Even after eight years of civil war and the U.S. intervention to combat the Islamic State (IS), the future of northeast Syria still is unsettled. Washington faces the various divergent interests of powerful external actors, including Russia and Turkey—one a great power competitor and the other a NATO ally—in the country. To complicate matters further, the United States has sought to shift the goals of its presence in Syria from a narrow, counter-terrorism effort to defeat IS to denying the Bashar al-Assad regime a victory, with the intent of forcing Assad to make political concessions and making Syria a focal point of the so-called “Maximum Pressure” strategy aimed at using economic coercion to change Iranian foreign policy. Amidst the expansion of Washington’s desired political outcomes in Syria, President Donald Trump ordered the military to withdraw forces in December 2018, only to reverse course, so long as the United States worked to increase the European commitment to the ground war in Northeast Syria.
The focus of American diplomacy, in recent months, has been on preventing a Turkish invasion of northeast Syria. Ankara’s threats reached a crescendo in early August 2019, prompting two rounds of talks, held in Ankara, that resulted in the establishment of a Combined Joint Operations Center (CJOC) in Urfa, where the Turkish and American militaries have sent representatives to coordinate joint patrols and the removal of Syrian Kurdish defensive positions from a portion of the Turkish-Syrian border. The U.S.-Turkish talks have yet to resolve serious bilateral disagreements, linked to Ankara’s demand for the safe zone to extend 32 kilometers into Syria, and placed under Turkish control to prepare for the return of up to 1 million Turkey-based Syrian displaced persons. The United States, in contrast, has agreed to a more modest proposal of a narrow, 5-kilometer zone, which extends to 14 kilometers in certain areas. To patrol this zone, the United States has proposed local forces, which Ankara has rejected in favor Turkish-backed militias interspersed with Turkish military garrisons.
To monitor compliance with a series of interim steps, the United States and Turkey have agreed to conduct joint ground and aerial patrols, intended to monitor the removal of berms and fortifications set up by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) inside the narrow border zone. Ankara has signaled a desire for frequent patrols, a task that will strain the small number of American forces now based in Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also signaled that if Turkish demands are not met by the end of September, Ankara would, again, consider invading northeast Syria without coordinating with the United States. In a signal of Turkish discontent, Erdogan told an audience in Malatya, “If de facto formation of a safe zone east of the Euphrates River with Turkish soldiers is not initiated by the end of September, Turkey has no choice but to set out on its own.” He went on to argue that safe zone implementation efforts to date are “insufficient to form a safe zone in northern Syria” because “with 3-5 helicopter flights, 5-10 vehicle patrols and a few hundred soldiers in the area” Ankara’s determination to return Syrians to northeast Syria and to combat the Syrian Kurds cannot be realized.
The trouble for Washington is that it lacks leverage with Turkey, and the small number of troops in the country cannot be everywhere, all the time. This reality has ramifications for U.S. policy throughout northeast Syria. The patrols, with Turkey, necessarily require resources that could be used elsewhere in Syria. Yet, without the CJOC, Ankara may have already invaded, upending the American war against IS and ending the relative stability in Syria’s northeast. But, the patrols are not enough to satisfy Turkey’s demands, especially since the Turkish military could invade if it so chooses. The decision to escalate, therefore, rests with Ankara, which empowers Turkish decision-makers to pursue a strategy of pressuring America for concessions, pocketing any concessions made, and then threatening to invade when the U.S. digs in its heels.
This cycle helped Ankara secure the CJOC and, it appears, is starting again with Ankara’s gradual ramping up of threats to invade. Again. The risk, of course, is that Ankara may follow through one day, and American efforts to balance concerns about a Turkish invasion with Kurdish concerns about a Turkish invasion will, eventually, fail. This action would upend the U.S. counter-terrorism mission and, most probably, force President Trump to consider his commitment to an indefinite deployment.
For these reasons, it is important to reflect on the terms that the United States would be willing to accept to help settle Syria’s civil war, broadly, in anticipation of further troubles with Turkey about the northeast. This approach would assume that American and Turkish positions in Syria are irreconcilable but that Washington still retains an interest in working through other parties to settle the conflict on terms it can accept.
To wind down the American presence in Syria, Washington should consider establishing an overt and iterative dialogue with Russia, the largest external power active in Syria. The talks should be used to try to wind down the conflict, so long as Moscow guarantees that its client, the Assad regime, will not use force to take back territory in northeast. Doing so will require U.S. concessions to the Russian side, ranging from an indirect security guarantee for the Assad regime to the potential lifting of some Syria-related U.S. sanctions (albeit not any linked to Moscow’s support for Assad’s violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention). To mollify Turkey, a mixture of carrots and sticks may be needed, beginning with the formalization of a Turkish-Kurdish dialogue, perhaps under international auspices linked to narrow, security-specific considerations in the northeast. These talks should be aimed at reaching a common set of security guarantees and will require considerable international pressure to even get off the ground. Ideally, the United States and Russia would each put pressure on Ankara toward this end.
Faced with the inevitable return of Turkish threats to intervene in Syria’s northeast, Washington should focus less on tactical arrangements that force it to balance Turkish and Kurdish interests against the self-imposed goal of retaining a U.S. presence in Syria to combat IS and Iran at the same time. This approach cedes leverage to Ankara and does not even begin to address the “and then what” question about American intent in Syria, even if it could do the impossible and independently satisfy Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The United States has bought itself more time before having to deal with an imminent Turkish invasion, and it should use this time to think broadly about its options in Syria and how best to achieve a narrower set of outcomes, commiserate with the small presence the U.S still has in the country.
This paper is based on a dialogue held in Iraq in April 2019, focused on the future of Northeast Syria. This project is made possible by the generosity and partnership of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a German political foundation whose civic education programs aim at promoting freedom and liberty, peace, and justice at home and abroad. This project was executed in partnership with the Atlantic Council.