For nearly three years, Sinam Sherkany Mohamad has worked the corridors of power in Washington to drum up American support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which she represents as the U.S. envoy for the Syrian Democratic Council, part of the group’s political wing.
The Kurdish-led SDF still “controls” — as much as that word can be used in the fluid battle lines and alliances of war-torn Syria — a significant chunk of territory in the country’s northeast that it has dubbed the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which it has been essentially governing since 2015.
Mohamad wants to keep it that way.
So she’s been urging the U.S. to step up development, military and political assistance to her fellow Kurds, whom she says are America’s natural allies in Syria, both in terms of democratic values and strategic interests.
Up until recently, Washington seemed to agree with her.
A contingent of around 2,000 U.S. troops trained and assisted the SDF, which was considered a key partner in the fight against the Islamic State.
But last fall, President Trump abruptly declared that he was withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria as part of his vow to end America’s involvement in the “endless wars” of the Middle East.
Trump’s decision drew bipartisan condemnation on Capitol Hill that the U.S. was leaving the Kurds at the mercy of Turkey, which sees Kurdish-led militias in Syria as a security threat because of their links to the PKK, a Kurdish militant group that has fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.
Critics warned that the sudden removal of U.S. troops was a greenlight for Turkey to launch a long-sought-after offensive to seize Kurdish-controlled territory along its Syrian border. Sure enough, Ankara did just, successfully establishing a 20-mile-deep buffer zone along the border — ostensibly to resettle Syrian refugees who had fled to Turkey — that is now patrolled by Turkish and Russian forces.
The operation pushed the SDF inland and forced it out of several towns.
Despite the military defeat, the Kurds are still very much in the game because, like many of Trump’s hasty pronouncements, a full withdrawal of U.S. forces never came to pass.
Today, roughly 500 U.S. troops remain in Syria’s northeast, working alongside the SDF to protect the territory’s oil fields from the Islamic State.
But while the Kurds are trying to fend off the Islamic State and Turkey on one hand, they must also keep a wary eye on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with whom they cut a deal to keep Turkish forces at bay during last year’s offensive. But that marriage of convenience probably won’t protect the Kurds from Assad’s own ambitions, which include absorbing the SDF into his army and taking control of the lucrative territory on which they sit.
Boxed in on all sides, the SDF must carefully navigate the political and military jockeying among Syria’s myriad players — Assad, Russia, Iran, Turkey, rebels of all stripes, the Islamic State and even other competing Kurdish factions — if it wants to have a role in post-war Syria.
And then there’s the United States, whose support has been so far critical to ensuring the Kurds’ survival but is in no way guaranteed under a president who says the battle for Syria “has nothing to do with us.”
“Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out,” Trump tweeted shortly after his withdrawal announcement.
As for the Kurds, the president wrote that they “fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so. They have been fighting Turkey for decades. I held off this fight for almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.”
During our interview, Mohamad, who established the Syrian Democratic Council office in D.C. in late 2017, repeatedly thanked the U.S. for its assistance.
And she’s lobbying for more of it, arguing that it’s a relatively small investment that has paid big dividends, especially when it comes to security.
“We are defeating ISIS on behalf of all the humanity of the world, which has been threatened by this terrorist group,” Mohamad told us.
Since 2015, battle-hardened Kurdish fighters have indeed successfully beat back the Islamic State, in the process carving out a large swath of territory for themselves.
Today, Mohamad estimates there are 10,000 to 12,000 Islamic State fighters in prisons guarded by the SDF. And while apocalyptic predictions of those fighters escaping en masse as soon as U.S. troops departed did not materialize, Mohamad said the SDF does not have the resources to keep monitoring so many high-risk detainees — let alone try them in a court of law.
She lamented that despite the SDF’s pleas, other countries have refused to repatriate the foreign fighters in those prisons. “Nobody listens to us,” she said, “which is a very heavy burden on our shoulders.”
