Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops during a patrol near the Turkish border in Syria, November 2018
Rodi Said/REUTERS

On December 14, in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly announced that he would order U.S. forces to withdraw from Syria, taking his Turkish counterpart—and much of his own national security staff—by surprise.

The sudden decision to pull out the remaining 2,000 U.S. forces stationed in northeast Syria was trademark Trump. For years, the president has promised to reduce the U.S. footprint in the region and argued that American allies and partners should do more to shoulder the burden of regional security.

But the United States does not operate in a vacuum. Trump’s precipitous announcement came without any prior attempt to extract concessions or guarantees from the other actors involved in the conflict. Now several of those players are poised to shape the situation on the ground in their favor—and to the detriment of the United States.

The most influential protagonists in this complicated ecosystem of outside actors and proxy forces are Turkey and Russia. Both countries would like to take over the territory in northeast Syria that has so far been under the control of the United States and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed militia mostly led by Kurdish fighters. For Ankara and Moscow, the stakes are high: Turkey, alarmed at the prospect of well-armed Kurdish forces along its border, wants to expand its political reach into northern Syria at any cost. Russia seeks to exploit Kurdish weakness and the threat of Turkish military intervention to empower its ally in Damascus, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. If the United States withdraws, Washington will be forced to watch this race from the sidelines, its leverage over the region squandered.

THE TURKISH GAMBLE 

Before the withdrawal announcement, the Trump administration’s Syria policy was a serious headache for Turkish leaders. In particular, Ankara objected to Trump’s decision, in March 2017, to arm the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, the Syrian Kurds’ armed militia and an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey and the United States have listed as a terror group. The Turkish government was concerned that the United States’ military support for the YPG would create Kurdish enclaves along the Turkish-Syrian border, which it feared could serve as safe havens for Kurdish militants and PKK cadres in Turkey and Iraq.

The most influential protagonists in today's Syria are Turkey and Russia.

Less obvious, but just as important, was Turkey’s unease with the United States’ mission creep in Syria. Initially just concerned with fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), the Trump administration had begun to speak of an additional mandate: countering Iranian influence in Syria. The shift was driven, above all, by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Rather than just fighting the last remaining pockets of ISIS resistance, they argued, the United States should seek to "expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria—an unobtainable goal portending a far more open-ended U.S. military presence.

For Turkey, this expanded mission was a nightmare. Ankara feared that a continued U.S. presence, even after the defeat of ISIS, would also mean continued financing and training for the SDF and, by extension, the YPG. Suddenly, it looked as if the United States might stay long enough for a Kurdish proto-state to emerge right on the Turkish border, complete with armed and well-trained ground forces.

Ankara feared that a continued U.S. presence would also mean continued financing and training for the Kurds.

Determined to prevent this, Ankara stepped up its efforts to gain a political and military foothold in the areas the SDF and the United States have controlled. Replacing Kurdish-supported local councils in the region with governing bodies linked to Turkey, the thinking went, could neutralize any threat emanating from the region. To achieve this, however, Turkey needed to weaken the U.S.-SDF relationship and pressure Washington into cooperating. It did so by threatening a destabilizing cross-border military attack, first on the northern town of Manbij, and then farther east, across the Euphrates River, where U.S. troops are stationed.

In mid-December, as Turkey was massing troops in apparent preparation for such an attack, Erdogan requested a phone call with Trump. Ankara expected that, faced with the threat of a Turkish offensive on U.S.-backed forces, Trump would hasten efforts to introduce Turkish partners in Kurdish-administered towns. But on the phone with Erdogan, Trump did no such thing. Instead, when the Turkish president assured him that Turkey’s priority in Syria remained fighting ISIS, Trump declared that the United States no longer had any reason to be in Syria at all.

A U.S. base in Manbij, Syria May 2018
Rodi Said/REUTERS

Erdogan, of course, never had any serious intention of fighting ISIS in its last strongholds, which are located almost 200 miles from the Turkish border. Now, he had committed to doing just that. And he was left scrambling to prepare for a rapid U.S. exit from the territory over which he had intended to win control with American acquiescence and assistance.

Thrust into this unexpected situation, Turkey must now balance relations with the most powerful outside contender left on the ground: Russia. In late December, a high-level Turkish delegation traveled to Moscow. At the same time, Ankara signaled that it was prepared to escalate its military involvement in the conflict. The Turkish intelligence service and military have been moving men and equipment to positions just outside of Manbij and along Turkey’s border with northeast Syria, allowing Turkey to use force if necessary.

