Is the United States pulling out of Syria—again?
That was certainly what President Donald J. Trump seemed to say in a five-tweet rant on Monday morning. Hours earlier, the White House had announced that U.S. forces would no longer block a Turkish intervention in northeastern Syria: “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” the press statement said, clarifying that the U.S. military “will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.”
Pentagon officials were reportedly “blindsided” by Trump’s decision, but Turkey was jubilant.
For years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pushed the United States to step aside and let Turkey attack the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The multi-ethnic, secular SDF has been America’s chief local ally in its war against the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, but it is led by a Syrian section of the anti-Ankara Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Disputes over the SDF are at the heart of a sharp deterioration in the Washington–Ankara relationship, to the point where Turkey’s commitment to NATO is being questioned.
As recently as August, the United States and Turkey struck a deal to manage their differences through joint patrols in northern Syria, and U.S. troops forced the SDF to destroy fortifications close to the border. But Turkey was not satisfied, and kept pushing for more. On September 24, Erdogan treated the UN General Assembly to a map of a future Syria in which Turkey had seized virtually every Kurdish town in the country. And on October 5, he said Turkey would send troops across the border within days.
The relentless Turkish brinksmanship seems to have been designed to pressure Trump to ditch the SDF in order to avoid U.S.–Turkish clashes or costly additional deployments. And it appears to have worked.
It is still unclear exactly what Trump has agreed to. U.S. government rhetoric is so muddled at the moment that no one can quite figure out whether the White House has just begun a total pullout, or is merely taking a tactical step back to let Turkey have its way with a small part of Syria.
So far, U.S. forces have only retreated from a short stretch of Syrian-Turkish border land in the mostly Arab-populated region between Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain. The 100–150 U.S. soldiers involved aren’t even leaving Syria, just relocating from the “immediate area” to stay clear of Turkey–SDF clashes. “We’re gonna get out of the way,” a U.S. official told the Washington Post.
However, the White House statement was unclear about the ultimate scope of the U.S. withdrawal, and also spoke about Turkey becoming responsible for holding SDF-imprisoned jihadis, most of whom are detained in the al-Hol camp on the other side of the SDF enclave.
How to handle the al-Hol detainees, including tens of thousands of family members of suspected Islamic State fighters, in addition to smaller numbers of Syrian and foreign combatants, has long bedevilled the United States. Trump has complained that European nations refuse to take back their citizens, and the White House statement kept hammering the point, insisting, in a flourish that seemed to betray the direct influence of the president, that the United States “will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer” and concluding that “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured.”
Turkey appears to have little interest in sorting out the al-Hol issue, and would, at any rate, not be confronted with it unless Turkish troops occupy the entire SDF-held region in northeastern Syria. For now, Erdogan has simply brushed the problem away by insisting that the number of detainees is “a bit exaggerated.”
Trump’s Monday morning tweets added to the confusion by signalling an end to the U.S. involvement with Syria altogether. The United States needs to “get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars” and “bring our soldiers home,” Trump wrote, adding, “Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds, will now have to figure the situation out.”
So is this a limited redeployment from one part of the Syrian-Turkish border, or the beginning of the end of America’s five-year intervention in Syria? It looks like the former, but it sounds like the latter.
In part, this confused messaging might be intentional. By raising the prospect of a full-scale withdrawal, Trump may be calling Erdogan’s bluff. The Turkish leader is being informed that, unless he abides by past agreement, he will be on his own in sorting out the Syrian mess.
For all of Erdogan’s maximalist rhetoric and his UN antics, Turkey may have little interest in controlling the entire SDF-held region—nearly a third of Syria—unless it can do so with the support and approval of the United States, the EU, and perhaps Russia, too. The al-Hol detainee issue alone is daunting, and Turkey would run up against international objections and internal insurgencies. Ankara’s capacity to administer areas beyond its borders is limited, its economy is in bad shape, the military is stretched as it is, and the Syrian rebels Erdogan wants to use as proxies are pinned down by Russian and Syrian government forces in Idlib. For Turkey to seek full control over northeastern Syria on its own would be a violent, costly, and politically fraught undertaking—which is why Erdogan’s bark may be worse than his bite.
The SDF, however, seems to fear the worst, complaining that it fulfilled all its obligations under the August 2019 deal but is still deprived of promised U.S. protection. Rather than backing down, the group struck a militant note: “We in the SDF will not hesitate for a moment to defend ourselves and call upon our people of all sects, Arabs, Kurds and Syriacs, Assyrians to join forces and stand with their legitimate forces to defend our country against this Turkish aggression.”
This Has Happened Before
Strangely enough, we’ve seen this happen once before. In December 2018, Trump shocked his national security staff by suddenly announcing that he would withdraw from Syria and let Turkey take over.
It didn’t happen, that time. Trump came under immediate pressure to reverse his decision, which was opposed by a curious constellation of forces: strong voices in the Pentagon were unwilling to abandon the SDF fighters they had fought alongside for so long; the intelligence community warned that the Islamic State could respawn; and a variety of politicos and penfighters insisted that the United States must remain in Syria for reasons related to Iran, Israel, or some other Washingtonian pet cause. Last but not least, a large contingent of administration insiders, politicians, and pundits who actually did want to exit Syria felt that Trump was doing it the wrong way—they wanted to leave in an orderly and controlled fashion, to limit blowback to the United States, its allies, and interests.
Internal outrage led Trump’s jihadi-hunter-in-chief, Brett McGurk, and his secretary of defense, James Mattis, both to resign in protest. The president was angry but impressed and, step by step, his decision was watered down to buy the mission more time. In the end, Trump agreed that some U.S. troops could stay while the SDF snuffed out remaining jihadi pockets, and the Department of State went panhandling in Europe and the Gulf for aid money and troops to cover U.S. cutbacks.
It didn’t work out very well, since, unsurprisingly, few U.S. allies were willing to put much on the line for so fickle a president. Ten months later, the United States is still the only pole holding up the tent in northern Syria—and Trump seems to be saying that time is up.
What Happens Now?
If Trump really did try to call Erdogan’s bluff, it may have worked, to a degree. Despite recently warning that an invasion was imminent, the Turkish leader has shifted to saying he will “discuss the depth of the operation” when he meets Trump in Washington early next month.
Erdogan may still end up launching a cross-border incursion, to stick his foot in the door while he can. But the Turkish leader also seems to fear that Trump will simply collapse the security architecture in northeastern Syria without putting anything in its place, and without giving Turkey time to develop its options.
Meanwhile, Trump will come under renewed pressure to keep troops in Syria. Roughly the same cast of people as last time are now crying foul again, and the U.S. president may settle for a more limited pullout. But Trump’s isolationist instincts are real, and his view of America’s post-9/11 wars as no-good quagmires is one of the few political ideas he has held with something approaching consistency. Continuing to prop up the SDF’s autonomous government will also grow harder and harder, once Turkey begins to develop its own proxies inside the northeast.
If Trump starts walking toward the exit, he may, whatever his original plans, soon find that the easiest choice is to just keep going.
Ultimately, however, what happens in Syria isn’t just up to Donald Trump. The rulers of Ankara, Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran, and a host of non state actors, including the SDF and whatever remains of the Islamic State, also have a vote. Their actions and reactions will shape U.S. options in the coming weeks, and, as many have learned by now, setting Syria’s chaos in motion is easy. Making it stop is a lot harder.
[This article was originally published by The Century Foundation on 7 October 2019]