Trump’s Syrian pull-out decision puts Turkey on the spot

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from northeast Syria took both his administration and the Pentagon by surprise, not to mention the public at large. Despite the pushback Trump is already getting from Congress and pundits, it is safe to assume he will see the withdrawal through. After all, as Twitter can attest, he has been arguing consistently against staying in Syria for years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed America’s departure. “Donald did the right thing,” Putin told his annual press conference on Thursday. Moscow holds the position that the U.S. military presence in Syria violates international law. In contrast to its own intervention which is justified by the invitation extended by the Syrian government. The pullout boosts Russia’s ambitions to be the ultimate powerbroker in Syria as the civil war there grinds to a close. 

Turkey appears to have scored a win, too. It now could make good on its threat to attack the People’s Protection Forces (YPG) that it views as an arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting inside Turkey since 1984.

The YPG’s control of northeast Syria, resulting from its alliance with the United States in the fight against Islamic State, has long been a thorn in Ankara’s side. Now Erdoğan has a golden opportunity to roll back the Kurdish militants without risking a clash with the U.S. forces. An incursion into northeast Syria, including the city of Manbij west of the Euphrates, is probably in the cards. It will follow the model of Turkey’s preceding incursions into the northern Aleppo province (Operation Euphrates Shield) and Afrin (Operation Olive Branch). Conveniently enough, the forthcoming operation could coincide with the Turkish local elections in March and help the chances of Erdoğan’s party.

At the same time, Trump’s decision poses a number of long-term challenges for Turkey. 

Firstly, without U.S. boots on the ground, Turkey will be left alone against Russia, Iran and the Syrian government. Its role in the talks on the future constitution of Syria will be diminished. Abandoned by America, the Syrian Kurds will have no other choice but mend fences with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The regime will be emboldened to push its advantage and re-conquer the few areas of the country remaining outside its control. Turkey’s deal with Russia over Idlib, controlled by Turkish-backed rebel forces, may fall apart, with Assad’s forces and Iran’s proxies moving into the buffer zone negotiated by Moscow and Ankara.

Secondly, Turkey will be confronted with the dilemma of what to do in northeast Syria. It will no doubt dismantle Rojava, the Kurdish-dominated autonomous region established by the YPG. As in Afrin and northern Aleppo, Turkey could deploy units from the so-called Syrian National Army made up of Sunni Arab and Turkmen factions and set up civilian governing bodies dominated by Sunni Arabs. Members of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), loyal to Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, could be brought onboard, too. That way, Turkey could frame its presence as directed against the PKK but not the Kurds as a community. After 2014, the YPG purged and drove into exile many of Barzani’s supporters. 

But taking over the entire region would generate serious risk. Assad and the Iranians will also move in to retake Raqqa and the parts of the Deir ez-Zor governorate currently held by the YPG. They are likely to insist on recovering control over border crossings with Turkey as well. Assad keeps a foothold in the border city of Qamishli where his forces control the airport and parts of the centre. Though Russia would probably step in as a mediator, tensions would persist. The danger of an armed showdown is real. 

Turkey and its proxies will have to deal with a YPG insurgency too. The Assad government will provide safe haven for the Kurdish guerrillas. It will use them as an instrument to keep pressure on the Turks and their allies on the ground. Assad and the Iranians’ bet would on Turkey deciding, at some future point, to cut its losses and leave Syria. 

Erdoğan’s top choice in Syria has always been to work alongside the United States.  Sharing the responsibility for the area east of the Euphrates River, based on the formula negotiated for Manbij, would have been the best way forward for the Turks.  America’s pullout does bring some advantage, but at the same time it puts Ankara right on the spot. What looks like a win today may well turn out to be a liability tomorrow. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.