The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A brief history of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led alliance that helped the U.S. defeat the Islamic State

Fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in Baghouz, Syria, on March 23. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

The White House said Monday that it has begun pulling U.S. troops out of northern Syria, paving the way for Turkey to launch a long-threatened offensive into the area that many worry could crush the U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters in the region.

The Trump administration’s move has sparked outrage, with critics saying the United States was abandoning a faithful partner that was integral to the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria.

These Kurdish fighters are the backbone of the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which was formed in 2015 as part of the campaign against the Islamic State. Turkey, which has struggled with a decades-long Kurdish insurgency within its borders, has always viewed the Kurdish forces in Syria as a threat even while being opposed to the Islamic State.

Trump pulls troops from northern Syria as Turkey readies offensive

President Trump appeared to wash his hands of the delicate situation Monday.

“The Kurds 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. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN,” he tweeted.

Later Monday, Trump warned against Turkish aggression.

“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey,” he said in a tweet.

In October 2015, when the Islamic State was making large territorial gains in Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, or YPG, joined with various Arab groups to form the SDF and fight the militant group.

The new alliance was provided weapons by the United States and was supported by other Western countries, including Britain, France and Italy.

The United States had been navigating tricky terrain: It wanted to help militias in the region that were battling the Islamic State, but its generous assistance to the YPG had the Turkish government on edge, worried that the U.S. military was empowering a Kurdish group with ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan views as a terrorist organization. For decades, the PKK has waged an insurgency in Turkey in the name of Kurdish independence.

The United States hoped the makeup of the SDF, which was dominated by the YPG but included Arab groups, would ease Turkey’s concerns. This strategy was inherently flawed, however, given that it was more an exercise in rebranding than a shift in ideology. In 2017, Gen. Raymond Thomas, who led U.S. Special Operations Command at the time, described how the SDF came to get its name.

The U.S. military, noting Turkey’s hostility to the YPG, went to the Kurdish militia and said, “You’ve got to change your brand. What do you want to call yourself besides the YPG?” according to Thomas. “With about a day’s notice, they declared that they were the Syrian Democratic Forces.”

The YPG and its pro-Kurdish allies remained the dominating force in the SDF, and Turkey remained displeased with the U.S. support for the alliance. The United States deflected Turkey’s concerns in the name of combating the Islamic State.

By 2016, the U.S. military was aiding SDF operations against the Islamic State with airstrikes and had U.S. Special Forces training fighters and embedding in the group. The SDF was proving a formidable ally.

The group secured key victories in major Islamic State strongholds — the town of Manbij in 2016; the city of Raqqa, the self-declared Syrian capital of the Islamic State, in 2017; and, in 2019, the town of Baghouz, a conquest that U.S. military officials said marked the end of the Islamic State’s territorial rule.

But Turkey’s rejection of the U.S.-SDF alliance cast a shadow over these victories, leaving many to wonder how long the U.S. military would defy a NATO ally and continue to back the Kurds. That answer came Monday, when the United States began withdrawing its troops from Syria’s border with Turkey, sparking fears that Turkey’s military would target the same Kurds who had helped engineer the defeat of the Islamic State.

Brett McGurk, a former Trump envoy in the fight against the Islamic State, said the president’s decision was an example of how Trump “leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call.” Trump had spoken with Erdogan by phone before he made the decision to pull U.S. troops.

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McGurk also noted that the White House had falsely stated that the United States was holding Islamic State fighters in camps. “They are all being held by the SDF, which Trump just served up to Turkey,” he said.

The SDF manages the al-Hol camp in northern Syria. The camp holds up to 70,000 people displaced by the war against the Islamic State. About 30,000 of them remain loyal to the militant group.

Trump’s order also sent a chilling message to U.S. allies around the world, national security experts said.

“Well, at least the Trump Administration is consistent. We are about screwing our allies, partners and friends. Don’t trust America, even if you shed blood on their behalf,” tweeted John Sipher, a former CIA official.