the status quo before the autonomous region was created.

But as U.S. troops withdrew, the Kurdish leadership reached a pact, brokered by Russia, with Assad’s government that allowed Syrian military troops to move into areas that had been outside the regime’s control for years, in order to prevent further Turkish incursions. This puts them in the awkward position of being allies of both the United States and a government that the U.S. is still, on paper at least, committed to overthrowing—last month Trump confirmed Bob Woodward’s claim that he had at one point considered killing Assad—and that is backed by Iran and Russia.

“This is one of the consequences of Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw,” says Mohamad. “Turkey attacked us, and at that time we didn’t have any way to protect our people, only to call the regime.”

Unlike its Kurdish counterparts in Iraq, the Autonomous Administration is not seeking full independence, but a future where “Syria would be decentralized.” Given that Assad’s forces are tied in brutal fighting with rebels in northwestern Idlib, he’s willing to tolerate the autonomous semistate in the northeast for the time being. But in the long run, he’s committed to recovering “every inch” of Syrian territory.

Mohamad says her government is “ready to have dialogue with the Syrian regime to start the political process in Syria” but that “unfortunately, the Syrian government didn’t change their mentality. They always want to have Syria as it was before, in 2011. As if nothing has happened, as if none of these Syrian people had been killed. As if half of the Syrian territory has not been destroyed.”

The Autonomous Administration also makes a significant amount of its income selling oil and grain to the Assad regime, which has caused concerns that it could be subject to sanctions under the Caesar Act, a new U.S. law passed by Congress last year targeting the regime and entities that trade with it with sanctions. While the sanctions aren’t meant to target the autonomous region in Northeast Syria, Mohamad says her government is hoping for an explicit exemption.

There’s currently only one border crossing connecting Northeast Syria to international trade: the Semalka crossing with the Kurdish region of Iraq. Aid groups say the restrictions on aid from Damascus and from Iraq have hampered efforts to fight COVID-19 in the region. Mohamad says the administration has taken measures including closing schools and barring gatherings but that “they have now many cases and increasing. …We are facing a lot of problems there with the lack of the humanitarian support and the lack of the water also.”

While not anywhere near the scale of the Syrian regime of jihadi rebel groups, the armed forces of Northeast Syria have also been accused of human rights violations. According to the State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report, the YPG, the Kurdish rebel group that makes up the backbone of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, “continued to recruit, train, and use boys and girls as young as 12 years old,” despite efforts under a U.N.-mandated plan to end the practice. Mohamad told me: “We are trying to do it and to solve such problems. Because there is a commitment from the SDC leaders, from our forces there, not to recruit any children under 18 years old.”

The Syrian Kurds got another form of unwelcome attention recently over Turkish media reports that Erdogan had told Trump during a phone call that “those behind the recent violence and looting during protests in the U.S. are working with the YPG/PKK, a terrorist group operating in northern Syria.” (The YPG has ideological—if not operational—links to the PKK, a rebel group operating in Turkey that a number of countries, including the U.S., consider a terrorist organization. Turkey does not recognize any distinction between the two groups.) The Nation recently reported on a Department of Homeland Security intelligence report noting that some Americans who had fought with the YPG in Syria had been active with the antifa movement in the U.S.—inferring a link to foreign terrorism. Given that U.S. forces have been fighting alongside the YPG in Syria for years, this would theoretically make the U.S. military antifa terrorists as well.

“Our goal, all of us, we have the goal to end the terrorist groups in Syria,” says Mohamad. “I think these people, whether they are antifa, whoever they are there, they came there to fight against the terrorist group, which is ISIS. For that, they were welcomed. We don’t look at what they are, if they are antifa or if they are another group.”

Rojava’s success was always unlikely, as an entity inspired by a quasi-anarchist political philosophy trying to build a secular democracy—however imperfectly—in the midst of terrorism, authoritarianism, and civil war. When Trump announced the withdrawal last year, I—like many others—assumed it was doomed. But the Kurds have held out, making some messy deals and assembling a coalition of strange bedfellows. What may have started as an idealistic political experiment has had to adapt to old-school realism and power politics.

“There is Russia, there is the Syrian government, there is the U.S., and even the other people like the U.K. and France. We are trying to keep these relations with all these main players,” says Mohamad. “We know that all of these players, they are there for their own interest. We know that. Russia is there for its interest, not for the Syrian people. We, in Syria, are in the middle.”