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A nation must think before it acts.
On October 4, President Erdogan of the Republic of Turkey announced a major Turkish military incursion into northeast Syria. In Erdogan’s words, his goal is to “neutralize terror threats against Turkey and lead to the establishment of a safe zone,” the terror threat being the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Kurdish militias affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been at war with Turkey for decades. Unfortunately, the YPG is also the backbone of the U.S.-backed counter-ISIS coalition in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
For years, the U.S. has deterred Turkish aggression against its Kurdish allies. Yet, following a conversation with Erdogan, U.S. President Donald Trump unexpectedly announced on October 6 that he would withdraw U.S. forces to facilitate the Turkish operation. Trump’s green light sparked a frenzy of bipartisan outrage that Trump was abandoning a loyal ally. Nevertheless, Erdogan launched Operation “Peace Spring” on October 9, bombarding YPG positions across the length of the Syria-Turkey border.
These events have a number of implications for U.S. national security. Setting aside the Trump administration’s shambolic policy process, Trump’s capitulation is the predictable denouement to a fundamentally incohesive U.S. counter-ISIS strategy, coupled with Trump’s strong isolationist instincts. Unfortunately, Trump’s desire to leave Syria behind does not obviate enduring U.S. interests there, and the U.S. appears unprepared for the fallout.
Since its beginnings in 2014, the U.S. counter-ISIS strategy was fraught with tension. On one hand, the U.S. adopted the Kurdish YPG as its local proxy of choice, funneling resources to the YPG under the thin guise of the SDF, a multi-ethnic force dominated by the YPG. On the other hand, Turkey—a NATO Ally—adamantly opposed U.S. cooperation with the YPG. Turkey classifies the YPG as a terrorist organization in league with PKK insurgents who are openly hostile to Turkish sovereignty. In the worst-case scenario, Ankara fears that an independent Kurdish statelet in Syria could prompt a secessionist insurrection and violent conflict in southern Turkey.
Thus, the U.S.-SDF alliance was beset from the outset by inter-ally hostility, and U.S.-Turkey relations have markedly deteriorated since. Turkey repeatedly acted to deny the Kurds territorial control in northwest Syria (Operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch), and Erdogan regularly pressured the U.S. to form an SDF-free buffer zone across Syria’s northern border. The first major sign that this pressure was bearing fruit emerged in December 2018, when Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from Syria. Though Trump soon backtracked to a partial withdrawal, Erdogan continued to press, and eventually threatened to act unilaterally in early August 2019. Following last-minute negotiations, the U.S. and Turkey agreed on August 7 to a narrow buffer zone with joint U.S.-Turkish patrols, which the U.S. cajoled the SDF to accept. But Erdogan remained dissatisfied, insisting on September 6 that Turkey would act unilaterally absent rapid progress towards exclusive Turkish control over a 32km deep by 480km wide zone by the end of September. As the deadline approached and Erdogan again threatened invasion, Trump finally folded, relocating 50 U.S. service members to make way for the Turkish assault.
As others have noted, it is important to understand this moment in context: while the exact timing of the Turkish offensive and Trump’s “Kurdish betrayal” reflects (and is worsened by) his impulsive style, the inevitability of such a confrontation was hardwired into the counter-ISIS strategy initiated under the Barack Obama administration. The U.S.-YPG alliance was guaranteed to trigger severe blowback from Turkey—the U.S. managed to delay a showdown while ISIS ran rampant, but with ISIS subdued (temporarily) and the U.S. commitment to Syria uncertain, Erdogan sensed both the opportunity and the need to force the issue.
Trump’s tacit acceptance of Erdogan’s war has provoked harsh bipartisan criticism in Washington. These critics address two aspects of U.S. Syria policy: 1) the immediate impact of Turkey’s aggression on the ground; and 2) the future of U.S. engagement in Syria, or lack thereof.
Regarding the former, the Turkish assault is likely to destabilize northeast Syria. First, war threatens mass violence against Syrian Kurds and a corresponding humanitarian crisis. Recognizing this, both Trump and Congress have threatened to devastate the Turkish economy if Turkey abuses the Kurds. Barring extensive multilateral coordination with the European Union, these threats will likely prove insufficient—from Ankara’s perspective, seizing the opportunity to eliminate a critical security threat is probably worth the risk of U.S. economic punishment, and Erdogan has made his intentions perfectly clear. A physical U.S. presence in northern Syria was the primary impediment to Turkish aggression—now, the U.S. has far less leverage to halt Turkey’s wrath.
