Following repeated Turkish threats to attack the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) stronghold in northeast Syria, on 19 December US President Trump announced the withdrawal of the roughly 2000-strong US force in the region. The decision reflected his long-standing desire to disengage from Syria. However, the absence of consultation, either within Washington or with Washington’s allies, prompted high-level resignations and inchoate and still-ongoing attempts by others in the US government to delay or qualify Trump’s announcement. Trump justified the decision by declaring victory over IS in Syria, even as YPG forces were engaged in an ongoing battle against it. Precipitate US withdrawal could leave the YPG exposed to a Turkish onslaught, and boost Russian and Iranian influence over Syria’s destiny. At the time of writing confusion still reign. A ‘buffer zone’, Turkish protection of the Kurds and prioritisation of the IS threat, and a US economic war against Turkey if it doesn’t comply have all been mooted. But a US drawdown has commenced.
Ankara’s is motivated to attack north-east Syria by its perception of a YPG rather than an IS threat, The rapid collapse in Idlib province in early January of the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) – a loose and fragmented collection of jihadi groups – by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Syria – and the chaos wreaked by FSA jihadis in Afrin, suggest that any attack on the YPG will have to rely mainly on Turkish forces, which might encourage caution in Ankara. Although suspicion of Kurdish aspirations is as rife in Damascus as is cynicism in Moscow, a Turkish military presence in Syria would not long be tolerated by them. Thus, there is now contact between the YPG, Moscow and Damascus, each of whom who might regard mutual compromise preferable to a Turkish attack. It is possible too that the US will leave behind some kind of residual force, which could help deter Turkish aggression. It could leave US-supplied arms in the hands of the YPG, and threaten to use air power to protect America’s Kurdish ‘allies’. French forces have vowed to remain in the area. There has even been talk of interposing an Arab force drawn from across the region in the hope of dissuading Ankara’s threatened incursion. All this indicates little appetite anywhere outside Ankara for a Turkish move. Yet Ankara’s threats have far from abated and its military build-up on the Syrian border continues.
Should the US convincingly absent itself from Syria, Ankara would be left essentially alone to deal with Moscow and Damascus, and indeed Tehran. Even should Turkish forces militarily defeat the YPG, a consequence could well be a return of IS, as has happened in Iraq. Having long called for an end to US protection of Syria’s YPG, Ankara might yet rue its success in achieving what it asked for. And both Washington, and Ankara, might yet come to regret the ease with which they handed control over Syria’s destiny to Putin.