The US has played a crucial role in eastern Syria since America became a leader of the global coalition to defeat ISIS. The ISIS war began in 2014 after the global jihadist group took over a swath of Iraq and Syria and committed genocide against the Yazidis and other minorities.
One of the key forces fighting ISIS in Syria, the People's Protection Units (YPG), was a Kurdish fighting force that also helped save Yazidis from genocide. The US partnered with the YPG, helping them stop the ISIS siege of Kobani and eventually encouraging the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
But this put the US on a path of working closely with Kurds in eastern Syria while some American officials preferred a temporary, transactional and tactical relationship with those same Kurdish forces.
Now the Biden administration has inherited the chaotic Trump administration's approach to eastern Syria. Some of the architects of the US backing for the SDF, such as Brett McGurk, are back in their saddles in the administration.
But things have changed. The Trump administration ignored Turkey's invasion of Afrin in 2018 and its ethnic cleansing of 160,000 Kurds. US President Donald Trump also enabled Turkey's invasion of northeast Syria in October 2019 with Turkey attacking the SDF, threatening US forces and ethnically cleansing Christians, Kurds and Yazidis.
Turkey armed jihadist extremist groups, at least one of which was subsequently sanctioned by the US. Ankara also got former Syrian rebels to fight against Kurds as part of its cynical policy of occupying and destroying Syria's rebellion so it could use them against Kurds and neutralize all the non-regime forces in Syria.
Now reports say that the Biden team is still working on Kurdish unity talks. In the complexities of eastern Syria what this entails is trying to get the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and political groups dominating it to let other Kurdish groups participate in politics.
This is complex because Kurds are a minority in Syria, just about three million people. Some Kurds back the PYD, the left-leaning political party linked to the YPG. Turkey claims the PYD and YPG are affiliated with the PKK, which Turkey and the US view as "terrorists."
Meanwhile, the Kurdish leadership in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, especially the leading KDP party, is closer to Kurds that are linked to the opposition Kurdish National Council (ENKS) in northeast Syria (Rojava). This essentially means the US wants the ENKS to get along better with the PYD, broadening the number of Kurdish groups that can participate in politics in eastern Syria.
As it stands now the AANES includes non-Kurdish groups in its various councils, but all come under the banner of the left-leaning politics of the PYD. Kurdish groups linked to the KDP get the cold shoulder in eastern Syria.
Rudaw, a Kurdish channel, reported on Saturday that "the newly-appointed US Deputy Special Envoy to Syria met with the opposition Kurdish National Council (ENKS) in northeast Syria (Rojava) on Thursday, reiterating his country's support for Kurdish unity talks, a senior official from the ENKS told Rudaw late Friday."
The report says Mohammed Ismail, head of the ENKS negotiation committee, told Rudaw's Omar Kalo that they met in Qamishli with Matthew Purl, who recently replaced David Brownstein as the US Deputy Special Envoy to Syria. Washington "reiterated the US support for intra-Kurdish talks, Kurdish unity in this region, stability and the political situation in northeast Syria in general," said Ismail, adding that the ENKS "expressed its seriousness in the talks to gain good results. This is in the interest of our people."
The Rudaw report said that "ENKS and the ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD) have been in talks for nearly a decade in Rojava with the hope of reaching an agreement to create Kurdish unity there and jointly govern it. Despite reaching an initial deal in 2014, both sides have been engaged in a war of words for years, blaming each other for the failure of negotiations."
The report also says that "US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood and other American officials working on the Syrian dossier held a virtual meeting with leadership of ENKS in September, reaffirming that they're for intra-Kurdish talks."
The talks go back years, as noted. The US has backed this in the wake of the chaos of Afrin and the October 2019 Turkish invasion. US envoy William Roebuck at the time was hopeful progress could be made.
The problem is that the PYD and groups linked to it have now held power for some eight years in eastern Syria. They began with a small area of control but the SDF offensives, backed by the US, led to a massive increase in their role, extending to Manbij and down the length of the Euphrates.
That means they also took control of Raqqa and other areas. They created local military councils and other layers of leadership. The other Kurdish groups have been sidelined and, at the end of the day, Kurdish unity talks only relate to a minority of the population in the AANES.
The elephant in the room is that the US may reassess its role in eastern Syria and could withdraw more. Turkey uses extremists it backs near Tel Abyad to shell Kurds and other minorities near Tal Tamr. It also does the same from Idlib, attacking Kurdish IDPs in Tal Rifaat.
This means Turkey continues to destabilize Syria. It also cuts off water to areas where Kurds live. The goal of Ankara is to ethnically cleanse Kurds, Christians, Yazidis and others and then replace areas of Turkish control with regime control, or the Russians, in a future deal.
But the problem for the US is more complex. While it wants the SDF to continue to control the area, stabilize it and fight ISIS and control ISIS detainees at places like Al-Hol camp, it also wants to leave Syria at some point.
The U.S. Congress wants to oversee the conflict in Syria. "The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requires the administration to report to lawmakers on its vision for an endgame for the conflict, as well as on diplomatic means to achieve those objectives in talks with major players like Russia and Turkey," Al-Monitor noted.
"Lawmakers are demanding to see a timeline for weaning local Syrian fighters off US military support, as well as a plan for convincing foreign governments to repatriate their citizens detained in prison camps housing Islamic State members in Syria. The bill would also compel the Biden administration to share its efforts to prevent Arab states from normalizing ties with the Bashar al-Assad regime and Damascus' readmission to the Arab League – long a diplomatic goal of Russia's."
The US desire to leave eastern Syria makes securing buy-in from stakeholders there problematic.
That means the US would prefer to be able to say it tried to get some unity and multi-party polity going in eastern Syria, even as it also wants to leave. This presents a problem for buy-in from stakeholders.
Why should the leadership of the AANES and commanders like Mazloum Abdi, who helped defeat ISIS and keep eastern Syria stable, make major changes to a working system if the US is merely going to leave - and then the system there will have to either make more concessions and deals with the Syrian regime or face more ethnic cleansing by Ankara? Why would the US get the ENKS into a role in eastern Syria only to walk away?
A Syrian Kurdish administration less tethered to the PYD could be a selling point in US talks with Turkey.
That is the key question. Could creating a more diverse policy and leadership in eastern Syria not so closely tethered to the PYD create a selling point for Washington in talks with Turkey and America's friends among the KDP and PUK in northern Iraq?
The PUK, which has had close relations with the PYD in the past, has also had its own leadership crisis. According to a report on December 13, McGurk met with Bafel and Qubad Talibani, PUK leaders. Lahur Talibani who has been sidelined, was not there. Meanwhile the Semalka border crossing from the KRG to northeast Syria was closed at Faysh Khabur river crossing on December 16.
The US has a lot to weigh in how it pushes for reforms in the KRG and AANES and works with Kurdish groups, while trying to send a message it isn't withdrawing, even as Iran tries to pressure the US in Iraq and Syria - and Turkey and Russia both want the US to leave certain areas.
The last US administration sought to use the SDF to take more territory partly so it could use eastern Syria as a hedge against Iran. However that meant the SDF conquered swaths of areas near Baghuz and along the Euphrates River that are controlled by Arab tribes. Some of these tribes opposed ISIS and also the Syrian regime, but they chafe under Kurdish control and are opposed in some cases to the left-leaning liberal tendencies of the AANES. This has handed the US too many complexities for an area it doesn't even want to remain invested in.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.