As Washington Prepares to Withdraw from Syria, Turkey is Set to Invade

By Dana Stroul and Soner Cagaptay

Washington Institute

December 19, 2018


On 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.

Meanwhile, 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.


The 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.

Yet 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.

To 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.


An 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:


Rather 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.

In 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.


U.S. 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 invasion: