If the United States withdraws its troops from Syria in the near future, which President Trump says is his aim, then the Syrian Kurds that Washington has worked with against ISIS may find themselves in an extremely precarious situation.
As he froze $200 million in reconstruction funds for Syria, demanding more information on what exactly that money will be spent on, Trump voiced his intention for an imminent withdrawal of US forces from the country.
"It is time," he said in the White House on April 3. "We were very successful against ISIS. We'll be successful against anybody militarily, but sometimes it is time to come back home. And we're thinking about that very seriously."
Brett McGurk, the State Department's special envoy to the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, subsequently stressed that the US is in Syria to "fight ISIS." A mission, he added, that "isn't over. And we're going to complete that mission."
A senior administration official, cited by Reuters on April 4, said that Trump has agreed to retain the US presence for now to ensure ISIS' complete defeat.
"We're not going to immediately withdraw, but neither is the president willing to back a long-term commitment," the official explained.
Either way, the ramifications of a US withdrawal from Syria is an important factor to consider, especially for the Kurds.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham lambasted Trump's decision, equating it to the previous US withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011. "It'd be the single worst decision the president could make," Graham told Fox News.
"If we withdrew our troops anytime soon, ISIS would come back, the war between Turkey and the Kurds would get out of hand, and you'd be giving Damascus to the Iranians without an American presence, and Russia and Iran would dominate Syria," he went on to predict.
Washington has approximately 2,000 troops in Syria operating an assortment of bases and equipment. These forces worked with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), helping them capture ISIS' main stronghold Raqqa and large swathes of Syria's Deir ez-Zor province from ISIS. Around 400 US Marines, who provided fire support for the SDF's Raqqa offensive with artillery guns, were withdrawn from Syria in late 2017 upon completing their mission.
There are still ISIS remnants in eastern Syria which could potentially, under the right circumstances, make a resurgence. That stark possibility was, at least partially, demonstrated when anti-ISIS operations were temporarily halted by the SDF relocating manpower and resources to resist the Turkish invasion of Afrin.
A US withdrawal would likely, as Graham suggested, leave the Kurds victims to more powerful adversaries such as the Turkish or Syrian armies.
"The Kurds need an external backer to protect them from external attack," Aaron Stein, a Senior Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank, told Rudaw English.
"A US withdrawal, absent a negotiated settlement with the regime, will expose them to this attack, either from the Syrian Arab Army, or from Turkey," he elaborated. "Ankara, despite the rhetoric, doesn't want an abrupt US withdrawal. Instead, they are looking to break the US partnership with SDF and create a mechanism to break the SDF's political control over certain cities and replace key officials with members of the Turkish-backed opposition."
The US deployed troops to the SDF-controlled city of Manbij in March 2017 to prevent clashes breaking out between the SDF and Turkish forces there. At present it is reportedly building bases in the city. As Thomas Gibbons-Neff noted in The New York Times, such "structures look much like the fighting positions once seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, which projected a clear message: 'We're here for a while.'"
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reiterated his threats to attack Manbij in recent weeks, especially after defeating the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in their northwestern Afrin Canton. Damascus and Tehran have also voiced their opposition to the SDF/YPG presence in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor and have hinted that they might move in and forcibly recapture those territories.
Erdogan says his aim is to essentially conquer all of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava). He frequently speaks about extending his campaign against the YPG from Afrin eastward into Manbij and then through the Kurdish cities of Kobane and Qamishli all the way to the Syrian border with Iraq. Ankara also threatened to attack the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the Shingal region recently, prompting that group to make an agreement with Baghdad to facilitate their withdrawal.
Asked if another Turkish attack on the Syrian Kurds following a US withdrawal could affect the Kurdistan Region, Stein noted that: "Chaos affects everyone. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has its own issues, but the tensions from any fighting in Rojava boomerangs back into the KRG, even if the leaders of the movements don't get along."
Professor Joshua Landis, a Syria expert from the University of Oklahoma, also predicts that a major power vacuum will result from a US withdrawal from Syria in the foreseeable future that would have with profoundly negative results for the Kurds.
"Ankara and Damascus would race to capture the territory that US troops and the US air force withdraw from," Landis told Rudaw English. "But just because special forces may not be located in Syria that does not mean the US air force would not assist the SDF."
"It is not at all clear to me that the US would abandon the SDF entirely," he concluded.