Chaos could follow U.S. pull-out, Turkish offensive in northeast Syria

(Story updated with Brett McGurk comments in 18th paragraph)

U.S. forces began pulling out of northeast Syria on Monday, seeming to abandon a key ally to clear the way for a Turkish military incursion that analysts said could severely undermine security in the area and spur an Islamic State (ISIS) resurgence. 

Following a phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the White House announced on Sunday night that Turkey would soon move forward with its long-planned operation and U.S. forces would clear the area. 

U.S. forces had been arming and training the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeast Syria, and backed by U.S. artillery and air power, the Kurdish-led group made up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that all-but defeated ISIS in the country. 

But Turkey sees the YPG and SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting an insurgency in Turkey for three decades and is labelled a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. 

Even a limited Turkish operation would erode regional security, undercutting the YPG’s willingness to continue counter-ISIS operations, according to Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group. 

“If the U.S. green lights a full-on military offensive of the entire northeast, it will be a security mess in every possible way,” she said. “I don’t think the U.S. has anything to gain with this. They’re throwing away their leverage, they’re jeopardising the safety and security of their partners, and contributing to a potential ISIS resurgence.” 

In recent weeks, the YPG destroyed many of its fortifications along the Turkish border, in compliance with a U.S.-Turkey plan of a safe zone, leaving it more exposed to attack. 

The SDF said that it had removed its fortifications, heavy weapons and combat troops from the area based on its confidence in the United States. "Erdoğan’s threats are aimed to change the security mechanism into a mechanism of death, displace our people & change the stable & secure region into a zone of conflict and permanent war," the SDF military operations centre said in a tweet.

The White House also said it would no longer help the SDF shoulder responsibility for detained ISIS members and their families, including thousands from Europe. “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years,” said the statement. 

Some 10,000 ISIS prisoners, including 2,000 foreigners, are spread across detention centres in northeast Syria, while as many as half of the 70,000 residents of Al-Hol camp are said to be ISIS loyalists. 

Speaking to reporters at Ankara airport before departing for Serbia on Monday morning, Erdoğan said Turkey was working on a solution to extradite foreign fighters from al-Hol to their home countries, according to Middle East Eye correspondent Ragip Soylu. 

The president also confirmed that U.S. troops had begun to pull out of Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn and said the number of ISIS detainees in the area had been exaggerated, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency. 

“If the U.S. is handing over control of these camps and detention centres to Turkey, it means they are handing over large swathes of the area, if not all of it,” said Khalifa.  

Last month, dozens of ISIS-linked women escaped the camp, and are thought to have fled to Turkey. Days later, SDF commander Mazlum Kobane told reporters that his security forces at al-Hol were overwhelmed and that ISIS could soon take over the camp. 

“Let's be ready soon for a second rebirth of Daesh,” Syrian activist Omar Abu Layla, who runs independent news outlet Deirezzor24, said in a tweet, using an Arabic name for ISIS. 

Most observers agree that the YPG has been the key force against ISIS, while Turkey turned a blind eye to jihadis crossing the border in the conflict’s early years, perhaps leading to the creation of ISIS. 

In January, Trump vowed to protect the Syrian Kurds, saying in a tweet that he would “devastate” Turkey’s economy if it attacked the Kurds. Trump has previously clashed with U.S. officials about planned withdrawals from Syria.

"Donald Trump is not a Commander-in-Chief. He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation," former U.S. envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk said in a series of tweets shortly after the decision was announced. "Turkey has neither the intent, desire, nor capacity to manage 60K detainees in al-Hol camp, which (U.S. State Department and Department of Defense officials) warn is the nucleus for a resurgent ISIS."

Aron Lund of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute wondered if Trump was hoping to trick his Turkish counterpart with the move.  

“If it doesn't seem to make sense, one reason might be it doesn't: part of this could be Trump lashing out in anger or even counter-bluffing, telling Erdoğan that if you want Syria, okay, fine, have fun with al-Hol,” he said in a tweet. 

Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, predicted that the SDF would turn to Assad for protection. Khalifa said it was more likely that the YPG would bring large numbers of their core fighting force north to secure areas exposed to the Turkish military. 

“That would lead to an immediate collapse of the security networks in this area that have been keeping ISIS cells in check,” she said. 

Khalifa acknowledged that Turkey was never going to accept, long-term, Washington’s partnership with the YPG and the reality of a PKK-linked group on its border. “But I also think going to the extreme opposite end of the spectrum and green lighting a military operation is jeopardising U.S. security interests,” she said. 

Erdoğan has said he planned to repatriate into this area up to 2 million of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, which analysts have said would remake the area’s demographics, turning a majority Kurdish area to a mostly Arab one. 

“Journalists/analysts asking what happens to al-Hol & its lot of foreigners,” Nadim Houry, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, said in a tweet. “But who is asking what happens to (local) residents ... is there a plan for them?”