The warning signs were there all along, yet President Donald Trump’s brusque decision to pull U.S. forces out of northeast Syria nevertheless stunned Syria’s Kurds. Overnight, their dream of establishing an autonomous Kurdish region has been dashed, and they must now choose between a return to the mountains in a bid for survival, or staying put, awaiting a resurgent Assad regime and what it has in mind for them after six years of self-rule.
The fear of betrayal by superior powers is written into the Kurds’ DNA. Their birth as one of the world’s largest nonstate nations from the wreckage of the Ottoman empire derived from a broken promise by the victors of World War I, or this is how the Kurds see it. Divided over four states—Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria—since then, they have fought and died in search of freedom and nationhood. Their successes invariably proved short-lived; each time, a vacuum they had exploited disappeared. Powerful allies on whose support they thought they could rely abandoned them.
They had pressed for advantage in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which allowed Iraqi Kurds to establish a federal region; and again following popular protests in Syria in 2011, which evolved into a civil war, thereby creating a vacuum in the northeast that Syrian Kurds were quick to fill. When the Islamic State emerged on the scene in 2014, the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria readily joined the U.S. alliance forged to fight the group, which posed a direct threat to them. They had hoped that loyal support for the United States would translate, at war’s end, into Washington’s backing for steps toward Kurdish national objectives.