The SDF also oversees refugee camps like al-Hol that house tens of thousands of women and children, many related to Islamic State fighters. Mohamad says these camps are extremist breeding grounds.
“It is very dangerous because the women in these camps, they are educating their children in this ideology of ISIS,” she said, warning that without outside intervention, “after many years, that boy of 7 years old will be a new member of ISIS.”
Mohamad pointed out that despite the ongoing dangers posed by Islamic State sleeper cells and the ravages of war elsewhere in the country, the Kurds have brought stability to an area that’s roughly one-quarter the size of Syria and home to more than 4 million people, “providing them daily with services like education, electricity, water and even security.”
Moreover, she said, the Syrian Democratic Council — a confederation of multiethnic political parties, civil society groups and other organizations established in 2015 — shares the same liberal values as the West.
That includes democracy, religious freedom, minority rights and, in particular, women’s rights. In fact, the SDF boasts military units comprised of women fighters, and women make up about half of government positions in the SDC. Mohamad herself has been a leading advocate of women’s empowerment for over two decades.
The mother of four — who previously served as the SDC’s representative to Europe from 2014 to 2017 — said this embrace of diversity and democracy could serve as a model not only for Syria, but for the larger Middle East.
“We have Yazidis, we have Muslims, we have Assyrian Christians, we have Alevis in our region,” she said.
That’s why she’s pushing for the SDF to be included in constitutional reform talks spearheaded by the U.N. in Geneva. “Just imagine, [Syria’s] northeast, which is about 4 million people, they don’t have any representatives in the peace talks.”
But she says Turkey has vetoed the idea of including Kurds in any negotiations on Syria’s future.
And while Mohamad says she’s had many meetings with State Department officials and U.S. lawmakers who’ve been generally supportive of her cause, the meetings have not yielded tangible results — and, in some cases, have revealed the confusing nature of U.S. policy under Trump.
“[T]he policies are not always clear to us — what are you going to do in the region? Are you going to stay? Are you going to withdraw? And if you withdraw, what is the result will be?” she said. “We want to see the action, not only words.”
Among the action items she’d like to see: development and humanitarian assistance for her region; governance and civil society training; military equipment and supplies for the SDF; greater counter-terrorism cooperation; and U.S. pressure on Turkey to leave the region.
That wish list may be a tall order under Trump, who’s been itching to bring American troops home from the Middle East since his first day in office — most recently, he further drew down the number of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq — and who hopes that by keeping his promise, voters will keep him in office after November.
Mohamad said she understands the president has bigger worries in the midst of a fierce re-election campaign — not to mention a raging pandemic. But she criticized Trump’s decision last fall to suddenly withdraw all troops from Syria, calling it “catastrophic for our people,” who were forced to ask “the regime in Syria and also Russia to protect us from Turkey.”
Asked point-blank if the White House abandoned the Kurds, Mohamad hesitated to use that word, but she did say that her people felt betrayed.
The U.S. “said that we are a partnership in countering terrorism and ISIS, and we paid about 11,000 of our young men and women in order to defeat ISIS and protect the whole world from this terrorist group,” she told us. “We were happy with the partnership with the United States and the global coalition, and suddenly you open the way for Turkey to come in, attacking us, killing our people and you are just walking away. So this is what upsets our people in the region. Because they have the hope that the U.S. will rescue them and will support them to build stability in the region.”
Yet Trump has made it abundantly clear he’s not coming to the rescue, saying that “we never agreed to protect the Kurds … for the rest of their lives.”
‘It Wasn’t Important’
At first glance, Robert Ford — a veteran U.S. diplomat and former ambassador to Syria who is now with Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and the D.C.-based Middle East Institute — may not seem like the type to agree with Trump’s “America First” ethos.
Ford spent his time in Syria from 2011 to 2014 trying to defend human rights in the face of Assad’s brutal crackdown, and he served five years in Iraq helping the country establish a new constitution.
While he’s no isolationist, Ford said he agrees with the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.
