By Ty Joplin
To say politics in the Middle East is cliched to the point of being counter-productive. Nonetheless, it’s a mainstay in discussing the region because its political developments are so fast-moving that it makes even locals and experts’ heads spin.
The war in Syria is a tragic embodiment of this complexity.
Analysts and policy makers around the world began assuming the war would wind down and find a political solution once it was clear that ISIS was losing and nobody could viably challenge Assad’s hold on power.
Instead, it has dragged on, and become more intractable. The latest and perhaps greatest example of complexity is ISIS’ eventual military defeat, on paper a universally desired good.
Their departure as a military force also cause new waves of chaos to reverberate throughout the country and the region.
ISIS is on its last legs in the country—a shadow of the terrible force it once was. Now, controlling only a few towns on the Iraq-Syria border, it will likely be taken down military and remain as a group of disorganized cells around the region.
Their defeat will reopen a series of political vacuums that will likely reshuffle territory in Syria.
From the Kurdish perspective, defeating ISIS militarily may mean losing large chunks of territory in northern Syria. Right now, the only thing holding Turkey back is the presence of about two thousand U.S. troops in Manbij, Syria. But once they leave or are moved from the region as their primary mission is to ensure ISIS’ defeat, Turkey will likely pounce on the Kurds.
To understand this moment in the Syrian civil war, here is a break-down of how each side may react to the defeat of ISIS.
Uncertain Future for Syrian Kurds after ISIS
The Kurdish people are concentrated in northern Syria. Once ISIS began its blitzkrieg campaign to take over much of Syria and Iraq in 2014, the Kurds initially proved themselves as the only effective force to counter the extremist group.
As such, they succeeded in taking over much of the land they won from ISIS, including much of Syria’s oil fields near Deir Ezzour. But they have been subject to numerous assaults from Turkey, who view the Kurdish militias as terrorists due to their ties with Turkey’s Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) which has been fighting against Ankara for decades.
In 2016, Turkey President Recep Erdogan intervened in northern Syria to oust the Kurdish YPG from the region. The operation stalled after failing to take Manbij from the Kurds, but Turkey kept its forces and influence in the areas it captured. Then, in early 2018, Erdogan again attacked Kurdish-held territory, this time in the Afrin region, an area just west of the land he captured two years previously.
Both times, Erdogan threatened Manbij, and has only been stopped by the fact that U.S. forces are present in the area, and any direct Turkish attack on U.S. soldiers could result in a strong U.S. backlash.
But the primary U.S. mission is not to defend the Kurds from Turkey, but merely to support them in their efforts against ISIS. Once those efforts are completed and areas are stabilized, the U.S. mission’s mandate will be over, and the troops may withdraw.
Although U.S. President Trump and his military officials have publicly disagreed about their exact plan for Syria, both want to see the end of ISIS. Trump wants troops out, saying ‘ideally’ the troops would be out within 6 months. Trump has repeatedly criticized U.S. involvement in the Middle East, decrying the costs of decades-long occupations.
As such, he will likely not be moved by Kurdish pleas to defend them against a Turkish force.
Military officials, for their part, have emphasized ‘stabilization’ as the way forward, which would leave troops in for longer. But stabilization is not nation building or democracy promotion, which was the U.S.’ posture in the Middle East for most of the 21st century, so even they are not interested in keeping an indefinite, long-term presence in the country.
Either way, troops are on their way out even if the timeline is debated, meaning the Kurds are losing their number one ally and reason not to be invaded.
Even if they may take a few more pockets of land in southeastern Syria from ISIS, they will face the overwhelming force of the Turkish Armed Forces, which they were utterly incapable of stopping in Afrin. They may lose Manbij and more territory east of the Euphrates river if Turkey decides to continue its campaign against Kurdish armed groups.
The U.S.’ Dwindling Role in Syria
Trump, as a sitting president, has been one of the most outspoken critics of U.S.’ presence in the Middle East.
“It’s time to get out of Syria… I want to get out, I want to bring our troops back home,” Trump said on April 3.
His military focus on defeating ISIS is largely a continuation of former president Obama’s plan for the region. But in withdrawing shortly after ISIS’ defeat, the U.S. would be willingly and knowingly forfeiting both a direct foothold in the country guaranteed by boots on the ground, and a strong partnership with Syrian Kurds. The Kurds will likely feel abandoned by the U.S. if Trump pulls out and lets their region be overrun by Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian militias.
In other words, defeating ISIS may mean losing Syria for the U.S. As it stands now, they only have a limited presence, including a small military base near the borders of Iraq and Jordan, they have had little to no role in determining its landscape or negotiating key deals between the players in the country.
Their only directly influential presence is in Manbij, and once that goes, so too does their leverage over Turkey.
Turkey’s Post-ISIS Power Grab
Turkey would love to see the U.S. go so that they can swiftly move into Manbij.
Erdogan recently said in a speech that the Afrin mission was just one step of its larger objectives in Syria, and that more Kurdish-held towns and cities are next: “Now we will continue this process until we entirely eliminate this corridor, including in Manbij, Ayn al-Arab [Kobane], Tel-Abyad, Ras al-Ayn [Serekaniye] and Qamishli,” he threatened.
All of these locations mentioned lie east of the Euphrates river, and mostly lie along the border between Turkey and Syria. Importantly, the threat on Qamishli is also an indirect threat on Assad, who still has regime troops stationed inside the city.
The defeat of ISIS, in other words, means a big win for Turkey in its own agenda to capture much of northern Syria.
Assad’s Quest to Reclaim Syria
For Assad, the defeat of ISIS may also bring good news to his regime, which is now concentrated on slowly re-taking opposition-held land to unify the country.
When Turkey invaded Afrin, the Kurds went to Assad for help and he responded by sending militia groups to aid in the defense of the region. The Kurds, unable to rely on the U.S. in the event of a withdrawal, may ask again for Assad’s aid.
For the Afrin deal, the Kurds gave up key positions that they held in Aleppo in exchange for help, in addition to likely losing all of the Afrin region as a negotiating chip in post-war negotiations for autonomy. The Kurds in Syria have long wanted more sovereignty from Assad, and have pushed for Syria to adopt a federal system of governance to grant them more independence.
If they ask Assad for aid, they are effectively giving up much of their bargaining chips for negotiations of power, which is a major victory for Assad.
Assad too may be able to work out a deal with Turkey to oust Kurdish militias from agreed-upon regions in exchange for peace, but it is hard to gauge the likelihood of such a deal given Turkey’s historic support for armed struggle against Assad by sheltering and funding opposition groups.
All in all, defeating ISIS may close off one front while opening up several others in the country and exposing even more civilians to war. As it stands, the war in Syria has killed well over half a million people, displaced six million internally and created over five million international refugees who have fled to Jordan, Turkey and Europe.
Although the defeat of ISIS is recognized as a crucial good that is needed, given the group’s brutality and danger abroad, that fight also will carry several significant consequences that could expand the war in Syria and mutate it further.
What was once a battle between Assad and his opposition in 2011 has now transformed the country into a global platform to stage and project power and influence.
If ISIS is defeated, that will likely accelerate rather than reverse this trend.