Turkey may not kill the Kurdish fighters in northern Syria and a U.S. withdrawal from the country will not happen without a deal to protect them, White House national security advisor John Bolton told reporters on Sunday.
Bolton described this stipulation as President Donald Trump’s position, responding to numerous questions over Washington’s support for its Kurdish partners — its foremost local allies in the anti-Islamic State (IS) fight in Syria — in the wake of the president’s surprise announcement on December 19 to pull the roughly 2,000 deployed U.S. troops from the war-torn country.
Speaking during a visit to Israel intended in part to reassure allies amid criticism over the White House’s Syria decision, Bolton added that Trump “wants the ISIS caliphate destroyed.” Trump earlier touted complete victory over IS, the fight against whom was the primary reason for U.S. troop presence in Syria and its support for Kurdish militia fighters known as the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
Scores of military officials, regional analysts and senior lawmakers, meanwhile, insist that IS still remains a capable force and could witness a resurgence if U.S. troops leave. They also warn against abandoning the Kurds, whose forces suffered thousands of casualties fighting at the behest of the U.S. Such was the opposition to Trump’s move that it prompted the resignation of former Defense Secretary James Mattis and the top U.S. envoy to the global anti-IS coalition Brett McGurk.
Credited as the most effective force in driving IS out of Syria, the group is seen by Turkey’s government as intimately tied to Kurdish insurgents who have long carried out acts of terrorism against the Turkish state, and Ankara has repeatedly threatened to attack them in northeastern Syria. Turkey has already launched previous offensives against Kurds, taking territory from them in Syria’s northwest. Representatives of the Kurdish forces have described the U.S. withdrawal announcement as a shock and a betrayal of trust.
Trump defended his decision on the conviction that other countries should take on the burden of fighting whatever remains of IS, and has made tentative agreements with Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan to essentially hand over the job to the Turks. Erdogan has promised that his forces, along with their own allied Syrian fighters, will take up the anti-IS fight — but it’s a promise that critics view as a cover for attacking the Kurdish YPG who control territory in Syria’s northeast.
Fear of a Turkish assault has prompted the Kurds to increase their engagement with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, who they see as potentially providing them protection from the Turks. Security experts also fear that a Turkish offensive would distract the Kurds from their continued pushback against IS resurgence.
The territory is highly strategic for all parties involved: bordered by Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east and the Euphrates river to the west, it holds some of Syria’s richest oil and agricultural resources and has been a main revenue source for the Kurds. The Assad regime, which seeks to reassert its sovereignty over it, sees the land as vital to future reconstruction efforts.