For the first time in 20 years, Afghanistan is now under the strong arm of the Taliban, witness to chaotic scenes. The presence of the US and its NATO allies forces is missed by the Afghanis who believe that following their exit, the country will be pushed back to witness an era of extremism, violence and human rights violations, just as they did during the Taliban’s reign from 1996 to 2001.
As the world witnessed the disturbing visuals coming from the Hamid Karzai International Airport where people were seen clinging to US aircrafts, eager to leave their homes to avoid the brutality of the Taliban, other “benefactors” of American presence have been watching the events unfold cautiously, hoping that their fates in the Middle East will be different.
The minorities in Syria and Iraq – the Kurds – have found the presence of American forces essential for their protection in territories marked by violence and destruction. Catastrophic images emerging on social media platforms and news networks displaying the triumph of the Taliban and the defeat of America in its longest war, has prompted serious questions among the Kurdish community about their future in Syria and Iraq.
A turmoil is being felt post the US’ exit from Afghanistan, among the Kurds in the north-eastern region of Syria. The distrust had already started to deepen during the Trump administration. Back in 2018, former US President Donald Trump had ordered the withdrawal of America’s forces in the north-eastern of Syria, however, Trump was forced to change his decision and backtrack as criticism mounted over the issue.
In a move that surprised almost everyone, the Trump administration, in 2019, decided to withdraw the US forces from the Kurdish dominated region of Syria. The Kurdish community has been an important ally of the US in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The withdrawal of the US forces led to a major offensive against the SDF (Syrian Democratic Force) by the Turkish forces and its allied militant partners in Syria.
Nawaf Khalil, director of the Germany-based Kurdish Centre for Studies says that the SDF have turned to a dogma of self-reliance over the years, and added that this needs to be further emphasised in preparation for any immediate or sudden US withdrawal.
“The Afghan lesson must definitely be considered by the Kurds and Syrians in general,” Khalil said.
As per reports, the cost of US operations in Syria and Iraq are much smaller as compared to the huge sum of investments in Afghanistan, and it has been anticipated that Kurdish forces are prepared to fight back any insurgency. But amidst the current geopolitical implications of the Taliban’s rise, there is a feeling of uncertainty among the Syrian Kurds.
The mere prediction of the loss of territory and the elimination of Kurdish rights in Syria is an imminent threat standing on the doors of the region. It is not just the threats posed by the ISIL but also by the Syrian government loyal to the President Bashar-al-Assad regime, along with Russia and Turkey. Turkey, which shares a long boundary both with Syria and Iraq with regions dominated by the Kurdish community, sees Kurdish nationalism as a threat to Turkey’s security. It considers the People’s Defense Units (YPG) to be an extension of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), and a designated terrorist organisation.
In the last week of August, Turkey carried out dozens of airstrikes against positions belonging to the SDF, a key ally of the US’ fight against the ISIL. “Turkey has recently increased its drone attacks against our military points and commanders throughout northeast Syria, in places like Kobani, Tell Tamer and most recently in Qamishli… The current political climate doesn’t help Turkey to wage a large-scale ground operation, so instead they use drones and airstrikes to expand their operations,” says Shervan Darwish, a spokesperson for the SDF-affiliated Manbij Military Council, as quoted by the VOA.
Since the sudden withdrawal of US forces from north-east Syria in 2019, Turkish forces along with the militants supported by them now control some parts of the region. The US and Russia have both sponsored separate cease-fire deals, but the situation on the ground is paradoxical.
Expressing its concerns over the military advances in north-east Syria, a letter addressed by the 27 members of the US Congress to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlights the concern over Turkey’s plans to develop its armed drone industry.
The letter says, “Turkey’s use of drones “has destabilized multiple regions of the globe and threatens U.S. interests, allies, and partners…Over the last year, Turkish drones have been deployed by Azerbaijan against Armenian civilians in Artsakh, Syria; against Kurdish forces that have partnered with the U.S. in the war against ISIS; and in Libya’s civil war.” It manifests concerns over the region, where the Kurds are fighting against problematic elements both inside and outside.
The situation in Syria, especially its Kurdish dominated regions, is highly volatile and unpredictable. At a time when the SDF and US forces are fighting hard to destroy the base of the ISIL, the group has continued to create a ruckus in the Middle East and has formed an army of global “Jihadists” ready to join the war for an extremist cause. It has significantly shaped modern day geopolitics and will continue to have further implications. At the same time, Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance is carrying out airstrikes against the SDF, further destabilising the region.
With Russian bombings in Syria and President Al-Bashar-al-Assad’s army enjoying Russian camaraderie, the current geopolitical scenario in the Middle East is mercurial. Looking at the US’ failure in Afghanistan, it seems that a withdrawal from Syria’s north-west region amidst Turkey’s attacks may not be on President Joe Biden’s mind. However, if that happens, the US will not only lose its title of being the biggest power in the world, but would also create disaffections and hostilities with its allies such as the SDF in Syria, which could have serious consequences.
The ongoing crisis in Afghanistan should serve as a key lesson to the US. The country should reaffirm its commitments in Syria to aid and help the Kurds, and avoid a replay of the events that unfolded in Afghanistan at all costs.