Country Risk

US’s Syria withdrawal incompatible with stated commitment to protect Kurdish militias, undermining prospects for post-war Kurdish autonomy

10 January 2019

Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) attend the funeral of an assassinated official in Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli on 31 December 2018. Source: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

Key Points

  • Recent statements by Trump's advisers indicate a continued commitment to "protect the Kurds", referring to the US allies Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG), from a Turkish military operation. If the US does withdraw ground troops, protecting the YPG would only be possible with an unlikely YPG-Syrian government deal, or an indefinite continuation of US air support for the Kurdish militias.
  • The timeline for the US's withdrawal and whether it will continue providing air support for the YPG will be the key variables determining the YPG's negotiating power vis-à-vis the Damascus government and ultimately its ability to establish an autonomous region in northeast Syria, thus shaping the political appearance of post-war Syria as the country's eight-year-long civil war gradually draws to a close.
  • Trump still appears intent to pull US military personnel out of Syria. His demonstrated willingness to make unilateral decisions that contradict his advisers means that a withdrawal could take place regardless of the more recent reassertion of commitment to protecting the YPG.


US President Donald Trump stated on 6 January 2019 that "we will not be finally pulled out until [the Islamic State] is gone", in an apparent moderation of his initial announcement, made on 19 December, pledging to fully withdraw US troops from Syria within 30 days.

Furthermore on 6 January, National Security Adviser John Bolton announced that, besides the Islamic State's defeat, the withdrawal would also be conditional on Turkey's assurances that it will not attack the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG forms the Kurdish core component. As recently as 5 January, US Special Forces were still conducting patrols in the SDF-controlled town of Manbij, which both the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces and Syrian government have recently expressed intentions to recapture. The SDF has been the US's key proxy ground force since 2015 in the war against the Islamic State, receiving close air support and military and financial assistance.

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