U.S. Syria withdrawal could spur Turkish invasion catastrophe - McGurk

U.S. officials must accept that Turkey is not an effective partner in Syria and warn Ankara of serious consequences to U.S.-Turkey ties if Turkish forces launch a potentially catastrophic attack on Syrian Kurdish militia, said an analysis for U.S. magazine Foreign Affairs.

On December 19, U.S. President Donald Trump announced via Twitter that U.S. forces would be pulling out of Syria, doing precisely what Brett McGurk, then-U.S. envoy to the coalition to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS), had called reckless the week before.

A few days later, McGurk resigned. And though Trump later modified his order - it now looks like some 200 U.S. troops will stay in northeast Syria and another 200 in the country’s southeast - McGurk said the Syrian strategy that Trump dismantled offered the United States its only real chance to prevent an ISIS resurgence, check the ambitions of Iran and Turkey, and negotiate a favourable post-war settlement.

“With U.S. forces leaving Syria, many of these goals are no longer viable,” the former U.S. envoy wrote in Foreign Affairs’ May/June issue.  

Washington now needs more modest goals, particularly with regards to Turkey. Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had been a problematic partner from the outset of the anti-ISIS campaign begun under President Barack Obama’s administration, McGurk said.

“In 2014 and 2015, Obama repeatedly asked Erdoğan to control the Turkish border with Syria, through which ISIS fighters and materiel flowed freely. Erdoğan took no action. In late 2014, Turkey opposed the anti-ISIS coalition’s effort to save the predominantly Kurdish city of Kobani, in northern Syria, from a massive ISIS assault that threatened to end in a civilian massacre,” said McGurk.

This spurred the United States to partner more closely with the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which had defended Kobani and later formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Turkey objected, arguing that the YPG/SDF was linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group that has fought Turkey since 1984 and is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

The United States sought to placate Ankara by curbing military aid to the SDF and delaying urgent operations against ISIS, according to McGurk. Until May 2017, when Trump decided to directly arm the YPG to ensure that it could take the ISIS capital Raqqa.

“When Turkey threatened to attack the Kurds across the border, as it often did, Washington reminded Ankara that U.S. troops were on the ground there, too,” said McGurk. “As long as U.S. troops were present, there was no reason for the Turkish military to intervene, and Ankara knew that jeopardising American lives would carry grave consequences for its relations with Washington.”

The U.S. withdrawal changes all this. McGurk warns that Turkey could launch an incursion into northeast Syria similar to the one it carried out in January 2018 in Afrin, where the Turkish military displaced some 150,00 Kurds and repopulated the province with Arabs and Turkmen from elsewhere in Syria.

“This operation was not a response to any genuine threat, but a product of Erdoğan’s ambition to extend Turkey’s borders, which he feels were unfairly drawn by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne,” said McGurk. “I have sat in meetings with Erdoğan and heard him describe the nearly 400 miles between Aleppo and Mosul as a Turkish security zone, and his actions have backed up his words.”

In the face of Erdoğan’s plan to send Turkish troops 20 miles into Syria and oust Kurdish forces, the U.S. military presence gave U.S. diplomats time to secure a deal that could satisfy Turkey and protect the Kurds, according to McGurk.

“Withdrawing before such an arrangement is in place risks a catastrophe, a Turkish invasion that would lead to massive civilian displacement, fracture the SDF, and create a vacuum in which extremist groups such as ISIS would thrive,” said McGurk.

It is time for the United States to accept that Turkey, a NATO ally, is not an effective partner in Syria, according to McGurk, and that diplomatic efforts would not end Ankara’s drift toward authoritarianism.

“Turkey wants U.S. support for its project to extend its territory 20 miles into northeastern Syria, even as it refuses to do anything about al Qaeda’s entrenchment in northwestern Syria. Washington should have no part of this cynical agenda. It should make clear to Ankara that a Turkish attack on the SDF, even after the U.S. withdrawal, will carry serious consequences for the U.S.-Turkish relationship,” said McGurk.