How such pledges square with the notion that the U.S. mission in Syria is limited to defeating ISIS is unclear. Defending the SDF from its enemies exceeds the parameters of an anti-ISIS campaign, not to mention the 2001 congressional authorization for use of military force against al-Qaeda. Yet the Trump administration’s proposed defense budget for 2019 aims to transform the SDF into a 35,000-man local security force, at a cost of another $300 million in 2019; this would come on top of the $393 million it plans to spend on ammunition and weapons for the group this fiscal year; the total amount set to be spent on the SDF this year is $500 million. The Trump administration also wants to erect a local government in eastern Syria to fight against ISIS and, should the need arise, the Syrian government. The message, it seems, is that Washington has big plans for the Syrian Kurds.
On January 11, David Satterfield, the acting assistant secretary of state for near east affairs, offered something of a preview of those plans. He told senators that, as the United States works to stabilize northeastern Syria, it would push for the “emergence of a different kind of local governance-based political structure” there. What might this entail? According to a State Department official I spoke to, this program will involve helping the SDF rebuild local government and vital infrastructure—a herculean task for the seven to 10 U.S. foreign service officers and aid officials Satterfield said would be deploying to northeastern Syria alongside U.S. soldiers. The Trump administration has, so far, said nothing publicly about strategies, benchmarks, or timelines for a project that, to a significant degree, smacks of nation-building.
The Trump administration is deepening its partnership with the SDF seemingly with little consideration for the full political or human consequences of such a choice. Russia, Iran, and the Syrian government, have all denounced the U.S. goal of building up local governments in eastern Syria. And Turkey, America’s problematic NATO ally, is furious. The U.S. military customarily denies any links between the SDF and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey’s enemy. In his testimony, Satterfield acknowledged links between some of America’s Syrian-Kurdish militia allies and the PKK—in itself, a newsy admission—and asserted that the SDF’s leadership recognized it must change.
But any signs of such a shift are scant. For months in northeastern Syria, the SDF’s policy of forced conscription has aggravated relations between Arabs and Kurds and hampered rebuilding efforts. In mid-January, the killing of two Arabs in SDF custody inflamed tensions in Kurdish-dominated Manbij. On February 15, the local affiliate of the independent group “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” reported that Kurdish SDF officials in two towns had ordered shopkeepers to close their stores and join demonstrations demanding that Turkey release Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader. After Turkey attacked the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, many SDF fighters left the battle against ISIS to fight the Turks, according to local and western journalists.