The U.S. is reportedly on its way out of Syria. On Wednesday morning, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration said it would withdraw all U.S. forces from the country within the next 100 days. An anonymous official further claimed that all State Department Officials in Syria would be evacuated within 24 hours. On Thursday, anonymous U.S. officials told Reuters that the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria would also stop. The announcements came days after the Syrian Democratic Forces, a largely Kurdish, U.S.-backed rebel group, declared victory over the last major Islamic State stronghold in eastern Syria. Now that the group’s defeat is near, the U.S. has accomplished its goals in Syria.
The United States’ departure will leave its Kurdish partners in Syria high and dry. The U.S. has partnered with the SDF over the years to fight against the Islamic State. Since Ankara launched Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016, it has also shielded the Kurdish People’s Protection Units – or YPG, the SDF coalition’s largest member – from an assault by Turkey, which considers the group a terrorist organization. Without a U.S. presence on the ground, Turkey will have free rein to move into the Kurdish-held portions of northern and northeastern Syria.
And Turkey does indeed appear to be preparing to go after the Kurds. For the last week, it has been broadcasting its intention to start a new offensive east of the Euphrates River. It won’t be a small one, either: A spokesperson for Syria’s pro-Turkey rebels claimed Dec. 14 that 15,000 fighters are mobilized for the operation, and a few days later, Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak said that 24,000 troops, including Turkish soldiers, are ready for the fight. If these accounts are accurate, Turkey is planning to commit more of its own soldiers to this new operation than it did to its offensive in Afrin earlier this year. Reports have also surfaced that Turkey is moving tanks and artillery to its border with Syria, albeit west of the Euphrates. According to Washington’s announcement, the Kurds in northeast Syria will have to face this threat on their own.
Although the White House’s announcement reportedly took some U.S. officials by surprise, the timing makes sense. Proclaiming the Islamic State’s defeat will enable Washington to withdraw troops from Syria with something like a victory to show for it. Transnational jihadism has long been the main issue for the United States in Syria. The SDF’s capture of the last major IS stronghold east of the Euphrates demonstrates the success of its efforts against transnational jihadist forces there (apart from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which Turkey has yet to disband).
That’s not all the U.S. has to gain from the move. Earlier in the Syrian civil war, Washington wanted Turkey to take on a more active role in the conflict. Its hope, of course, was that Ankara would engage in the fight against jihadist organizations like IS. But the Turkish government was reluctant to invade Syria for the purpose of repelling a Sunni group that was weakening the administration of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom it considered a regional adversary. The YPG, by contrast, is a much more appealing target for Turkey. Once Turkish forces have wrested control of northern and northeastern Syria from the Kurds – and it almost certainly will, given its military superiority – they will establish permanent administrative structures there, as they have in Afrin, to try to create a lasting buffer. Turkey will then take the YPG’s place as the target of IS attacks in the region – another of which reportedly occurred in Raqqa on Wednesday – forcing the country to confront the jihadist group.
The U.S., then, will get what it wanted from Turkey all along – not because Ankara has changed its tune but because its interests once again align with those of Washington. The U.S. withdrawal from the region will pave the way for the offensive Turkey wants to launch against the YPG. Turkey’s offensive, in turn, will pave the way for the more permanent professional military force the United States wants in the region to keep IS at bay.
On top of that, Turkey’s offensive will further constrain Iranian power in Syria. It is in the interest of the United States to minimize the amount of territory the Assad administration reclaims in Syria. Even if Assad recovers 75 percent of his country, that’s still 25 percent that Tehran won’t have influence over. Were the war to continue as it has been going, Assad would consolidate all the territory held by non-Kurdish rebels, leaving Idlib as the only outlier, before turning his attention to the north and northeast. (Assad had a tacit pact with the Kurds to leave them alone while he dealt with the rest of Syria, but he and his foreign backers knew that at some point he would need to bring the territory they held back under the central government’s control.) By moving into the Kurdish-occupied territory now, Ankara will stop Assad before he has even had a chance to deal with Idlib, where Turkey also has a presence. Iran will still have access to some of its supply routes through southern Syria, though they have been under such strain recently that Tehran has found other ways to get arms and equipment to Hezbollah, including developing weapons in Lebanon.
As it prepares for its offensive east of the Euphrates, Turkey is also busy hashing out a peace plan for Syria with Iran and Russia. The three have agreed on the structure of a constitutional committee that could bring the war to a political end. It would consist of 150 delegates, including 50 representatives from the Assad government and 50 representatives from Syria’s rebel groups. The disposition of the remaining 50 delegates, reserved for “independent” members – in other words, representatives from Turkey, Russia and Iran – is still up in the air. Turkey is trying to gather as many bargaining chips as it can to strengthen its position in the talks, as states often do when negotiating a political compromise in a war. So long as Ankara doesn’t use its eventual presence in northern Syria to undermine Assad’s rule, Moscow probably will be willing to settle for an arrangement in which some territory remains outside the Syrian government’s control.
These other parties’ gain will be the Syrian Kurds’ loss. The U.S. support for Syria’s Kurdish groups was always a tactical alliance, meant to minimize the number of American troops fighting IS on the ground. As that fight winds down, Washington has much less of a strategic rationale for maintaining that support, especially since doing so would jeopardize its relations with Turkey, which now appear to be on the mend after a tumultuous year. The U.S. special representative for Syria engagement seemed to back up the idea that Washington is ending its support for the Kurds, saying in a speech Monday at the Atlantic Council that the U.S. does “not have permanent relations with sub-state entities.” There’s every reason to believe Turkey’s pending offensive will succeed in defeating Kurdish forces after the U.S. withdraws its support. After all, it did so in northwestern Syria with Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016, and again in Afrin with Operation Olive Branch this year.
Depending on how quickly U.S. troops pull out of Syria, Turkey may have to delay its invasion. It may also face operational hurdles, as it did during Euphrates Shield, that slow its progress. Then, too, there’s always the possibility, however remote, that Washington and Ankara have reached a private understanding whereby Turkish forces will stop their advance at a certain point, or else the U.S. will resume its support for the YPG. Regardless, the developments in Syria reflect Turkey’s growing role in the Middle East, and the attending expansion of its geographic interests. No longer is Turkey focused on defending its own borders; it is turning its gaze much farther east.