Moreover, the Turkey-YPG conflict is derailing the counter-ISIS mission. Despite its recent losses, ISIS is prepared for a prolonged insurgency in northeast Syria, and defeating it will require sustained efforts to root out agitators and rebuild northeast Syria. Yet, the Turkish assault has already forced the SDF to cease all counter-ISIS operations, and humanitarian and development NGOs cannot function effectively in an active war zone. As northeast Syria is thrown into chaos, ISIS will take the opportunity to regroup and organize for the struggle to come, especially if Turkish airstrikes help ISIS detainees escape from prison. There is also no indication that Turkey will, or even could, manage counter-ISIS operations once the dust settles—Turkey’s economy is weak and its military may struggle to effectively control the safe zone, let alone police the rest of northeast Syria.
Incidentally, U.S.-Turkey relations—ostensibly the clear beneficiary of Trump’s policy shift—may be beyond saving. Congress vehemently opposes Turkish aggression against the Kurds, and is already preparing severe sanctions. Moreover, the Kurdish question is not the only source of U.S.-Turkey tension—in recent years, Turkey has held U.S. citizens hostage, blamed the U.S. for the 2016 coup attempt, and purchased S-400 missile systems from the Russian Federation. If Turkey is intentionally reorienting its foreign policy away from Washington, then the U.S. may be throwing away a loyal ally in the Kurds without getting much from Turkey in return.
These problems alone present sufficient cause for alarm. However, some critics emphasize a broader concern: Trump’s actions likely presage a total U.S. withdrawal from Syria. Trump’s rhetoric certainly implied as much, in line with his desire to offload the Syrian catastrophe to regional actors; as Trump tweeted on October 7, “It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.” As in the past, however, the Pentagon has resisted Trump’s impulse to withdraw, insisting that the U.S. was merely relocating U.S. troops and would remain in Syria for the foreseeable future.
The problem for the Pentagon is that its position in Syria is rapidly deteriorating. The 1,000 remaining U.S. troops primarily serve in an advisory role, working “by, with, and through” the SDF—that arrangement will collapse if Turkey cripples the SDF. Put bluntly, U.S. troops cannot hold northeast Syria alone, especially if the SDF strikes a deal with Bashar al-Assad for protection against Turkey, or if Russia and Iran decide to press their advantage. Thus, any continuing U.S. deployment will likely be precarious at best. Perhaps most importantly, Trump ultimately calls the shots, and the commander-in-chief’s personal momentum towards withdrawal may prove unstoppable.
While there is clear consensus that the Turkish offensive threatens U.S. interests, the ramifications of U.S. withdrawal are less clear. On one hand, members of the Syria Study Group argue in their final report to Congress that sustained U.S. engagement in Syria serves several critical objectives, including: containing Iran and protecting Israel; deterring regime aggression in Idlib and a consequent humanitarian crisis; keeping ISIS pinned to the mat; and ultimately pushing for a negotiated political transition that ensures long-term stability in Syria.
On the other hand, others contend that halfhearted U.S. engagement in Syria is insufficient to achieve these larger objectives. As Frederic Hof, a co-author of the SSG report, asserts, “For the president, there can be no comfortable, split-the-difference middle ground”—the U.S. must either assume responsibility for Syria and demonstrate serious commitment to the cause (requiring additional and expanded troop deployments), or get out, sacrificing its interests in the process. From this perspective, 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria may fare little better than zero. While Hof presents a passionate and refreshingly frank defense of the “heavy lift” option, the bare truth is that neither Obama, Trump, nor the U.S. public have been willing to stomach the level of direct U.S. commitment that Hof’s vision requires, even if total disengagement harms our interests in the long run.
Thus, due to a combination of political expedience and personal preference, Trump is piloting the U.S. towards total withdrawal, albeit in an unnecessarily destructive fashion. It seems likely that, before long, the U.S. will be sitting on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict—and one can only hope that we will not come to regret it.