President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, and green-lighting a Turkish offensive against the Kurds in Northern Syria, although sudden and shocking to some, is broadly coherent with the Western policy toward the Kurds in Syria. Although off the cuff, the decision is an outcome of the broader failure in the West in devising a coherent policy to sustain the US presence in Syria in the face of opposition from Turkey.
The US position towards the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has also been contradictory. Supporting the SDF militarily in the fight against the Islamic State, the US and European countries, never contemplated extending political recognition to the group. There was also no push from the West for the SDF or Kurdish participation to the UN-led Geneva Process for a political settlement in the Syrian crisis. Recently formed Syrian Constitutional Committee, which is tasked to redraft or reform the Syrian Constitution didn't include any representatives from the SDF led administrations. The set-up of the Committee, however, was celebrated by the UN Special Envoy to Syria without any objections from Western countries.
This almost complete international consensus on denying any say to the SDF in the future political settlement in Syria is in line with the so-called "off-script moment."
Despite the widespread criticism of the Turkish offensive in Syria, by several European leaders, US Senators, policymakers, the media and the celebrities, the reactions yet produced little in the form of severe concrete sanctions. The proposed EU sanctions are linked to Turkey's drilling in Eastern Mediterranean rather than the Syria offensive.
The US sanctions fell short of the much talked "crippling sanctions" that President Trump mentioned. Democrat Senator Chris Van Hollen, who along with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, leads the efforts for stricter sanctions against Turkey objected to the limited sanctions announced by Trump. Van Hollen said, "Trump's pathetic "sanctions" were mostly an attempt to derail congressional momentum for much tougher action."
Suspension of arms sales to Turkey by several European states, likely to have a minimal effect on Turkey as Ankara produces a significant portion of the weapons themselves thanks to massive investment into Turkish defence industry over the last decade. President Erdogan alluded to the ineffectiveness of the sanctions by saying "We are not worried about any sanctions."
What worries Ankara more is the Russian brokered deal that was agreed between the Assad government and the SDF leadership. Policymakers in Ankara are surprised by the fact that the Russian attitude toward the Kurds changed dramatically once the US is out of the equation in Syria. As soon as the US pullout was confirmed, Russian officials swiftly moved to take control of the newly emerging reality.
The Russian brokered agreement between the SDF and the Syrian regime is currently only a military one confirming Syrian troop advances into the SDF controlled territory. The agreement doesn't foresee Syrian troops to be deployed to Ras al-Ayn (Serekaniye) and Tal Abyad, where the conflict is ongoing. Russians reportedly expressed to the Kurds that they would like to keep the SDF structures and integrate them into the 5th Corps of the Syrian army. A political agreement is to follow.
President Erdogan expressed dismay about the agreement between the Syrian regime and the Kurds, saying that he doesn't "even want to entertain the possibility that such an agreement exists." He stopped short of criticising Russia for brokering the deal. The US, despite doing, what is seen as a big favour to Turkey, couldn't avoid attracting dire criticism from Erdogan. The Turkish President initially told reporters that he wouldn't meet the US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who travelled to Turkey on 17th of October, to ask to discuss the possibility of a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds. He later changed his position agreeing to meet both.
A very similar proposal by the Syrian regime to the Kurds, with support from Moscow, was on the table in late 2017. As the Kurds were moving into Deir ez-Zor in their second and third phase of the operation, Russian officials reportedly asked the Kurds to hand over control of Afrin as well as the Syrian borders to the Assad government. The Kurds, for their own reasons and due to pressure from the US, refused. They especially didn't want to give controls of the borders to the regime anywhere other than Afrin.
Almost exactly two years later, the YPG, now in a much weaker position, after losing Afrin and faced with an all-out attack by Turkey, reached out to the regime agreeing to conditions they refused earlier. During that period, the Kurds lost their majority in Afrin, the only Syrian city, where the Kurds had over a thousand years of history of settlement. That was the biggest strategic loss the Kurds faced in Syria, outdoing any gains they made during the Syrian conflict.
Also during the same period, the US State Department team led by James Jeffrey, the US Special Representative to Syria and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition Against ISIS, successfully mended the US-relations with Turkey. While bringing the US policies in line with the Turkish demands in Syria, Jeffrey failed to bring Turkey's policies in line with the US. Still, the steps were taken by the US administration, including the withdrawal from Syria creates a path dependency that will objectively bring the two countries closer in the medium term.
Abandoned by the US abruptly, the Kurds will lose their autonomy and will have to work with Russia and the regime to at least retain their land and to get protection against Turkey. Iran, on the other hand, also has leverage on the broader Kurdish movement, primarily through their influence over Iraq.