U.S. withdrawal from Syria both opportunity and risk for Turkey - analyst

The U.S. withdrawal of forces from war-torn Syria, announced last month, is a mixed blessing for neighbouring Turkey, giving Ankara room to manoeuvre while creating risks both abroad and at home, wrote Arab Weekly contributor Thomas Seibert.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar announced that the Turkish military had taken on a new responsibility in fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, after U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Dec.19 that the group had been largely defeated and he would be pulling 2000 U.S. troops from the country.

For years, Seibert wrote on Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticised Washington’s support for the Kurdish militia Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), the backbone of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria fighting the Islamic State.

‘’Trump’s abrupt announcement in December to withdraw the 2,000 US soldiers from Syria exposes the YPG to a Turkish attack, potentially strengthening Erdogan’s role in Syria. Turkey says it wants to push the YPG back from the border and has been massing troops and weapons in preparation for an assault but Trump, faced with heavy criticism, has suggested that the withdrawal could be drawn out over months,’’ Seibert underscored.

The slowdown of the U.S. withdrawal is in Turkey’s interest, the article quoted Magdalena Kirchner, a senior analyst at Conias Risk Intelligence, as saying.

‘’A continued US presence in Syria served Turkish security concerns in making sure that the fight against ISIS would go on and in providing a counterbalance to Iran’s influence in the region,’’ Kirchner said.

Despite that fact that Trump’s decision provided a domestic boost for Erdoğan and interpreted by analysts as a “political triumph over the US and the PKK/YPG,” Seibert noted, the Turkish president’s deal with Washington carries risks for Turkey, too.

There are doubts, he wrote, that Ankara’s troops and their Syrian allies can take on ISIS, adding that while ‘’Turkish troops fought ISIS in the border region before, they never faced the jihadists in Deir ez-Zor, 200km south of the Turkish border, where resistance was expected to be fierce.’’

Citing Washington Post columnist David Ignatius who wrote that Ankara vastly overstated the number of pro-Turkish fighters ready to attack ISIS, Seibert underlined that Turkey has asked the United States for surveillance and logistic aid, as well as air cover for any operation to finish off the Islamic State in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

Washington has reportedly denied the request.

Switching gears on the military campaign against ISIS could trigger revenge attacks by ISIS sleeper cells in Turkey itself, Seibert wrote, noting the already growing dissatisfaction among Turkish voters with the presence of  over 3.5 million Syrian refugees in the country.

A poll released last year in Turkey indicated that ‘’two out of three Turkish respondents said Syrian refugees take away their jobs, are responsible for a rise in crime and damage “moral values” of the host country,’’ Seibert concluded.