Despite President Trump’s pledge to immediately begin withdrawing US forces from northern Syria, it now appears that American troops will remain for some time yet.
– While US troops remain deployed, a Turkish offensive against Kurdish forces remains unlikely
– The anti-ISIS campaign will face disruptions as the Kurds avoid overextending their forces
– Assuming that the US does eventually exit the Syrian theatre, Washington will have few options to prevent an eventual Turkish offensive
– Expect the Kurds to make overtures towards the Assad regime with the goal of making a deal pre-empting any Turkish assault
– The US withdrawal is likely to embolden Iran and confuse Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy, which seeks to force Tehran to scale back its regional influence
DEFEATING ISIS AND CONTAINING IRAN BUT RANKLING TURKEY
A contingent of US troops numbering up to 2,200 has been deployed in Syria since at least early 2016. The primary mission of these troops is to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — an umbrella of Kurdish, Arab and Syrian groups dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — in their fight against ISIS. The SDF has proved to be a highly effective ground force, playing a leading role in whittling away ISIS’ territory to less than 1% of its greatest extent. The SDF is still actively involved in anti-ISIS operations in a series of villages in the Euphrates River Valley, the terror group’s last major holdout.
For the US, a ‘boots on the ground’ presence is about more than defeating ISIS. Iran has long coveted northern Syria as part of its ‘Shia crescent’ axis linking Tehran with the Mediterranean Sea via Shia majority Iraq and its Lebanese affiliate Hezbollah. By stationing forces in Syria, the US has denied Iran this corridor and provided a general check — more psychological than physical — on Iranian actions in the region. Moreover, with Russia and to a lesser extent Turkey and Iran having long-emerged as kingmakers in the Syrian conflict, it was hoped that the presence of US troops would provide Washington with some say over Syria’s future.
However, not everyone sees the benefits of remaining in Syria. Trump views open-ended military commitments as antithetical to his ‘America First’ doctrine. Accordingly, it comes as little surprise that, contrary to media reports about Trump’s ‘sudden’ pull-out, the State Department was tasked with preparing the move as early as March.
For its part, Turkey has long resented the US arming and supporting the YPG, which they see — not completely unjustifiably — as being linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the terrorist organisation that has fought Ankara for Kurdish independence since 1984. Turkey fears that an autonomous Kurdish state in Syria — effectively already in existence — will embolden Turkish Kurds and potentially serve as a launching pad for attacks within Turkey. Because of its geostrategic position and military strength, Turkey remains a key NATO partner, and one that Washington can ill afford to lose as Russia and China deepen ties with the Eurasian nation.
Given these two key factors and Trump’s errant belief that ISIS had been defeated, the president’s December 14 phone call with Turkish President Erdogan acted as the trigger for the withdrawal announcement.
TRUMP POTENTIALLY AVOIDS ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’ MOMENT
In recent days, White House officials, and to a lesser extent Trump himself, appear to have walked back from the December 14 announcement. On December 23, Trump pledged that the pull-out would be ‘slow and highly coordinated.’ In the Middle East on a tour aimed at reassuring allies about US security commitments, National Security Advisor John Bolton declared on January 7 that there was no timetable for withdrawal, which would be ‘conditional’ on the defeat of ISIS and safety of the Kurds. Under such conditions, US troops could realistically be in Syria indefinitely.
Trump’s apparent about-face can only have come after sustained pushback from his team and the military establishment. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seem to have helped persuade their boss — albeit only partially — of the implications that a hasty pull-out would have for efforts to contain Iran, US credibility in the region and elsewhere, and the predominant mission to defeat ISIS given Turkey’s inability and unwillingness to finish it off.
The fight against ISIS — far from over, with the group still having up to 30,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq — has already been harmed by Trump’s decision. Wary of a Turkish offensive and a two-front war, the SDF has negotiated a ceasefire with ISIS in and around Deiz Az Zor.
Underscoring the sheer confusion surrounding the withdrawal’s timetable — which can only hurt Washington’s credibility — Trump’s tweet on January 7 seems to take issue with Bolton’s announcement. Trump wrote that the US would be leaving at a ‘proper pace’ while ‘continuing to fight ISIS.’ With the government shutdown in full swing, the details of the pull-out are unlikely to be known for a while yet.
MAPPING THE FUTURE
Irrespective of whether the Syrian pull-out goes at the pace envisaged by Bolton or Trump, it is likely that the fight against ISIS will continue. Paris and London are expected to keep special forces in Syria for domestic political reasons of their own — the UK’s desire to relaunch ‘Global Britain’ post-Brexit and France’s intent to take more responsibility for European security. From their comments, both Trump and Bolton appear to now acknowledge that the fight against ISIS isn’t over and the US will retain the capacity to strike targets from Syria and Iraq.
However, despite Bolton’s and Pompeo’s assurances that the Kurds will be protected, the reality is the US will have little ability to stop a fresh Turkish offensive once they have withdrawn. Indeed, Washington’s half-baked plan for Turkey to ensure ISIS’ defeat after the US exit seems to presuppose that Turkish forces will be operating in or in very close proximity to Kurdish-occupied areas. So while a Turkish offensive is unlikely for now, it cannot be ruled out in the longer-term. This will make Kurdish forces less likely to fully commit to finishing off ISIS.
Rather than a Turkish offensive, the more likely outcome is a deal between the SDF and the Assad regime. Such an arrangement may already be in the works, with Kurdish forces withdrawing from Manbij and being replaced by Syrian regime forces, while the rhetoric of both sides has recently softened. In exchange for ceding elements of their autonomy to the government, the Kurds would receive the protection of regime and possibly Russian forces.
To an extent, this arrangement would suit all sides. Despite President Assad’s bluster, his fatigued and depleted armies would suffer substantial losses against the SDF. This would not be such a problem if Russian backing was guaranteed, but Moscow has traditionally retained friendly relations with the Kurds and has no appetite for an extended fight in Syria. For Turkey, the curtailment of Kurdish autonomy by Assad would solve many of their security concerns and avoid a potential confrontation with Russia. Unsurprisingly, Turkish and Russian diplomats have already begun meeting to discuss the subject.
Iran appears to be a winner from Trump’s withdrawal announcement. Hypothetically, a Syrian-Kurdish deal would allow Iran to extend its reach over the oil-rich northern Syrian region. However, this could inflame tensions with Tel Aviv and, to avert Israeli airstrikes, Moscow and Damascus may limit Tehran’s presence in Kurdish regions. At the very least though, Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign on Iran now appears to be somewhat of a paper-tiger, at least in military terms. With the US willingness to confront Iran in any sustained and meaningful way in doubt, Iran may be also be emboldened to increase its footprint in neighbouring countries like Iraq and Lebanon.
Assuming the pull-out actually occurs — if Bolton has his way the withdrawal may be delayed until 2020, the year of the US presidential election — the regional landscape is likely to change significantly. While ISIS will eventually be dislodged from its last holdings, Iran is likely to be emboldened and Kurdish autonomy significantly curtailed. Ultimately, these developments will only harm US interests in the region and beyond.
Henry is a Middle East and North Africa team editor and analyst. From Damascus to Tel Aviv he will keep you up to date with all the important developments in the region.