“The rollout was terrible. The lack of coordination with our own military and State Department and with people in Syria was terrible, but the broad goal I thought made sense,” he told us during a phone interview.
The main reason why is that “a long-term U.S. military presence in eastern Syria is in our national security interest,” Ford said. “We don’t have any long-term interest there. In fact, how many Americans have even heard of Kobani?”
“When I went there as ambassador in 2011, we didn’t even know anything about northeastern Syria. I had the intelligence agencies come and brief me about the Syrian Kurdish community and everything that they seemed to know I could have written down on two single-spaced pages. And there’s a reason for that. It just wasn’t that important to the United States,” he said.
“I had worked in Iraq for five years before I went to Syria as ambassador. We knew tons about the Iraqi Kurds — tons and tons. We knew the people, the leaders, the towns that have the economic structures, tribal structures. We had no corresponding depth of information about the Kurdish communities on the other side of the Euphrates River,” he continued. “Part of that is the Assad government didn’t want us to know. They made travel up there difficult. The other part was it didn’t really matter to us.”
As for the argument that the U.S. should support the SDF because it’s been instrumental in containing the Islamic State, Ford argues that “there’s a fundamental flaw with that strategy.”
“On the other side of the [Euphrates] River — where the Syrian government is in control with Russian and Iranian backing — ISIS is already present, it’s regrouping and it’s even now attacking Syrian forces. There’s nothing we’re doing about that rising ISIS problem,” he said. “So I don’t understand how we’re going to contain ISIS in Syria if on the west side of the river, we have no strategy.”
Ford does not discount the tremendous sacrifices that the Kurds made in beating back the Islamic State, but he points out that the SDF’s military campaign was as self-serving as it was brave.
“It was not an act of benevolence on their part. They wanted to get ISIS away from their own communities as far as they could throw them — perfectly understandable,” Ford said.
“And we had an interest in whacking ISIS and cutting it down to size and containing it. And so we shared an interest with that militia [SDF] to fight ISIS,” he added, noting that Syrian Kurds are not a monolith and it’s important to remember that the SDF — an alliance originally formed between the Kurdish YPG militia and smaller Arab rebels — represents one particular faction.
“But that does not mean we have a long-term commitment to that militia or its associated political party or even to those communities. There are lots of occasions in national security policy where you make short-term alliances that don’t mean you have a long-term commitment. It’s not like a marriage.”
Another noted Syria expert, Joshua Landis, agrees that the U.S. does not have an explicit national security rationale for being in Syria, but he says the U.S. does have its reasons for maintaining a presence in the country.
“What the U.S. is really doing there is countering Russia,” Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told us.
“As [State Department special envoy to Syria] James Jeffrey has said, it’s to turn Syria into a quagmire for the Russians, the Iranians. And that means withholding as much money as possible and Syria’s natural resources from the government in Damascus, so that it’s dependent on Russia and Iran to keep its nose from going underneath the water.”
Landis, who writes the newsletter Syria Comment, said America’s involvement in Syria is also “about keeping our friends happy” — namely Israel, which staunchly opposes Iran’s influence in the country. (In fact, on the day of our interview with Landis, Israel launched airstrikes in Syria that reportedly killed several Iran-backed paramilitary fighters.)
“Israel is worried about Syria and its relationship with Iran, and therefore it has a big interest in the United States staying in Syria,” Landis said. “And I assume that pro-Israeli interests in Washington will work closely with the Kurds to promote this love affair between Americans and the Kurds.”
“The Kurds, we have to remember, have a ton of goodwill,” Landis pointed out. “For quite a period of time, there’s been a love story going on between the American people and the Kurds. And the Syrian Democratic [Council] … is the Cupid in this love affair.”
Mohamad didn’t quite frame it in those terms, but she did say there is a natural affinity between Kurds and Americans because of the values they share.
