U.S. decision to stay in Syria muddies the waters

The wheel turns again. After U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria in December, it seemed rapprochement with Turkey was on the cards. Now that looks less likely.

The notoriously mercurial Trump has actually been consistent on Syria: he wants to capture all the territory of Islamic State (ISIS) and leave. Trump administration officials managed to avert a pull-out early last year, and they seem to have done it again. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blames the “deep state” for frustrating Trump. Trump may agree.

Trump had indicated that, post-withdrawal, Turkey would carve out a buffer zone in northeast Syria. This zone would cut into territory held by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia backed by the United States in the fight against ISIS. Turkey says the YPG is tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a war for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984.

The first signs of reversal came in the first week of January, when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and ultimately Trump all said U.S. forces would stay until Washington was sure the YPG would not come under attack. By late January, the notion of a Turkish safe zone had morphed into a buffer zone against Turkey.

Then all the major players read the runes at three overlapping conferences in one mid-February week.

The only conference directly concerning Syria was in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 14, the latest round of Russia-Iran-Turkey talks that began at Astana in January 2017. Dealing mainly with northwest Syria, these talks resulted in little progress.

The communiqué recommitted to constitutional reform, opposing terrorism, and maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity. Moscow believes this delegitimises Turkey’s presence in Syria; Ankara sees it as delegitimising Syrian President Bashar Assad.

On the same day as the Sochi meeting, a two-day Middle East security conference involving 60 states wrapped up in Warsaw, Poland. This strange event was, despite obfuscation, focused on Iran. The United States did not bring the Europeans around to its stated views on Iran, nor did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre-election flaunting of the ties he has built with the Gulf Arab states go exactly as planned.

Finally, the annual Munich Security Conference, Feb. 15-17, offered the most hints about the road ahead. U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, lobbied the Europeans to commit 1,500 troops to a buffer zone to keep Turkey and the YPG apart and ISIS from re-emerging. Graham said the United States would leave 200 soldiers to provide intelligence and support.

Trump soon confirmed he would leave 200 troops “for a period of time”. Then it was 400 troops. Then it was not, or maybe it was after all. Things got a bit confusing for a while, but at no point did the Europeans commit to this plan.

The YPG has been heartened by these developments, Turkey less so. Compounding U.S.-Turkey woes, it was again suggested this week that American F-35 jet shipments be stopped unless Turkey cancels delivery of Russian S-400 air defence missiles it has ordered. That this came from a Europe-based U.S. general was notable, as was Erdoğan’s combative response that Turkey would consider buying the S-500 as well.

A new issue erupted when Trump removed Turkey (and India) from the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) programme. Differences over Venezuela continue to grind away. And the atmospherics were further degraded on Wednesday when First Lady Melania Trump visited a school run by the Islamist network of Fethullah Gülen, a U.S. Turkish Islamist preacher Ankara blames for the 2016 coup attempt.

What is next? Most likely, more of the status quo: U.S. forces acting as tripwire protection for a YPG statelet as U.S.-Turkey relations continue to suffer.

Alternatives should start with three political facts: Turkey will never accept the YPG on its border, so efforts by the West to perpetuate this creates a policy divide with a key NATO ally; the YPG’s rule over Arab-majority cities in Syria is promoting instability, threatening the anti-jihadist campaign; and abandoning the YPG wholesale has its own costs.

If U.S. forces pull out and allow Turkey to take a slice of territory in northeast Syria, this will likely help heal relations between Ankara and Washington. Yet it could also involve destabilising displacements of people, leaving Turkey facing an empowered YPG and resurgent pro-Assad coalition, while ISIS takes advantage of the chaos. It is unclear whether the United States could stay out of such a situation.

If U.S. forces are to stay, keep ISIS down, not cut off the YPG, and repair relations with Turkey, one way is the Manbij roadmap: peel the YPG away from Arab urban centres, enable local governance under U.S.-Turkish guarantee, and keep Turkey out of Kurdish-majority territories while pushing for reform over time of the one-party authoritarian structure there.

The ultimate solution lies in a settlement between Turkey and the PKK, but that cannot happen in the immediate term.

The other track the Turks have running to deal with the YPG is with the Russians. Moscow is pushing for the YPG, always closely integrated with the Assad-Iran system, to be folded in entirely, and the YPG is willing. If Ankara views this as Assad taming the YPG, it would make an operation in the east unnecessary. But the Turks are likely to see it (correctly) as just the opposite: Assad trying to reinstrumentalise the PKK as a weapon, incentivising a Turkish incursion.

The only certainty for now is that nothing will happen before the local elections in Turkey on March 31.

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