After eight years, eastern Syria will likely fall into the control of the Syrian government, thanks in large part to President Donald Trump’s erratic policy decisions.
I spoke to close friends from the region who have dedicated their lives to opposing the Syrian government. Today, after Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops, the people I spoke with feel, with heavy hearts, that it’s safer to surrender to the regime they’ve been fighting than to risk ethnic massacres at the hands of Turkish forces. This painful dilemma might be an unintended consequence of the U.S. policy shift, but it will be one of the policy’s most searing and humiliating human costs.
I met Sami in Turkey in 2012. We were part of the same group of Syrian activists that fled Syria after the government of Bashar al-Assad cracked down on us. Like many Kurds today, Sami, despite his complete opposition to the Syrian government, believes that, compared to Turkish-backed rebel groups, Assad is the lesser evil.
For the Kurds of Eastern Syria, surrendering to Assad is an act of desperation—a sad, resigned bid for survival.
For the Kurds of Eastern Syria, surrendering to Assad is an act of desperation—a sad, resigned bid for survival. But Turkish state media and
Turkish-backed rebel leaders have taken the opportunity to spew anti-Kurdish propaganda. Some have gone so far as to suggest that anyone opposed to the latest Turkish-led operation in eastern Syria, “Operation Peace Spring,” is in fact supportive of the Syrian government.
A KURDISH FEMALE FIGHTER FROM THE KURDISH PEOPLE’S PROTECTION UNITS (YPG) CHECKS HER WEAPON NEAR RAS AL-AIN, IN THE PROVINCE OF HASAKAH, Syria. PHOTO: LOUBNA MRIE.
However, it’s false to claim that these groups—civilians in particular—are welcoming the Syrian government and Russian troops out of devotion for President Assad. The Kurds—even those who’ve long opposed Assad— struck a deal with the Syrian government at the last possible moment on the eve of the Turkish-led operation. A failure to recognize the particular predicament faced by Syrian Kurdish groups risks caricaturing them, inaccurately, as allies of the Syrian regime and foes of the revolution.
The Turkish-backed groups are doing exactly that: painting the Kurds as Assad collaborators, to justify ethnic persecution, violence, or worse. “They are targeting us because of our identity, the heritage we carry and the language we speak [regardless] of our political affiliation,” Sami said. “Therefore, it is impossible to avoid their terror, a terror that is being carried out under the guise of national security concerns and fighting terrorism.”
Throughout the current uprising, Kurdish forces continued to negotiate and deal with the Syrian government—as did virtually every other Syrian faction that managed to control territory. “It’s bizarre to see us being labelled as traitors,” Sami said.
Syrian Kurds previously rebelled against the Assad regime in 2004; in the ensuing crackdown, hundreds of Kurdish activists were detained. Syrian Kurds like Sami remember how that uprising ended, and can compare it their more recent experiences with Turkey.
Turkey seized part of Syrian Kurdish territory in Operation Olive Branch, in Afrin, in January of 2018. Human rights groups have released in-depth reports on atrocities carried out by Turkish-backed rebel groups there, detailing property confiscation, arbitrary detention, and looting of houses.
“So yes, people would choose the Syrian government over Turkey after what we heard from Afrin,” Sami said. “It was a clear example of what a Turkish ‘liberation’ would look like: mass atrocities, looting houses and demographic change. They want to see their children grow up. Do not blame them for having no options left to survive.”
According to activists I interviewed in 2018, during the months after Turkey’s operation in Afrin, any Kurd was likely to be treated as a suspected member of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) or its sister organization in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—considered terrorist groups by Turkey. No one was safe in Afrin. Even Kurds who were members of political parties close to Turkey were in danger.
In June of 2018, Ahmad Sheikho , a 45-year-old Kurdish man, was taken from his home in Afrin by a Turkish backed group, in front of his four children. Days later, his dead body was delivered to his family. His wife told me told me that Ahmad’s body had the marks of torture and broken ribs.
Boys stand at a back of a truck as they flee Ras al Ain town, Syria. Source: Photo Courtesy of the author
Even those who stayed home and avoided any contact with the rebels were not safe. Civilians who were too old to flee the city had their houses raided and looted. One old couple told me how they were detained and forced to send WhatsApp messages to their children, who live abroad, asking them for ransom money. And this all happened under the watch of the Turkish army, the same force supervising the armed groups invading Syrian territory today.
No Real Choice
The Syrian forces, at least, are open about their ill intentions—which gives them some advantage over the Turks in the eyes of Syria’s Kurds. “Assad or we burn the country” is their slogan.
“At least the Syrian government is clear. They don’t hide how brutal they are,” Shyar Khalil, another close Kurdish friend from Afrin who lives in exile in France, told me. “The Turkish-backed groups are far more unpredictable. Turkey and its proxies are killing and looting our towns.”
The euphemistically named Operation Peace Spring has already caused at least 7,000 Syrian refugees to seek shelter across the border in Iraq. The militias displacing the Syrian Kurds are fighting under the flag of the Syrian revolution—the same flag that Shyar wrapped his friends’ dead bodies with in 2011 and 2012.
“How awful today to see this flag being placed on the shoulders of thugs stealing and looting houses in my hometown just because Turkey ordered them to, and all in the name of liberation and stability,” Shyar said.
Meanwhile, Turkish state media and some Arab activists are dismissing the very idea that Kurds were ever really committed to the Syrian revolution, portraying Kurds like Shyar and Sami as quislings who support the Syrian government.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In 2014, Shyar was detained at a checkpoint after Syrian government soldiers searched his backpack and laptop and found footage from rebel-held areas. After an entire year of detention and torture, which he spoke about in detail in a report for Amnesty International , Shyar was forced to go on Syrian state TV to “confess” that he was a part of the global conspiracy against Bashar-Al Assad.
After his release, he sought political asylum in France, where he now lobbies for detainees in Syria and freedom of expression in the region. For someone like him to see the Syrian government as the guarantor of last resort sums up the desperation of Syria’s Kurds—an awful choice that Trump’s betrayal made inevitable.
Perhaps for Trump, Syria and the Kurds are nothing more than a political card. The American president will be able to say that he withdrew U.S. troops from Syria, saving the lives of American soldiers. But he’s not likely to admit how profoundly his snap decision will impact the region and the people who live there.
Trump’s abrupt withdrawal has bolstered the influence of Russia in the region, and accelerated the Assad regime’s full restoration. The rebellion in Eastern Syria enjoyed a rare spell of success by the bleak standards of Syria’s war. For five years, Arabs, Kurds, and other minorities lived under U.S. protection in an autonomous area that spanned one third of Syrian territory.
People sit in the back of a truck as they celebrate what they said was the liberation of villages from Islamist rebels near the city of Ras al-Ain in the province of Hasakah, after capturing it from Islamist rebels. Source: Photo Courtesy of the author
Today, the threat of atrocities by Turkish-backed groups has left the residents of that formerly autonomous zone with a terrible choice: certain oppression under Assad, or violence and possible ethnic cleansing by Turkish-backed groups. For a population that had very nearly achieved its goal of autonomy and a minimal standard of rights and freedoms, their sudden loss is a bitter twist. It’s understandable why they are now choosing to submit to Assad instead of the Turks; but it’s hardly a choice at all.
This commentary is a part of “The Future of Governance in Eroded States: Managing Fragmentation and Its Consequences in the Middle East,” a multi-year TCF initiative supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.