Landis said the Kurds often tout these values, reminding Americans that they are “the most likely people in Syria to advance some form of power-sharing, of getting along with Arabs, in this region; that their administration … has been better than anybody else’s — kinder, gentler; that they promote equal rights for women; and that the entire ideological thrust of … the SDF is more akin to what America is trying to promote in the region than any other group — certainly more than the Arab rebels, who in Idlib are led by an al-Qaeda affiliate today, and much more so than Assad.”
“And that story — it’s a good story. It’s not purely propaganda,” he said.
But it might not have the kind of storybook ending the Kurds are hoping for — especially when it comes to their ultimate goal: securing autonomy for their region.
“The Kurds are about 2 million people in Syria,” Landis explained. “They are the poorest populations in Syria traditionally, and the least developed in terms of universities, schooling, infrastructure. They’ve been neglected by the central government. And so the chances of them standing on their own two feet once America withdraws is almost zero because they’ve got three countries surrounding them that are totally hostile to their independence or autonomy.”
“Turkey, of course, wants to destroy them — lock, stock and barrel. Syria wants to bring them back into an Arab republic and not accord them any serious privileges or national rights. And Iraq doesn’t want them to have it because they fear that they’ll lose their northern Kurdish provinces themselves,” Landis said.
“They’re surrounded by enemies, and they don’t have an air force. Not having an air force, of course, is their greatest weakness because all these other powers do have an air force and can bomb the hell out of them and will do so the moment America leaves,” he added. “We could stay there for five, 15, 20 years, but eventually we’re going to go home and they’re going to get crushed.”
Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions against the Syrian regime — no matter how tough — aren’t going to save the Kurds from Assad’s ambitions either, Landis argues.
Calling the most recent U.S. sanctions levied under the Caesar Act “lipstick on a pig,” the professor dismissed the official U.S. line that the sanctions are targeted and not aimed at the general population.
He points out that they raise the price “of everything for everybody” by 30% to 35%, limit access to essentially goods like medicine and make any reconstruction virtually impossible.
“They aren’t punishing the elite. Or Assad,” Landis said. “Assad will get three square meals a day, even if he has to fly them in from Paris.”
Even with several hundred American troops on the ground, both Landis and Ford say America’s influence over Assad remains limited.
“I have been listening to my colleagues in the think tank community and in the U.S. government since 2016 say, ‘By holding the east, we will compel Assad to make political concessions and get a deal on the constitution,’” Ford said. “It’s now 2020. I have yet to see the Americans be able to compel Assad to make a concession by holding territory. I just don’t believe it.”
Neither does Landis.
“Obviously, withholding a big hunk of Syria and a very valuable Syria from the Syrian government does give America some leverage. America can bribe the Syrian government into doing quite a few different things — possibly. It’s not going to be able to get Assad to step aside,” he said. “Assad won the war, and Russia and Iran have a great interest in keeping him in power.”
Ford agrees that “the Russians aren’t going to let Bashar al-Assad collapse and then let chaos erupt in Damascus.”
But acknowledging Russia’s role as kingmaker in Syria is anathema to U.S. policymakers who argue that Washington shouldn’t allow the country to fall into the Kremlin’s hands.
Ford dismisses such talk.
“I wouldn’t say it’s giving it to Russia. Russia already has it. Even before the Syrian uprising started, Russia was the predominant form of influence in Syria, along with Iran.”
His advice to the Kurds, then, is to ignore the U.N. constitutional talks — which he says “are of no value whatsoever” — and negotiate directly with Russia.
To a degree that’s already been happening. Just recently, an SDC delegation traveled to Moscow to sign a memorandum of understanding with a Russian-backed Syrian opposition group and cool tensions after the SDF reportedly signed a deal with a U.S. energy company to modernize oil fields in the northeast.
Cutting a Deal with Damascus
Most experts say Russia is one half of the equation. The other half is Damascus.
Landis said the SDF did reach out to Assad when Trump made his withdrawal announcement. While he agreed to limit Turkey’s incursion, he’s refused to countenance any form of autonomy for the Kurds.
