Pullout from Syria: Who Will Fill the Vacuum?
By Burak Bekdil
December 26, 2018
U.S. President Donald Trump's unexpected decision to pull
U.S. troops from Syria (and Afghanistan) was music to Turkish ears. Turkish
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called it
"the clearest and most encouraging statement" from Washington.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu welcomed Trump's abrupt decision to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar vowed that that Syrian Kurdish fighters whom Turkey considers as top regional security threat, would soon be "buried in the trenches that they dig."
The way Trump made that decision has also given new ammunition to Turkey's pro-Erdoğan media to portray the decision as "Erdoğan's victory." The media, in Turkey and abroad, widely reported that Trump decided on the pullout after a Dec. 14 telephone conversation with Erdoğan. According to Washington's official account of the conversation, the two leaders had "agreed to continue coordinating to achieve our respective security objectives in Syria."
Long before Trump decided in favor of troop withdrawal, Turkey had been threatening a cross-border military operation against U.S, allies, the Kurds, in Syria. Although Ankara pledged maximum care to avoid clashes with the U.S. troops some observers feared an unwanted Turkish-US military conflict. Turkey's security services had long been supplying military HQ with loads of intelligence from Arab, Kurdish and mixed population locations in northern Syria. The Turkish Air Force conducted airstrikes on Kurdish strongholds in neighboring Iraq. The Turkish military also massed troops near a town on the Syrian border, although Erdoğan seemed to agree to a delay in his planned incursion into Syrian territory, the third such operation in two years.
Now what? In its official narrative, Ankara could eradicate the remnants of the Islamic State group from Syria with just logistical help from Washington. Erdogan has openly said that military operations would also target Syrian Kurdish militants from the People's Defense Units YPG), the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which Turkey says is an offshoot of the PKK, a Kurdish militant group that has been fighting Turkey for autonomy or secession since 1984. Turkey, the U.S. and European Union have long designated the PKK as a terrorist organization. With the upcoming U.S. withdrawal, Turkey has won the chance militarily to challenge YGP/PYD without the risk of clashing with the U.S. troops. It is not known yet if Erdoğan, in return for securing the U.S. pullout, pledged not to engage in an all-out war with the Kurds. But Kurds remain nervous.
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main military group that allied with the U.S. in the fight against Islamic State (and made up of mainly YPG fighters), says it would have to withdraw fighters from the battle against radical jihadists to protect its borders in the event of a Turkish attack. "Fighting [Islamic] terrorism will be difficult because our forces will be forced to withdraw from the Deir el-Zor front to take up positions on the border with Turkey to stop an eventual attack," Elham Ahmed, the co-chair of the SDF's political wing, said in Paris.
"What Turkey is going to do is unleash holy hell on the Kurds," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. said on the Senate floor. "In the eyes of Turkey, they're more of a threat than ISIS (IS). So this decision is a disaster." Trump's decision complicates the Syrian theater more than just opening up a new battleground between Kurdish fighters and Turkish troops.
In any Turkish operation Tel Abyad promises to be an imminent target. Militarily speaking Turkey will wish to divide the main block of Kurdish territory into two creating a major crevice of land between Manbij and Kobane in the West and Qamishli and Hasaka in the East. In 2011 around 70% of the population of Tel Abyad was Arab (and some 25% Kurdish). The U.S. withdrawal will mean flocks of Arab fighters who were trained at military camps in Turkey, returning to the Arab-Kurdish zone to fight as Turkish proxies, fueling an Arab-Kurdish, in addition to a Turkish-Kurdish fighting. Most Arab tribes, most notably Jamilah and Bou Jarada, remain loyal to Turkey but had in the past also supported IS. That risk highlights a major down side of Trump's plan.
Backed militarily by Turkey and returning to northern Syria some Arab tribes may be exposed to the risk of "re-recruitment" into potentially new radical Islamist groups. IS may have largely lost its institutional identity but its fighters have not disappeared from the earth. Their tactical (anti-Kurdish) alliances with Turkey-backed Arab militants may lead to new, longer-term alliances, creating various IS-like groups with various new banners and brands. That being the new setting in northern Syria, Basher al-Assad, Syria's Russian-backed dictator, may see it totally fit to encourage new jihadists in order to win an upper hand in the "political process" (the constitutional reform process) that will theoretically shape the future of his country.
The Syrian theatre is too complex to feature a zero-sum game. The state and non-state actors that cheered Trump's decision to withdraw are: Erdoğan's Turkey, which wants to build a Sunni, Islamist and pro-Turkey administration in northern Syria; Russia, whose now-augmented power in Syria will also augment Assad, and Iran, which will now gain new advances in Syria.
Potential Turkish-Kurdish and Arab-Kurdish conflicts would further destabilize Syria and strengthen Russia. This point cannot be ignored. Turkey's and Iran's dependency on Russia in Syria will increase, as the trio further teams up to have a larger role in shaping Syria's future.
On December 19, foreign ministers from the three countries met in Geneva to cement their increasing convergences over Syria. Russia must be especially pleased to have a new opportunity to weaken even further Turkey's deeply problematic ties with its Western and NATO partners. Potential Turkish-Kurdish and Arab-Kurdish conflicts would further destabilize Syria and strengthen Russia. This is a point that cannot be ignored.
The U.S. move also could turn out to be a death-blow on Washington's efforts to keep Tehran from further establishing itself in Syria and building a Shia land bridge all the way to Lebanon and therefore threaten the security not only of Israel, but of the entire Mediterranean region.
In September, speaking on the margins of the UN convention, Trump's National Security Advisor John Bolton said that the U.S. forces would remain in Syria until Iran and its proxies departed. With its numerous potentially serious drawbacks, Trump's decision deeply discredits the U.S. administration, its key figures -- and Trump himself.
The U.S. president said on Twitter December 23 that Turkey promised it would ensure that ISIS is defeated in Syria. He said:
"President Erdoğan of Turkey has very strongly informed me that he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria.... and he is a man who can do it plus, Turkey is right 'next door.' Our troops are coming home!"
Trump's optimism about a potential Turkish military
campaign to finish off ISIS looks woefully premature. Trump taking seriously
Erdoğan's pledge to "eradicate whatever is left of ISIS" is also
problematic. ISIS and some of its offshoots are Erdoğan's former Islamist
allies. The lines of alliance and hostility are blurred but always open to
Erdoğan's word is fine -- but probably not good enough. First, Erdoğan's primary motive to send the Turkish army into Syria is not to fight jihadists. He may even have less appetite to fight jihadists who may come up under non-ISIS banners. Some groups of jihadists (aspiring but not yet ISIS 2.0) are his allies and proxies. It would have been wiser if Trump got assurances that Erdoğan will finish off every Islamist/jihadist group in Syria, not just what remains of ISIS. If one can actually trust Erdoğan's word, that is. Erdogan has a history of not being reliable.
It is understandable that abstaining from the role of the world's policeman may look consistent with Trump's pre-election pledge to "Make America Great Again." Nevertheless, caution is needed here: Leaving the "policing" job in the world's most volatile and turbulent parts to un-free regimes such as Russia, China, Iran and Turkey could also damage the quest of America and others in the free world to become great again -- and to remain free. The free world simply does not have the luxury -- even in remote geographical areas -- of allowing security to be policed by un-free state and non-state actors.