We are 100 years from the Paris 1919 conference at which the Great Powers (Britain, the US, France and nominally, Italy) led six months of diplomatic negotiations that shaped peace agreements that closed the door on WWI and set the stage for the wars and geopolitics of the 20th century. One of the failings of that conference was the thwarted self-determination of the Kurdish people, who had expected the creation of their own state out of the Middle Eastern remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Kurdish hopes for statehood were dashed as the Great Powers kept territories for themselves or their friends and allies to whom they owed favours, deserved or not. The Arab tribes who fought for Lawrence of Arabia were not granted their promised Greater Syria either, so no one should imagine that only the Kurds were thwarted in a desire for statehood, but that is a longer story for another time.
Now the Kurds stand abandoned by the United States, whom they supported against ISIS in Syrian territories as an extension of operations in Iraq and with whom they jailed and controlled thousands of ISIS fighters and their families captured in the process. Only a fraction of the Kurdish nation lives in Syria, along a narrow strip that sits near the Iraqi and Turkish borders. The 20 million Kurds are mostly in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq, where Mosul and Erbil are their main cities, so President Donald Trump may have felt that getting squeezed between Syrian and Russian troops to the west and Turkish forces to the east was not worth it, since 1,000 US troops were not going to save 1 million Kurds in any case. He likely figured that they would either flee into the arms of their old oppressor, Assad (which they did) or cross into Kurdish Iraq where there is better infrastructure to support them.
He foresaw a situation where US troops would take heavy casualties on behalf of the Kurds and, literally, not know which way to shoot, east or west. Not wanting to repel Turkey, a NATO ally, or Russian-backed Syrian troops (in Trump’s mind, Putin is also an ally) he figured that the Kurds were unsalvageable and that American deaths would destroy his chances of re-election.
What were his other choices? While there is bilateral and bi-cameral support in the US Congress to keep troops in the area, the potential mission is completely unclear, implausible or untenable. There was no tactical scenario to prevent the clash between the Russians/Syrians and the Turks. At best, the US would have had to threaten major airstrikes on both advancing forces, and if that bluff was called it would create the unthinkable – a three-way hot war between two NATO allies and a totalitarian regime backed by another superpower. If there was a tinder box to start a broader regional war, this would be it. Maybe Trump got this advice packaged in draconian terms and it helped him make up his mind, since he was executing a campaign promise from 2016 to end America’s long, unwinnable wars before the 2020 election cycle. Maybe Turkey’s invasion gave him the trigger to make good on that promise, maybe he encouraged it through back channels, we will never know.
The result will be a standoff between the Russians/Syrians and the Turks, with a zone in eastern Syria left to the Turks where they can send refugees out of their own country. Assad and Putin will be pleased to have the US out of Syria, and perhaps will take on the task of rounding up the ISIS fighters again lest they take up arms against them – after all there will be no more US targets to attack in Syria. US forces in Iraq will attempt to enforce that country’s northern border in cooperation with Iraqi military regulars. The Europeans, who did not lift a finger to help the Kurds while all this was going on, will be relieved that Turkey will not release thousands of more refugees into Europe as they had threatened. The refugees will be pushed into eastern Syria instead. So, in a way, the modern version of the Great Powers wins again, at the Kurds’ expense. History really does repeat itself.