Mohamad acknowledged that while the SDF has had meetings with Damascus, Assad hasn’t budged.
“Unfortunately the Syrian government still has the same mentality that they want to control the whole of Syria — as it was before the Arab Spring.”
Mohamad said the Assad regime believes that if it wins on the battlefield, it will also win politically, but “that doesn’t make any sense” because Syria’s “social fabric has been torn apart” by nearly a decade of war.
Syria is no longer a unified nation, Mohamad says. “Syria is Alawites, Syria is Kurds, Syria is Assyrian Christians, Yazidis and so on” — ethnicities that can no longer co-exist as they did before 2011.
That’s why Mohamad argues that Syria would be better off if Damascus adopted a decentralized, federalized model.
It’s unlikely Assad — who has the military edge — would agree to devolve power to different regions, but we asked Mohamad what the SDF would do if he granted the Kurds autonomy?
“If it happens, OK, we will consider being part of the Syrian Army in the future,” she told us.
The problem, according to Landis, is that the Kurds “won’t get nine-tenths of what they want.”
“What they want is schooling, [preservation] of their language, to have their own separate army, their own separate administration, and [to] deal with Damascus as equals. They’re not going to get that. They’re not they’re not going to get what Iraqi Kurds have,” he asserted.
So what can they get?
“What they’ll get is integration into the Syrian Army. Damascus absolutely needs the Kurds to police this giant area, because there are no Alawites who live there.”
Landis said the fact that Assad’s government has always relied on ethnic minorities is the Kurds’ biggest advantage.
“As we saw in this civil war … the Alawites were the people he depended on the most — his co-religionists, who are 12% of the country. And they died in extraordinarily high numbers to preserve his government. But Christians, Druze, Ismailis also died in order to preserve it because they were all fearful of Islamic fundamentalists coming to power in Damascus and treating them like dirt,” Landis said.
“So the Kurds are a minority. They’re Muslims, but they are a minority. And the Kurds fear the Arab insurgency much more than they fear Damascus. They don’t like Damascus because Damascus is not giving them what they want, but they have worked constantly with Damascus because they realize that Damascus is much better for them than the Arab rebels, than ISIS or al-Qaeda.
“So Assad, as a [minority-dependent] regime, needs to bring the Kurds into his fold and cut a deal with them. And what he’s given them in the past is some cut of the oil,” he continued, noting that oil could still be the Kurds’ best bargaining chip.
“If they negotiate and say, ‘Look, we’ll bring this [oil] back to Damascus but you give us a 60/40 share on the oil — they could get that,” Landis said.
“Yes, it would cost them …. but throughout this entire long war, the Kurds have had an understanding with Damascus on issues like oil. After all, the Kurds have nowhere to send their oil but to Damascus, where all the refineries are. And the Kurds need refined oil, which they get back from Damascus.”
Landis added that if the U.S. stays in the region for, say, another four years and helps the Kurds build up their oil refinery capacity, they would be in a much better negotiating position with Damascus.
Marshall Plan, or Echoes of Vietnam?
That’s why some scholars back Mohamad’s call for the U.S. to stay in the region while Syria’s power brokers hammer out the country’s future.
Jomana Qaddour of the Atlantic Council, who’s a member of the U.N.-facilitated Syrian Constitutional Committee, and Cansu Camlibel, editor-in-chief of the Istanbul-based newspaper Duvar English, argue that military might translates into bargaining power.
“Nine years on, the war continues to demonstrate that those with military power on the ground or in the skies will be the ultimate deciders of Syria’s fate,” they wrote in a June 25 policy analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The small but lethal U.S. military presence in the northeast and south has given Washington powerful leverage to ensure that its anti-Iranian and anti-IS priorities are respected.”
To that end, they argue that U.S. troops should continue to help the SDF protect the region’s oil fields, maintain security at detention centers and build up the SDF’s military and administrative capacity.
“The U.S. presence gives the SDF an option that is preferable to simply accepting whatever deal Moscow and Damascus might offer in the short term,” they conclude.
