Withdrawing From Syria: Who Are We Leaving?

By Elisabeth Seiple and Molly Voit

In December 2018, President Trump announced plans to begin the withdrawal of all American troops from Syria, where they have been stationed since 2014. The announcement came at a time when Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his regime had regained the majority of their territory and were swiftly re-enforcing their authoritarian hold over the country. Meanwhile, in the North, Kurdish forces, who previously relied on the US for the protection of their autonomous region, face an uncertain future.

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurdish people are an ethnic group concentrated in Turkey, Northern Syria, and Northwestern Iraq. They have been fighting for an independent Kurdistan since World War I, when the major European powers defined the perimeters of the Middle Eastern countries after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. These borders ignored pre-existing ethnic and religious differences, setting up the region for years of conflict as various groups of people were suddenly expected to work together under one cohesive national identity. These arbitrarily drawn borders are arguably the main source of contention for the 30-45 million Kurds around the world, who, despite their large number and strong sense of Kurdish national identity, were overlooked in the creation of the modern Middle Eastern states.

Why are there Kurdish militias?

Networks of Kurdish militias have been fighting since the 1920s for a free and independent Kurdistan. Many of the groups stem from a larger militia called the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The PKK is based mainly in Turkey and Iraq and is considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government because of their aim of establishing an independent Kurdistan, which would most likely mean carving out territory from southern Turkey. The US supports a specific Syrian offshoot of the PKK, the YPG (the People’s Protection Unit), due to its invaluable leadership in the fight against ISIS in Syria. The YPG was able to establish the autonomous region of Rojava in Northern Syria because of the weakened state of the al-Assad regime (which, before the war, refused to even acknowledge the existence of the Kurdish population). In Rojava, the eco-socialist YPG pushed for gender equality and religious tolerance and was even highlighted by the international press as showing the early signs of a democracy, an incredibly rare feat in the Middle East. The YPG’s goal differs slightly from the larger goal of the PKK in that their main demand is not the immediate establishment of Kurdistan, but rather the federalization of Syria in order to protect the autonomy of Rojava while the Assad regime regains controls of the rest of the country.

Why are American troops in Syria?

Under President Obama’s administration in 2015, 50 American troops were sent to Syria as part of a US air campaign against ISIS in Syria. Since then, the number of troops deployed in Syria has grown to 2,000. These troops, according to Military Times, have “recruited, organized and advised thousands of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters, dubbed the Syrian Democratic Forces, and pushed ISIS out of most of its strongholds.” Additionally, since arriving in Syria, troops have launched airstrikes in 17,000 locations and killed or captured thousands of ISIS members. US military officials have said there are still an estimated 2,000 insurgencies in the Middle Euphrates River Valley area that they have not yet reached. According to the New York Times Foreign Correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, territory occupied by ISIS in Iraq and Syria has decreased to 1% of what was formerly held, but there are still more active ISIS fighters than had been estimated by the CIA during ISIS’s peak. This decrease in the land controlled by ISIS is one of the major reasons President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw American troops from Syria on December 19th, 2018. President Trump tweeted that American troops “defeated ISIS in Syria” and “we’re slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time, fighting ISIS remnants.”

What does this mean for the Kurdish militia?

Turkey considers any form of Kurdish state or militia an imminent threat to Turkish sovereignty and therefore aims to completely wipe out Kurdish militia cells. The US troops have provided the Syrian Kurdish militia with protection that is essential to the militia’s survival. Without their backing, it’s unclear and unlikely that the Kurdish militia in Syria will be able to continue both existing and maintaining its autonomy.

Does the Trump Administration acknowledge this potential danger?

When the Trump Administration first announced its plans to pull troops from Syria, they released no information in regards to their plans, if any, to limit the unavoidable conflict between Turkey and the Kurds. Recently, the Trump administration has broken their silence to say that they do want to ensure protection for the Kurds from Turkish violence, but they still want to pull out troops. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated: “The president expressed the desire to work together to address Turkey’s security concerns in northeast Syria while stressing the importance to the United States that Turkey does not mistreat the Kurds and other Syrian Democratic Forces with whom we fought to defeat ISIS.” National security advisor John Bolton also stated that the US will only withdraw from the region under the conditions that ISIS is fully eradicated and the Syrian Kurds are promised an unspecified level of protection. It’s unclear whether or not Trump will be able to secure this protection before pulling out of the region, as no agreement has been made as of yet.

Have attempts to reach an agreement by the Trump administration worked?

Trump has threatened to “devastate the Turkish economy” in the event that they “mistreat” the Syrian Kurds in the US’s absence. He has also warned the Syrian Kurds not to “provoke” the Turkish government. Overall, the administration and Trump personally seem to be at odds over their conditions for withdrawal. Trump’s public stance on the issue seems to fluctuate depending on which sides’ leaders he’s addressing, but he leans towards pulling out troops first and protecting the Kurds after. However the administration’s stance seems to be much more concrete on the side of securing Kurdish safety before the withdrawal can occur. Whatever next steps the administration takes, it will send a message to the rest of the world about how the US treats their allies when war is over.


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