Update: Turkey launched airstrikes into northeast Syria on Wednesday, aiming at the Kurdish fighters that had been fighting ISIS alongside U.S. troops.
President Donald Trump’s call to move U.S. troops away from northeast Syria, where they were fighting with Kurdish forces against the Islamic State group, has been met with bipartisan disapproval and cries that the United States is abandoning its allies and causing deeper instability in an already fragile region.
Though the president justified his decision by saying he will not keep the U.S. committed to an “endless war” in the Middle East, the alternative may open the door to other forces, that will not work in the U.S. or the Middle East’s benefit. The immediate blowback by Republican and Democratic lawmakers highlighted fears that the move would only cause more chaos.
Trump’s former ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, tweeted that “the Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake.”
The standoff between the Kurdish forces in Syria and the Turkish military, and the potential fallout it could cause in the region, “looks to me like an unmitigated disaster waiting to happen,” Stephen Flanagan, senior researcher for the Rand Corporation, told the PBS NewsHour.
Trump made the controversial decision following a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It reflects Trump’s stated desire to pull U.S. troops out of overseas conflicts and his unwillingness to engage in operations where U.S. interests are not directly impacted.
Ankara has been trying to mobilize a military operation in the northeast region of Syria for a year to create a so-called safe zone, where it hopes to place Syrian refugees. But that region is home to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish forces who have fought alongside U.S. troops. The move by Trump on Sunday has been interpreted as clearing the way for Turkey to attack those forces.
“The American forces did not abide by their commitments and withdrew their forces along the border with Turkey,” the SDF wrote in a statement after Trump’s surprise announcement. The statement added that “the Turkish military operation in northern and eastern Syria will have a huge negative effect on our war against” ISIS.
Thousands of ISIS fighters and their family members are being detained in camps in northeast Syria, guarded by the Kurdish forces. Critics of this move are worried the Kurds will abandon that effort in order to fight Turkey, and that the militant group could make a comeback.
Who are the Kurdish forces?
In 2015, the U.S. joined forces with the SDF, which wrested control over areas of northeast Syria from ISIS. While the SDF has been pivotal in keeping the threat of ISIS at bay, Turkey sees them as a terrorist group — an extension of the PKK, or the Kurdistan Worker’s Party that is trying to set up an autonomous state within Turkey’s borders.
The American backing of the Kurdish forces in Syria has always been a source of contention between the U.S. and Turkey — both NATO members. Turkey has threatened to attack northeast Syria if the Kurdish forces did not retreat from the border. Given the threats by Erdogan, the call by Trump seems to have “greenlighted to the Turks, saying do what you need to do,” Flanagan said. “We’ve once again abandoned the Kurds in a very surprising way,” he added. Despite the Kurds fighting on behalf of the U.S. in the region multiple times over history, the U.S. has repeatedly drawn the line at not endorsing Kurdish independence.
Amid the backlash of the U.S.’ retreat from northeast Syria, the White House said instead that the move “does not constitute a withdraw from Syria,” and that “a small number of troops that will move to other bases within Syria.” The comments were made by a senior administration official during a call to reporters on Monday.
Trump on Monday said that he has “told Turkey that if they do anything outside of what we would think is humane… they could suffer the wrath of an extremely decimated economy.”
The U.S. president was likely pointing to a threat he issued earlier by tweet in which he said he would “totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey” if they did anything that he deems “off limits.”
What’s at stake?
In addition to Kurdish partners feeling betrayed by the United States in its decision to pull away, there are fears that the decision could bring broader consequences in the war-ravaged region — where an eight-year war in Syria has caused 5.6 million people to flee to countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Trump has pointed to the defeat of ISIS as a reason to withdraw, but for months ISIS has been regrouping and gathering more steam, according to reports.
Days before the announcement by Trump, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said in a tweet that ISIS has “stepped up their regrouping efforts” through the women with ISIS connections who are also being held in the SDF-guarded camps.
A U.S. Inspector General report from June 2019 said that ISIS “likely retains between 14,000 and 18,000 ‘members’ in Iraq and Syria, including 3,000 foreigners.”
The SDF said that they are holding 12,000 militants in makeshift camps in northeast Syria, and warned in a tweet that the removal of U.S. forces could lead ISIS to “break their terrorists out of prisons…which is a threat to local & international security.”
“Syrian Kurdish forces indicated that they will prioritize fighting back Turkish forces” rather than keeping watch over the camp where the ISIS fighters are being detained, said Bilal Wahab, Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “That would create an opportunity for some of the ISIS fighters held in that camp to escape, or worse be freed. ISIS leader (Abu Bakr) al-Baghdadi called for this in his last recorded statement.”
Iraq has not been stable since the 2003 U.S. invasion–in the midst of it’s instability, it saw ISIS take hold in the country in 2006, but the militant forces were driven out in 2017. In recent weeks, Iraq has been shaken by violent protests that have hamstrung Iraq’s government, police forces and military. Protesters have burned at least 51 public buildings and eight political party headquarters, according to the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
While Iraqi forces are “focused on containing the protest movement in the cities,” Wahab said, “Kurdish and Iraqi forces are yet to reach the kind of security deal that would deny ISIS a safe haven for a resurgence.” Wahab added that “an ISIS threat exploiting security gaps and public grievance is a movie we have all seen in 2014. Some militias would welcome another ISIS fight to distract from the anger of the Iraqi youth on the Iraqi system and an opportunity to withstand the pressures on their integration into Iraqi Security Forces.” Wahab was referring to the uprisings by Iraqis against their government centering on the lack of job opportunities and public services.
Those same concerns—about ISIS exploiting regional instability—were outlined in the June IG report as the main reason why Iraqi Security Forces and the U.S.-backed SDF are “unable to sustain long-term operations against ISIS militants,” the report said.
The continued turmoil in Iraq and Syria, and the clear declaration by Trump that he no longer wants to be involved, will likely create a power vacuum. And someone will come in to fill it.
“Clearly, the Turks, Russians, Iranians and ISIS stand to gain by an American withdrawal. All of them have more room to maneuver and pursue their interests in Syria without having to worry about the U.S.,” said Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Flanagan echoed that sentiment, saying that Iran and Russia stand to gain in this scenario, but it is “not good for Israel, or the United States’ interests in the region.”