Where Does the US Pullout from Syria Leave Turkey and the Kurds?

President Donald Trump decided to put an end to a low-cost high-return US operation in Syria. The Operation Inherent Resolve, which started as a military intervention against the Islamic State, evolved partly into a stabilisation operation that gave Washington indirect control of half of Syria’s strategic resources and potential leverage against the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran. Mr Trump’s statement, delivered initially in the form of a tweet, left allies and enemies of the US wondering what Mr Trump will receive in return for this decision. The answer to this question, potentially, will have substantial consequences on the Turkish government, Syrian Kurds and the restive Kurdish population of Turkey. 

It is significant that Trump negotiated the pullout with Turkey rather than Russia and Iran - the two patron states of the Syrian regime. The US president in a second tweet also declared that President Erdogan had informed him that he would eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria. President Trump also spoke of the US and Turkey's ‘mutual involvement in Syria' and that the US pullout will be 'highly coordinated' with Ankara. These remarks by Trump indicate that the US pullout might aim to pull Turkey fully back into the NATO orbit. Such a goal might entail pushing Turkey to take a position against Moscow or Tehran or both. Given the US's recent anti-Iran strategy in the Middle East, Tehran has more reason to be suspicious of the deals between Erdogan and Trump.

That might explain why Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made an effort to put to rest Tehran's concerns during a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani within 24-hours of the Trump statement. At a subsequent press conference, both leaders vowed to work closer on Syria while the Turkish president said, "Turkey is deepening [its] cooperation with Iran." It is unclear, however, whether the Iranian leadership is entirely at ease with a renewed US-Turkish rapprochement.

Since 2015, Turkish leader Erdogan has skilfully exploited geopolitical rivalries between Washington, Moscow and Tehran. The US withdrawal from Syria would put to the test his balancing act. Ankara scored many points with Moscow and Tehran when it put pressure on US efforts in Syria. As a result, Ankara carved out an area of control inside Syria and a say on Syria's future as a guarantor country in the Astana process. With the US out of the equation, the Turkish government will have difficulty justifying to Russia and Iran, its presence in Syria.

Trump's statements quoted above also hint that when it comes to US policy on Syria, Washington will put all its eggs on the Turkey basket. The appointment of Ambassador James Jeffrey, one of the most pro-Turkish US officials, as Syria envoy, gave an early clue as to the direction the US President wants to take vis-a-vis Syria and Turkey.  In the current situation, President Erdogan might need to provide something to Washington regarding Syria and beyond, while at the same time try not to alienate or antagonise Moscow and Tehran.

With his decision, President Trump put an end to a hitherto successful but an inconsistent and thus unsustainable policy in Syria. Most of the critiques of the President's decision to pull out have failed to propose a solution to the problems between Turkey and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The US has never agreed politically recognise the SDF. The partnership with the SDF and the US remained almost solely as a military partnership. In no point, the US made any political statement arguing for the SDF's participation in the Geneva process. The US officials also didn't politically champion Kurdish rights in a future Syria, neither in international platforms nor among the Syrian opposition, on whom Washington had strong leverage.

As well as benefiting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militarily, the incoherent US policy, at times, also caused severe damage to the Kurds by provoking Russia, Turkey and Iran against them. The most important examples of the damage caused to the Kurds due to US official statements was in December 2017, when US Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command announced that Washington is developing an expanded training program for local Kurdish and Arab border guards in Syria. The statement drew significant protests from Moscow, Ankara and Tehran which regarded it as a signal as to what the US is planning to do in Syria following the defeat of ISIS. The statement provided the necessary ground for President Vladimir Putin and President Erdogan to cement their collaboration. What followed was a Russian-approved Turkish offensive, a few weeks later, into the Syrian Kurdish town of Afrin.

A second such example is the repeated statements by top Trump administration officials declaring that the US military will stay in Syria until the pro-Iranian forces leave the country. The announcement drew one of the strongest criticisms against the Syrian Kurds from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and further alienated the Syrian Kurds and Moscow.

Advantages Turkey will be gaining over the US ending its support to the Kurdish-led SDF are clear. Deprived of a patron protecting its borders against Turkey and the Assad regime, the Kurdish led-administrations will be severely weakened. Ankara also hopes that under sustained pressure, the alliance between different ethnic and political groups under the SDF may break down. 

However, with the US decision to withdraw, Ankara might have got more than it bargained for. Russian and Iranian willingness to go along with Turkey's plans in Syria largely stems from the U.S. presence there. It is doubtful that Moscow and Tehran would tolerate Turkey getting control of oil-rich north-eastern Syria as well as strategic dams and fertile agricultural fields. What Ankara would have preferred was a continuing US presence in Syria and an agreement with Washington that would have green-lighted a limited Turkish cross-border military operation into Northern Syrian towns.
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