Washington Prepares to Withdraw from Syria, Turkey is Set to Invade
Dana Stroul and Soner Cagaptay
December 19, multiple media sources reported that Washington is preparing for an
imminent withdrawal of all U.S. forces in east Syria. The reports followed
statements two days earlier by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who noted the
White House’s “positive response” to Turkey’s planned cross-border
military campaign in the area. First announced on December 12, the operation
aims “to clear the east of the Euphrates from separatist terrorists in a few
days”—Erdogan’s epithet for the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian
Kurdish group whose troops serve as the core of the U.S.-supported forces
fighting the Islamic State (IS). During their December 14 phone call, Trump and
Erdogan “agreed to continue coordinating to achieve our respective security
objectives in Syria,” even as various U.S. officials reportedly scrambled to
head off the Turkish incursion.
news of the planned U.S. departure has raised alarm bells across Washington, the
Middle East, and Europe. Given the numerous strategic problems that would be
raised by an accelerated withdrawal and the fact that the U.S. mission remains
incomplete, the White House should rethink its decision and continue working
toward its own previously stated objectives in Syria.
PYD is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist
group that has been fighting the Turkish government for decades. Ankara’s
announcement of imminent operations against the PYD’s militia, the People’s
Defense Units (YPG), followed recent comments by Joint Staff chairman Gen.
Joseph Dunford, who stated on December 6 that the United States would be
pursuing two major initiatives: training 40,000 local fighters to take over
security in areas cleared of IS units, and constructing U.S. military
observation posts along the Syria-Turkey frontier. Both developments were
received poorly in Ankara, which saw them as evidence that Washington is not
responsive to Turkey’s security concerns.
America’s interests in continuing to back these local forces are considerable.
Since IS took over half of Syria in 2014, the U.S. approach to degrading the
group has centered on launching targeted airstrikes from the sky while the
Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) take care of fighting on the ground.
YPG fighters make up the majority of the SDF and are the most capable U.S.
military partners available in Syria. The U.S. decision to support, train, and
equip the YPG has long incensed Turkey, especially once the group began to
establish its own belt of control in border areas liberated from IS. When the
PKK renewed its attacks in Turkey in 2015, Ankara invaded parts of Syria to
break up YPG-controlled areas and block the perceived PKK safe haven there.
protect its priority of fully defeating IS while assuaging Turkish security
concerns, the United States has promoted the “Manbij model” in recent
months. The model envisions transferring governance of YPG-ruled areas west of
the Euphrates to other locals (mainly Arabs and non-YPG-aligned Kurds) while
instituting joint U.S.-Turkish military patrols in the area. U.S. officials
hoped that this approach would serve as a confidence-building mechanism to
prevent Turkish operations east of the Euphrates, which would threaten U.S.
troops, the SDF, and the momentum of the incomplete campaign against IS
terrorist remnants. Thus far, however, the mechanism has failed to placate
Ankara, spurring its latest warning of direct intervention in the east.
accelerated U.S. withdrawal from Syria would be a mistake: IS has not been
sustainably defeated, Iran and its proxies remain active in Syria, and a
political process to end the war has not yet taken root. If the administration
truly aims to fulfill its stated objectives there, it should immediately
implement an alternative course of action. Otherwise, it risks not only
jeopardizing the near-term U.S. interest of stabilizing a key part of the Middle
East, but also damaging America’s reputation for the long term. More
specifically, the potential exit or entrance of U.S. and Turkish forces in east
Syria affects the following key interests:
than risk fratricide between NATO allies, Washington appears to be preparing for
a full-scale, immediate withdrawal. In this scenario, the primary U.S. mission
of rolling back IS would be undermined, as would the secondary benefit of
blocking the movement of Iran and its proxies in east Syria.
other words, the White House should understand that a key element of its Iran
policy is at stake here: namely, the effort to keep Tehran from entrenching
itself in Syria, establishing a land bridge to Lebanon, and directly threatening
Israel. On the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting this September,
National Security Advisor John Bolton stated that U.S. forces will remain in
Syria until Iran and its proxies depart. Withdrawing now would directly
contradict that pledge.
officials should urgently implement a new plan of action for east Syria,
avoiding a hasty withdrawal while using all elements of the national security
toolbox to convince Turkey that there are other options besides unilateral