As the US reduces its presence in the Middle East, the future of the terror group becomes more uncertain.
The United States is withdrawing from Afghanistan, reducing its troops in the Middle East, and focusing on the Pacific and China. Now, the US president has announced that the US combat mission in Iraq will termnate by year’s end.
The shift from a US combat role to one focused on training and advising the Iraqi security forces may also follow a reduction in the number of troops deployed in Iraq. While US officials underline that this reflects the reality on the ground more than a major shift in US policy, the decision is a reminder of the situation in Syria.
The YPG terror group, the Syrian branch of the PKK, has focused its entire strategy on building a statelet in Syria based on American support. If the US abandons them, their house of cards will fall apart. Even if Russia steps in, the YPG is not capable of continuing its governance model without the US subsidising it.
Over the years, US support for the YPG has helped the group to increase its territorial ambitions. They entered the city of Raqqa and went south to the desert of Deir Ezzor. While the US pushed the YPG towards the south, Turkey and the Syrian Interim Government restricted areas in the north from the YPG – areas the YPG ideologically claims for itself.
While the discrepancy between territorial control and territorial claim grews, the YPG was shocked by the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw entirely from Syria. Only the plot of ‘protecting the oil’ played by Senate figures and CENTCOM convinced Trump to remain in parts of Syria.
CENTCOM handed over its bases to Russia to prevent a Turkish-Syrian military operation, and Russia became the new protector of the YPG. Currently, YPG-held areas such as Tal Rifat, Manbij, Ayn al Arab, Ayn Issa, Amuda, Dirbasiyah, and Qamishli are protected by the Russian military. The US remained in the east within a strip from Malikiyah to DeirEzzor.
Under the current circumstances, a duality has emerged. The Russian military is protecting the YPG from further military defeat while the US train & equip program, as well as financial aid, enables YPG governance. Moreover, the remaining limited US presence gives the YPG the political space needed to resist Russian demands to come under the control of the Bashar al Assad regime. By playing the US against Russia, the YPG ensures the continuity of its governance model of democratic confederalism – an idea adapted from Murray Bookchin by PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
The YPG has managed to make enemies of both its neighbours and of those living under their control. Turkey, the Syrian Interim Government, the Kurdish Regional Government, and most of the local Arab and Kurdish people oppose the YPG. Only the Assad regime engages with the YPG to instrumentalise it against the legitimate Syrian opposition and its strongest supporter, Turkey. The regime sees the Syrian Interim Government as an urgent existential threat while the YPG can be dealt with later.
The Syrian Interim Government’s agenda covers all of Syria and formulates itself as an alternative for all of Syria, while the YPG only focuses on parts of the country. This allows the Assad regime to formulate a pragmatic approach by sending military units to aid the YPG along the frontlines with the Syrian Interim Government and the border with Turkey.
When it comes to populations in YPG-held areas, the totalitarianism of the YPG is opposed by locals. Syrians in YPG-held areas are constantly trying to flee to Turkey, Iraq, and areas held by the Syrian Interim Government.
The YPG’s already precarious situation is facing another threat as the US is continually reducing its role in the Middle East as it ends its combat mission in Iraq. Without the US presence in Iraq, the American role in Syria can’t be sustained. If the assistance mission to the Iraqi army ends in the future, the mission in Syria will end as well. The YPG’s governance model will always be contingent on the US abandoning it, and without the US, its structure will collapse immediately.
The YPG can buy time by making deals with the Russians, but its governance structures will not survive. Their pursuit of a statelet in Syria will be drained of oxygen without the US. Moscow will most likely request the Assad regime to be in charge of governance. However, Russia may accept the operational continuity of the YPG – as the experience in Tal Rifat shows. Russia seems interested in instrumentalising the YPG against the Syrian Interim Government and Turkey as a proxy force rather than a local administration and local partner as the US does.
The duality in Syria of Russia securing the terrorist activities of the YPG, and the US securing its terror governance and armed strength holds new risks for Syrians and Turks. To ensure Syria’s territorial integrity and the security of Turkey and the Syrian Interim Government, a dual approach is needed. On one side, both nations should work on convincing the US and Russia, on the other hand, they need to show strength using military power. If Syrians and Turks do not resolve the terror threat of the YPG, no one else will.