In one of his notorious tweets, American president Donald Trump on 19 January 2019 wrote:
Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard and from many directions. Will attack again from the existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create a 20-mile safe zone… Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey. Russia, Iran and Syria have been the biggest beneficiaries of the long term U.S. policy of destroying ISIS in Syria – natural enemies. We also benefit but it is now time to bring our troops back home. Stop the ENDLESS WARS!
This was the latest in a series of tweets and mixed messages from Washington since the 19 December 2018 announcement of the American withdrawal from Syria. President Trump had made his intentions known since April 2018 but domestic opposition to his decision delayed the withdrawal. If there is anything that this constant flip-flopping on the withdrawal is revealing, it is the internal division and polarisation in Washington. However, this time president Trump seems to be pressing on and insisting that American forces should withdraw from Syria, though the timeframe is not yet clear.
The Drivers of the Withdrawal and Prospects
There are three likely and not necessarily mutually-exclusive scenarios as to the drivers and aims of this withdrawal: a) it is a personal, impulsive and rather irrational decision of president Trump; b) it is a “bloodletting” strategy that aims to give the upper hand to the United States (US) in the regional and international power struggle; c) it is part of a give-and-take process that involves the concerned actors to the end of finding a solution to the Syria conflict. It is rather unlikely that such a decision was taken solely by president Trump; it is more probable that his decision is supported at least by a part of the establishment. Therefore, I tend to believe that the withdrawal is a combination of a “bloodletting” strategy and diplomatic bargaining.
The withdrawal would minimize the economic and other costs that the US bears from its presence and operations in Syria. At the same time, its absence would create a power vacuum that other powers – such as Turkey, Russia, Iran and Syria – would seek to fill and thus cause costly friction among them. The Russian-Turkish partnership would become difficult to maintain due to conflicting interests while problems in the Turkey-Syria and Turkey-Iran relations might be exacerbated. And yet, there is room left for compromise and a “win-win” outcome considering that: a) Turkey might be given the green light to establish a buffer zone along its border on the east of Euphrates and thus compromise inter alia on limited autonomy for the Kurds; b) Kurds are already discussing with the Bashar al Assad government regarding their status in post-war Syria and might be granted some autonomy in a new constitutional and geopolitical order – an entity that would keep fighting Islamic extremists and be under American influence; c) Russia gets to maintain its forces and access to the Mediterranean in western Syria as well as some influence over Damascus; d) Iran gets to keep its foothold in Syria and the close relationship with the Assad government; e) the US might be able to bring Turkey back closer to the western camp and push for a more pluralistic – and less anti-western – political system, and f) the Syrian government could manage to bring more territories from the east of Euphrates and possibly Idlib (north-west) under its sovereignty.
Turkey and the Kurds
Indeed, one of the most important aspects of the withdrawal is the Kurdish issue and the problems it creates in the US-Turkey relationship. Turkey would ideally want to launch another military operation in cooperation with its Syrian proxies and clear the territories east of the Euphrates of the Kurdish forces and specifically the YPG (People’s Protection Units) which Ankara considers to be a terrorist organization because of its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, president Trump is keeping equal distances for the time being between Turkey and the Kurds pushing ostensibly for a compromise between the two; namely, that Turkey will accept some Kurdish presence and autonomy in eastern Syria – not least in cooperation with the Syrian government – and that the Kurds clear the territories along the Turkish border. Moreover, Turkey would like to replace the Kurdish forces in combating the Islamic State and containing Iran for the Americans but this might prove difficult because of how far into Syria the Turkish forces would have to go and the fragile but opportunistic relationship between Turkey and Iran.
In any case, it is rather unlikely that Turkey will protect the Kurdish fighters in Syria after the withdrawal – conflict or compromise are the two most likely possibilities. And that is why Kurdish parties in Turkey, Iran and Iraq, apart from Syria, look at the American withdrawal with suspicion. After all, they remember the bitter experiences of the past such as their abandonment by the US in 1975 during their fight with the Iraqi government. More generally, it should be noted that the Kurds can already be considered to be among the losers of the Syria war and the fight against the Islamic State since they have not been able to capitalize on their role and attain their goals. The results of the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum backlashed and in Syria they are now settling for much less than what they had a couple of years ago and what they fought for.
The Day After Trump’s Risk
Provided that American forces will eventually withdraw, Trump’s strategy, no matter how ambitious or theoretically promising it is, runs a serious risk, not unlike the one that the US faced in Iraq. In the absence of a solid negotiation strategy and vision regarding the outcome of the Syrian conflict, it is possible that the American withdrawal will cost the US much of its regional influence by making way to Russia and even more so to Iran. Not to mention that the US cannot merely count on the Russian-Turkey relationship breaking down after the withdrawal. From this perspective, and if the scenarios laid out above are anywhere close to the calculations taking place in Washington, we might not see a full withdrawal but a partial one along with some adjustments to the mandate of American forces, and more involvement in the diplomatic and political process to determine the future state of affairs in Syria. The fact that more voices (most recently the United Kingdom) are calling for the participation of the Kurds in the peace process is just another indicator of this dynamic.