Bottom Line Up Front
- On Sunday evening, the Trump administration released a statement from the White House press secretary that signals a major shift in U.S. policy toward Syria.
- The decision to pull back and allow a Turkish military incursion means that Washington has betrayed its truest allies in Syria and signals to other partners that they are expendable, and all relationships are merely transactional.
- Depending on how extensive the operation is, it could lead to fierce clashes between Ankara and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), U.S.’ most stalwart ally in the fight against the so-called Islamic State.
- The U.S. withdrawal paves the way for a range of American adversaries to take advantage of the situation—Russia, Iran, and the Islamic State, to name just a few.
On Sunday evening, the Trump administration released a statement from the White House press secretary that signals a major shift in U.S. policy toward Syria. Washington expressed its intentions to step aside as Turkey prepares for a military operation in northern Syria, something the Turks have been threatening to do since last year. The decision occurred after a conversation between President Trump and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and was made against the advice of senior leaders at the Department of Defense and the Department of State. The controversial decision has been widely criticized, including by Republican Senator and frequent Trump ally Lindsey Graham, who called the decision’ impulsive,’ ‘short-sighted,’ and ‘irresponsible.’ Graham also suggested that if Erdogan invades Syria and attacks Kurdish forces, the U.S. Congress will look to introduce bipartisan sanctions against Turkey and suspend Ankara from NATO.
Depending on how extensive the military operation is, it could lead to fierce clashes between Ankara and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the United States’ most stalwart ally in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. By withdrawing from positions on the Turkish border, the United States is abrogating the ‘security mechanism’ that had been in place, even as it offered an opportunity for stability in one of the most unstable swaths of territory in one of the most volatile regions in the world. Per the terms of the ‘security mechanism,’ the Kurds have been dismantling defensive positions along the border, done in good faith with the promise of joint patrols and other cooperative measures. There is also speculation that Erdogan is planning to send Syrian refugees into a so-called ‘safe zone’ in Rojava, which would effectively extend Turkish territory 30 kilometers into Syria. Turkey has been housing approximately 2 million refugees from the civil war in Syria, most of whom are Sunni Arabs, in contrast to the Kurdish-dominated area.
The offensive may be limited to the territory around and between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, but there are a number of worrisome consequences, both short and long-term, that could result from this decision. Turkey’s move into northern Syria could push the Kurds closer to the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad and his Iranian patrons. Washington will also lose the trust of the Kurds and signal to other potential allies that they are expendable, and all relationships are merely transactional. If SDF members are called away from their duties at prison camps where Islamic State fighters and their supporters are being guarded, it will make places like al-Hol vulnerable, not just to deteriorating conditions inside the camps but also to potential prison breaks. But President Trump’s statement suggested that ‘Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial ‘Caliphate’ by the United States.’ It is difficult to imagine the process that sees a smooth handover of control of the prisons from Kurdish militias to Turkish military forces.
While it is still early to say what exactly will happen in northern Syria, what is certain is that the U.S. withdrawal paves the way for a range of American adversaries to take advantage of the situation—Russia, Iran, and the Islamic State, to name just a few. Indeed, Ankara and Moscow have grown increasingly close over the past two years, cooperating in Syria and strengthening ties through security cooperation and arms sales. Meanwhile, the White House statement took the opportunity to castigate longstanding American allies including France, Germany, and other European countries for their failure to repatriate their citizens being held in detention camps in Syria. But the ultimate irony is, if IS militants do escape from these prisons and help the Islamic State regenerate its networks, the danger of a future terrorist attack is far greater for Europe than it is for the United States.