For the US military and the Syrian Kurds, a tangled history as allies

For US forces in Syria, a recurring alliance is back.

The fighting around Sinaa prison in Hasaka, a city in northeast Syria, has shone a light on the predominantly Kurdish region and also renewed questions about America’s role there.

The Syrian conflict dates back to 2011, when a popular rebellion began against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the country’s longtime dictator. The revolt began with peaceful protests but quickly escalated into a bloody conflict between rebels and government forces.

The Kurds, who make up around 10% of Syria‘s population and are concentrated in the northeast, have largely stayed away from the fighting.

But that changed in 2014, when Islamic State jihadists swept through eastern Syria and northern Iraq, creating a so-called caliphate the size of Britain. The rise of ISIS has brought the United States directly into the conflict, with President Barack Obama assembling an international coalition to fight the group, ordering airstrikes and sending in the US military to support local forces on the ground.

The coalition turned to a Kurdish militia that was already fighting jihadists in Syria and formed a partnership that became the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, and also included fighters from other ethnic groups.

In March 2019, the US-backed SDF took over the last piece of territory held by ISIS. “We won against ISIS,” President Donald J. Trump said, adding “now is the time for our troops to go home.”

But the win left a lot of unfinished business that set the stage for the events of the past week.

SDF fighters seized the opportunity to establish a large measure of autonomy for themselves over northeast Syria. They called their enclave Rojava and quickly set up their own administration.

Diplomatically, the Kurdish-led administration has had only limited success, failing to win recognition from any country, including the United States. And the Kurdish-led push for political autonomy in Syria has sparked fears in Turkey, which sees the SDF as deeply linked to the PKK, a Kurdish militant group considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States that has led a long and bloody uprising against the Turkish state.

But Turkey refused to intervene, largely because of the thousands of American troops then working with the SDF, until October 2019, when President Trump abruptly ordered the withdrawal of most American forces. This was seen as a green light for Turkey to invade, and it did so, taking over part of northeastern Syria, which it still occupies.

More recently, the United States maintained about 700 troops in northeastern Syria to help the SDF fight remnants of ISIS. But the pullout also provided the space that allowed the Islamic State to regroup, helping to explain why US forces found themselves fighting in Syria this week.

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