The move paves way for a Turkish ‘invasion’ of northern Syria, which has a smorgasbord of rebels, Islamists, foreign powers, Iran backed rebels, US and Turkey led joint patrols and others attempting to govern a fragile geopolitical ecosystem.
By Kabir Taneja
On October 7, the Trump administration released a statement regarding a telephone conversation between President Donald Trump and President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In this communication, US announced that it was going to withdraw support it was providing to the Kurds in northern Syria, who have been instrumental over the past four years in defeat of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Daesh).
This eccentric policy shift by Trump caught many by surprise, including, as per reports, the president’s own staff and military advisers. The move paves way for a Turkish ‘invasion’ of northern Syria, which has a smorgasbord of rebels, Islamists, foreign powers, Iran backed rebels, US and Turkey led joint patrols and others attempting to govern a fragile geopolitical ecosystem. However, the Kurds stand to lose the most, with Ankara’s longstanding history and disdain for the Kurds almost certainly bringing most of their population into the Turkish military’s crosshairs.
In the White House statement, the Trump administration also blamed France, Germany, and other European states to take back ISIS fighters currently being holed up in prisons in Syria. Trump himself has publicly derided his own European allies on their failure to do so, however, it must be clarified that despite US narratives, it is in fact the Kurds who hold ISIS fighters and their families in places such as the troubled Al Hawl camp on the Syria–Iraq border, and not the US or its allies directly. It is the very support provided by the US and said allies to the Kurds, which has allowed the latter to keep ISIS captives in a relatively controlled, but in long–term unsustainable environment.
However, the question of the Al Hawl camp is a one of long–term strategising of the battle against ISIS and filling in the political and governmental vacuums that plague much of the Syrian regions. The question of rehabilitation and/or prosecution of these ISIS fighters has had no long–term solution yet, allowing camps such as Al Hawl to not only swell in numbers, but ISIS radicals share rooms and space with normal civilians, increasing chances of radicalisation spreading through such camps by manifold.
The Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had in fact taken a step back and dismantled their defensive positions in the northern regions, where they were guaranteed security in exchange as part of the Security Management Agreement (SMA). However, seemingly, once the SDF kept their end of the bargain, Trump gave Turkey the green light to take military action against the Kurds, betraying not just them, but America’s allies, the Pentagon and US military commanders on the ground who armed, trained and lived with the Kurdish troops, dismantling ISIS’s caliphate together over the past four years.
The reactions to Trump’s move were largely of shock and disbelief, and rightly so. Embattled by multiple domestic challenges, Trump saw this decision in the light of him ending ‘unnecessary’ American military operations. However, the larger narrative that has come to play is that of abandonment of the Kurds who did much of the ground work in defeating ISIS, a claim that Trump himself has marketed with much gusto as an outcome of American steadfastness in the region. This, oddly, unravels the work against the terror group that he himself has repeatedly celebrated over the past year.
Brett McGurk, the former US special envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, and one who quit as result of a similar attempt to pullout by Trump earlier (where McGurk was kept in the dark), called out on the president’s decision saying Trump lacked understanding of anything that was happening on the ground in Syria. A day before Trump’s decision, the official Twitter account of Operation Inherent Resolve’s military spokesperson had tweeted their reiterated commitment to back the SDF in the Kurds’ continuing efforts to dismantle the remnants of ISIS.
The Syrian crisis had also created significant tensions in the US–Turkey relations, the latter being a member of NATO. Ankara witnessed the empowering of the Kurds under the ambit of fighting the Islamic State, and by association the empowering of the likes of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish group which has been enlisted as a ‘terror’ group by some countries, and is listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department. Beyond this, the Syrian crisis also witnessed the resurgence of Russia as a revivalist power in the region, backing the regime of Bashar al–Assad in Damascus. Recently, Turkey’s close relations with Moscow and the decision to buy S400 missile defense systems created cracks between Ankara and Washington, with Turkey being denied deliveries of the advanced F35 fighter jets it awaited from the United States.
Turkey’s inroads into northern Syria’s complex power sharing have been quite concrete. Ankara has backed militias, and scratched the backs of Islamists while also conducting joint patrols with the US. The town of Idlib became a pinnacle example of these fraught systems in place, taping together northern regions of the country as Russia, Iran and Turkey failed to come to a power–sharing understanding, with the town being held by Hayat Tahrir al–Sham (HTS), an Islamist groups with both roots and DNA coming from Al Qaeda.
Now, a Turkish “invasion” of the northern Syrian regions from the current (roughly) existing status quo could see the Turkish border being extended into Syrian territory by up to 50 km as per some estimations. A weakened, both militarily and morally, Kurdish force while a boon for Turkey is not good news for the fight against ISIS which is far from over. Despite the various flare shots in the skies declaring victory against ISIS by Trump in December last year, the terror group has only lost the land it had taken over, the group in itself, and thousands of fighters that still remain either incognito within the Syrian and Iraqi society, or help within the camps, as civilians, remain as a persistent global threat.
The potential of an ISIS 2.0 is an outcome many have feared for months now, as the Syrian crisis sees no logical conclusion in sight. A recent report released by the Syria Study Group highlighted that no easy solutions existed for the crisis, meaning that the conflict will go on for the foreseeable future. On US–Turkey in context of the conflict, the report states: “US–Turkey relations are strained in Syria by starkly diverging views of the SDF. A Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria would represent a major setback to US aims in Syria and a new crisis for the US–Turkish relationship. The United States regards its decision to partner with the SDF to fight ISIS as having been necessitated by the lack of a credible and timely Turkish alternative; Turkey regards the SDF as a grave security threat due to its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).” However, the report also goes on to back the fact that the US is still the biggest power capable and able to “influence the conflict’s trajectory, and that it must do so given the threats the conflict poses to American interests.”
These “American interests” however have a different definition with the Trump administration. It is perhaps fair to conclude that Erdogan was successfully able to ‘play’ Trump to gain what he wanted, and the US was willing and accepting to the same, not bothered about the consequences of its fast depleting reputation of a strong ally and a trust deficit that may take years to rebuild. The current regional security scenario in the Middle East is critical, with increased protests in Iraq flaring up again, these political vacuums were the same ones that led ISIS to take over cities such as Mosul and Tikrit a few years ago.
President Trump, hours after his decision to withdraw, took on to Twitter and said that if Turkey does anything “off limits” post the American withdrawal, he would “totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey.” It is safe to say, Turkey would know that it has already won the battle of wits with Washington and would proceed with a gradual re–engineering of the politics of the north–Syrian conflict. The biggest victor in all of this, however, could just be a potentially resurgent Islamic State.