The buildup is also designed to keep the Assad regime in Damascus on alert. Ankara wants to ensure that, if the Syrian government returns to the northeast, Turkey can count on it to crack down on any Kurdish networks along the Turkish border so that the U.S. withdrawal does not simply lead to a regime-allied PKK proto-state. Throughout the seven-year civil war, the Syrian Kurds of the YPG have avoided endorsing regime change and called instead for a decentralized state with some degree of local Kurdish autonomy. So far, this appears to be a nonstarter for Assad. But Turkey won’t take any chances, and sees military pressure as a means to make its voice heard in Damascus and Moscow.  

The military buildup also helps Turkey negotiate with the Trump administration, which is retroactively seeking guarantees that its withdrawal will not hurt U.S. interests. In a series of phone calls over the past weeks, Erdogan appears to have used the threat of Turkish attacks against the Kurds to secure Trump’s support for a 20-mile “safe zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border, which will likely amount to a Turkish buffer against the YPG and an obstacle to refugee flows into Turkey—both long-standing goals of Ankara’s. In this sense, the likelihood of a U.S. troop withdrawal hasn’t changed Turkey’s strategy other than to speed it up.

THE RUSSIAN KINGMAKER

For Russia, the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal serves to broaden the playing field. So far, Moscow has avoided revealing any concrete plans. But judging from its statements on the matter and from its past behavior in the region, Russia will likely attempt to play Turkey and the Kurds off of each other in pursuit of its overriding aim: the return of the Assad regime to all of Syria, including the northeast. Such manipulations will require Moscow to balance its interest in deepening ties with Turkey against its interest in propping up its ally in Damascus.

Things were not always this complicated for Russia. In the early years of Syria’s civil war, Russia’s support for Damascus pitted it directly against the Turkish-backed insurgency in the northeast. Then, in late 2016, Russia helped the Syrian government snuff out much of this insurgency in the onetime rebel stronghold of Aleppo. The fall of Aleppo prompted Turkey to change course. Instead of promoting proxies that sought regime change in Damascus, Turkey now scaled down its ambitions and focused on blocking Kurdish advances along its border.

Moscow, too, has something it wants from the Kurds: submission to the Assad regime.

Turkey undertook two major operations in support of its new strategy: one against ISIS fighters in northern Aleppo in August 2016, followed by another against the Kurdish-held city of Afrin starting in January of last year. In both cases, Turkey’s goal was to put pressure on the Kurds, first by denying the SDF territory west of Manbij, and then by pushing the YPG out of Afrin. In both areas, Turkey is now in de facto political and military control.

Moscow, too, has something it wants from the Kurds: submission to the Assad regime. And Turkey’s operations have presented an opportunity. Russia reached out to Kurdish forces in Afrin both before and at the start of the Turkish offensive, offering to get Turkey to stand down if the Kurds would just agree to submit to Assad’s rule. The YPG rejected the offer, thinking that Russia would not allow Turkey to gobble up Syrian territory. But they miscalculated: Moscow did not stop the Turkish operation, and Afrin is now under the control of Turkish-backed forces.

As Turkey ups the pressure on Kurdish forces beyond Afrin, Russia will likely make similar overtures in the hope that this time around, Kurdish leaders will accept a return of the Assad regime in exchange for avoiding a Turkish attack. Damascus, meanwhile, is currently negotiating with pro-regime Kurds within the YPG. Leaked reports suggest that the two sides still disagree strongly about how much influence over their territory the Kurds would have to cede. Moscow and Damascus are relying on an agreement as the only means of preventing a permanent zone of direct or indirect Turkish control in Syria.

THE AMERICAN WILDCARD

With troops stationed right at the center of the action, the United States still has a measure of influence on the tug-of-war in the region. Its exact strategy, however, is unclear. The Pentagon is determined to clear the final pockets of ISIS territory in eastern Syria, and considers the SDF an important partner in this fight. But some at the State Department have always questioned this alliance with the SDF because of its poisonous impact on U.S.-Turkish relations and favor simply turning U.S.-held positions over to Ankara to prevent the return of the Assad regime. On the whole, the U.S. national security bureaucracy has tried to backpedal Trump’s withdrawal announcement, looking for ways to pull out without compromising U.S. interests. But these efforts will amount to little so long as Turkey can simply skirt the bureaucracy and talk directly to Trump, who seems inclined to take its assurances about the Kurds at face value.

Turkey has little incentive to share power with the Kurds in Syria or anywhere else. It is intent on defeating them and pushing the Syrian Democratic Forces off its border. The Syrian Kurds, for their part, have just as little interest in tolerating an expansion of Turkish power. Instead, they will keep on negotiating with the Assad regime. The Russians will be close at hand, watching these negotiations unfold and using the threat of Turkish military action to empower Damascus and embarrass Washington. Whether the region will end up back in the hands of Assad or partially under Turkish control is still unclear. But any modicum of stability in the Kurdish areas that the United States has helped liberate from ISIS is gone.

  • AARON STEIN is Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute
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