The Syrian stumbling block

The first inkling came in March 2018, when Trump in a speech in Ohio suddenly announced, “We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.”

August 19, 2019 19:42
4 minute read.
A YAZIDI man pulls rubble from his house in Sinjar that ISIS terrorists destroyed in February.

A YAZIDI man pulls rubble from his house in Sinjar that ISIS terrorists destroyed in February. . (photo credit: KHALID AL MOUSILY / REUTERS)

President Donald Trump’s decision last December to withdraw American forces from northeastern Syria was not only a strategic blunder but can have far-reaching consequences. 

The first inkling came in March 2018, when Trump in a speech in Ohio suddenly announced, “We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” As a US Special Forces commander in Syria remarked: “We’re that close [to defeating ISIS] and now it’s coming apart.”

More was to come. In a phone call between Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan last December, Trump agreed to withdraw US forces on the understanding that Turkey would clear ISIS from Syria. The furious reaction, which included the resignation of defense secretary Jim Mattis and anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk, has resulted in a partial withdrawal, but the damage has been done.     

The main stumbling block in US-Turkey relations, apart from the delivery of the Russian S-400s, is the close and successful cooperation between US Special Forces and the Kurdish YPG militia, which provides the backbone of the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces). However, to declare ISIS defeated after the fall of Raqqa and Baghouz is premature, as the US Defense Department makes clear in its latest quarterly report.

After the loss of its territorial caliphate ISIS has, with an estimated 14,000 -18,000 followers in Syria and Iraq, turned to hit-and-run tactics: assassinations, ambushes, suicide bombings and burning fields and crops. Furthermore, the drawdown has decreased the resources and support needed for counter-insurgency operations.

In addition, some 10,000 ISIS fighters are held by the SDF in detention centers in northeastern Syria, but the SDF does not have the capability to hold them indefinitely. Some 70,000 displaced persons are held in the al-Hol camp, of whom 11,000 are family members of foreign ISIS fighters. It is also a fertile recruiting ground, as there are an estimated 45,000 ISIS supporters in the camp. Again, because of the lack of resources, the SDF is only able to provide minimal security.

Russia, Iran, the Syrian regime and ISIS have also sought to foment Arab discontent with SDF administration in the oil-rich Deir ez-Zor Province, which the coalition forces have wrested from ISIS control.

As the main aim of US policy in Syria was to defeat ISIS and al-Qaeda, which secretary of state Rex Tillerson explained before he was unceremoniously removed, President Trump’s decision is self-defeating. As another aim is to diminish Iran’s influence in Syria, it is also ill-considered.       

Iran maintains a solid presence in Syria with soldiers from the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps), Lebanese Hezbollah and Shia militias. Iran is also establishing a land bridge across the region to Lebanon, and a US withdrawal from Syria could facilitate the expansion of these corridors.

Turkey invaded northern Syria in 2016 and occupied an area between the Euphrates and the Kurdish province of Afrin in the northwest, ostensibly to liberate the area from ISIS. The process was repeated in 2018 in Afrin, where an estimated 167,000 of the population were displaced. The only exception was the city of Manbij, west of the Euphrates, which was seized by the SDF. However, Erdogan promised: “Today we are in Afrin, tomorrow we will be in Manbij, the day after we will be east of the Euphrates to clean up all terrorists all the way to the border of Iraq.”

A clash with the US was averted by an agreement on joint US-Turkish patrols in the Manbij area, but matters have come to a head over a planned Turkish incursion into the Kurdish areas east of the Euphrates. Once again, to avoid a collision the US and Turkey have agreed on “a peace corridor,” which will lead the establishment of a safe zone in these areas, but not on its extent.  

Turkey insists on a 20-mile-deep zone controlled by Turkey, which would displace more than 90% of the Kurdish population. The US has proposed a zone nine miles deep under American control, which Turkey has rejected. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has even invoked a phone call between President Trump and President Erdogan in support of Turkey’s proposal. Akar also made it clear that if an agreement could not be reached, Turkey would take unilateral action. 

According to Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, “329,000 people from Syria have returned so far thanks to the peace provided in Afrin and the area liberated by Operation Euphrates Shield.” The government also plans to relocate 700,000 Syrian refugees to the projected safe zone in Syria.

Because of the backlash against Syrian refugees in Turkey, the US State Department has stated that it is opposed to the forced return of refugees and internally displaced persons to Syria. Nevertheless, if the US agrees to Turkey’s plans for “a peace corridor”, it will not only betray its Kurdish allies but also be a party to ethnic cleansing.

The writer is a commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.

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