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Syria’s Kurdish Forces Hold Back the Tides

But Without a Political Solution, War and Trauma Will Rush Right Back In

SDF fighters in Deir Al Zor, Syria, March 2019 Rodi Said / Reuters

In December 2019, just two months after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew most U.S. forces from Syria, I crossed into the country from Iraq for my seventh visit since August 2017. A Turkish offensive against the Kurds had upended northeastern Syria in October, making a region that had been an experiment in democratic self-rule at the time of my last visit, in May 2019, an uneasy patchwork of competing dominions. I expected to find signs of the Turkish presence everywhere, along with Russian and Syrian regime checkpoints at every pass; perhaps local people would be shuttered indoors, waiting to see what the great powers would force on their future.

What I found instead was at once heartening and devastating. Some scenes of hardship were indelible: children, forced from their homes by the Turkish offensive, now sat out of school in freezing, hastily constructed camps, without coats and with their small bare feet poking out of plastic sandals covered in mud spawned by the incessant rain. But also striking was the region’s hard-fought stability despite its deep scars. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, known as the SDF, has done a heroic job of holding the northeastern region together, providing some security to the region’s traumatized people under conditions that would try most nation-states, and sustaining the governance model that it had earlier established to a remarkable degree.

But Syria now needs a political settlement more than ever. The SDF cannot continue to hold the line, plus rebuild ruined cities, reabsorb displaced people, and resist incursions from Turkey and from the Islamic State, known as ISIS, without robust and credible commitments from the outside powers that hold the country’s fate in hand, including a serious effort to broker talks between Turkey and the Kurds. The United States, Russia, and other outside actors all benefit from the stability that the SDF brings to northeastern Syria, and they should take an interest in securing the region’s future.

A FRAGILE EQUILIBRIUM

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