Fabrice Balanche, an adjunct fellow with the Washington Institute, also recommends that rival Kurdish factions iron out their differences to present a united front against Russia and Turkey — facilitated by U.S. support.
“What is required,” he wrote on July 1, “is Western political determination against Russia and Turkey’s strategies, supported by a sufficient military presence to dissuade external coup efforts and a Marshall Plan-style humanitarian and economic campaign to reduce internal tensions.”
Ford, however, says America’s past military adventures illustrate the futility of trying to remake or rescue societies in the Middle East.
“I’m very much reminded of Robert McNamara and his conclusion about the Vietnam War — that Vietnam was a place we couldn’t fix. And we just needed to cut our losses,” he said of Syria.
Ford noted that a potential Biden administration — which would likely include former Obama officials like Brett McGurk, the former special envoy to combat ISIS — would probably support some sort of ongoing U.S. military presence in Syria and take a tougher stance against Turkey.
“And so, frankly, were I a YPG commander, I would certainly hope for Biden’s victory and not Trump’s.”
Yet Landis said it’s not out of the question that even with a second Trump presidency, U.S. troops stay put in Syria.
“Trump has got his alibi — his ‘I’ve got the oil’ alibi,” Landis said. “And even though that’s not true and the oil doesn’t make America rich, and we’re just wasting our money there in some ways, he’s got his set of talking points, which is we’re fighting ISIS, we’re helping Israel, we’re leveraging Assad, who’s evil. You can tick down those things and it doesn’t cost that much. So it’s the least of his worries for the Middle East. Of course, it’s the easiest to disrupt if you’re trying to make a point. But most Americans have forgotten that we’re in Syria. It’s not a big ticket item. Afghanistan, Iraq are much bigger ticket items.”
While Landis’s argument may be sound — and advantageous to the Kurds — relying on American indifference is a cold political calculation for Mohamad (even if the Kurds, too, make their own realpolitik calculations).
Mohamad said she understands the politics at play in Syria, but for her, the situation is also deeply personal.
Born in Damascus, Mohamad graduated from the University of Aleppo and has lived throughout Syria.
“I have many friends who are Christians from Homs, Sunnis from Aleppo and Alawites. I didn’t feel we had differences at that time. We were in high school studying together. So I’m sorry now what’s happened to Syria. I’m sorry to see how these Muslim Sunni extremists killed the Alawites because they are Alawites. They are killing the Kurds only because they are Kurds,” she said, becoming emotional.
“I never expect that the Syrian people would be like that … because the people are educated, they are very civilized, they have very open minds.”
At one point, her family ran a lucrative business in the city of Afrin, but after the 2018 Turkish invasion to oust the SDF from the area, over 300,000 people were displaced, including Mohamad’s family.
She said the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army seized the family’s Afrin home and factory, which had manufactured olive oil tanks and bottles — as part of Turkey’s campaign to loot the city and cleanse it of its Kurdish identity.
Today, her two daughters — one a doctor, the other an IT engineer — are married and live abroad. Her husband and two grown sons live in another part of Syria after being threatened and displaced from Afrin. Mohamad, too, cannot return to Afrin as long as Turkish-backed forces are there because of her work with the SDF.
So she has been in the U.S. without her family since late 2017 advocating for the SDF. And while the plight of her family — and that of thousands of other families in similar situations — lends a personal impetus to her mission, she’s also clear-eyed about what’s in it for America if it stays in Syria — insisting that it’s beneficial not only for the Kurds, but for the U.S. as well.
“I believe it remains in the U.S. national interest, based on the fact that other foreign interests operating in Syria are hostile to the U.S., for the United States to continue supporting the SDF. There is a mutual interest,” she said. “When the day comes when Syria is peaceful and secure, without external forces challenging our sovereignty and controlling land, we will be prepared to speak with our American friends about stepping back from their support. Whatever the case, we look forward to a longstanding friendship with the United States.”
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.