Posted by Ryan J. Suto on October 08, 2019 in Blog
In what has become commonplace over the last two years, the Trump Administration issued a surprise, late-night statement on Sunday which took his Republican allies in Washington by surprise. The statement announced that Turkey would begin military operations in northern Syria and that U.S. forces would withdraw from the immediate area (but not Syria entirely). At two paragraphs long, the statement added that the over 11,000 ISIS detainees—currently held by U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—would now be the responsibility of Turkey.
In a disappointing and deadly manner this snap decision brings to an end a central tension of U.S. policy toward the ongoing Syrian conflict. In 2014 the Obama administration made a choice to counter ISIS by partnering with, and arming, Kurdish-led factions in Syria. The U.S.-Kurdish partnership has largely been successful, as the SDF has helped to bring ISIS to near extinction. But it has been part of a broader U.S. strategy toward Syria which has been a limited engagement that, on balance, has neither protected human rights nor advanced U.S. influence in the region or in how the conflict could wind down.
The Kurdish partners in northern Syria include the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has connections to Kurdish separatists in Turkey. This has long been a thorn in Ankara’s side, and as a consequence has given Turkish President Erdogan an excuse, as if he needed one, to work closely with Iran and Russia to counter Kurdish advances in Syria. Turkey has coordinated with those countries on charting the potential future of a post-conflict Syria, as well. Limited involvement in Syria was sold as a hesitance to over-extend the U.S. in the Arab world following the Iraq war, but has resulted in the U.S. having no seat at the table as Iran and Russia expand their presence and create wish lists of what Syria might look like in the future. While the Obama administration made decisions which began to close the door on the U.S.’s voice in Syria, the Trump administration has now slammed the door shut.
But this is not Trump’s first attempt to shut that door. In December, he announced that the U.S was fully withdrawing from Syria, declaring victory over ISIS. The decision was controversial within the administration, led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and was viewed on the ground as a move to “abandon its allies in the middle of the fight.” The succeeding months saw negotiations, mixed signals, and wavering, as the withdrawal became conditional upon the protection of the Kurds, was then delayed until April, later exempted 1,000 U.S. troops, and at one point even included a statement that U.S. troops may remain in Syria “for the long haul.” As recently as last month, the SDF agreed to remove defensive fortifications along Syria’s northwest border with Turkey in an agreement aimed to ease tensions between the mostly Kurdish group and Turkey. That agreement stipulated that the U.S. would create a “safe zone” along the border in exchange for the removal of some of the SDF’s fortifications, and included coordinated SDF-Turkish-U.S. military exercises on the border. For the years the SDF has spent fighting with U.S. troops against ISIS and their recent efforts to expose strategic information to Turkey to show trust in the process, the U.S. is leaving the YPG and other Kurds unprotected and disillusioned with the U.S. as a partner.
In the context of the vulnerability of the Kurdish-led forces along the Turkish-Syrian border, it should be no surprise that Trump’s decision to give Turkey a blank check to advance immediately followed a phone conversation between Trump and Erdogan, who will meet in Washington later this month. The move was made without alerting the SDF or even U.S. forces on the ground, and the withdrawal has already begun. Erdogan now has a blank check to try to wipe out the Syrian Kurds, bypass sanctions on Iran, allow Iranian and Russian military support to flow through the region, and may allow the not-yet defeated ISIS to re-emerge—now that their main adversary, the SDF, will have their hands full defending themselves against Turkey.
Any assumption by the Trump administration that Turkish interests and U.S. interests align in Syria stems from a gross lack of understanding of the dynamics at play. Erdogan has framed Turkish military advancement into Syria as a necessary pursuit of national security, and plans to begin resettling Syrian refugees currently in Turkey—regardless of their origin within Syria—into the "safe zones" of northern Syria presently controlled by the Kurds. This could alter the ethnic balance of the region, which may be Erdogan's attempt to dilute Kurdish influence. Further, Erdogan rhetorically exploits and highlights the connections between Kurds in Turkey and Syria to justify suppression and military operations in the region. As Steven Cook has argued, “Turkey’s overriding concern has always been and will continue to be the destruction of a Syrian Kurdish autonomous zone... For Erdogan, a U.S. withdrawal from Syria clears the primary obstacle for destroying the YPG.” At best, Turkey's unbridled actions in Syria will lead to increased regional conflict. At worst, Syria's Kurdish population will face NATO’s second largest military alone.
As the U.N. prepares for the worst outcomes from this decision, there is no foreseeable bright side. The Syrian Kurds now face an existential threat; Iran, Russia, and Syria’s embattled president Bashar al-Assad may be emboldened; ISIS will lose a main rival; the U.S. will abandon a reliable partner; and tens of thousands of people may become new refugees due to increased conflict. The U.S. will undoubtedly not accept those refugees, not protect the civilians now in danger, and not advance peace and security in the country or the broader region. Without reversal, this will undo the the years spent and the resources committed by the U.S. and their partners in defeating ISIS.