Explaining interests in eastern Syria

The Turkish military is more than capable of defending its borders without invading Syria. Its fully modern military is the second largest in NATO, and fourth in terms of firepower.

AN AERIAL view of the house Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was hiding in.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN AERIAL view of the house Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was hiding in.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan believes his constant refrain that Israel is like Nazi Germany, and also that Israel should sympathize with his actions in Syria, it sounds like he is saying that Nazi Germany would sympathize with his campaign. On that point he would not be wrong; Hitler was a strong proponent of ethnic cleansing. From the dispassionate perspective of interests, there are several winners from the US withdrawal. The US is not among them. International law, strategy, and domestic politics all fail to explain a policy that appears to have been an unforced error by a president who, in his “great and unmatched wisdom,” eschewed wise foreign policy council. US moves to bolster its military position in Syria following the elimination of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi suggest a decision to contain the damage caused by its rash withdrawal.
The Turkish interest
Turkish intentions derive from domestic political considerations, not security concerns. Erdogan wants to boost his Justice and Development Party’s ratings after a dismal electoral showing, losing Istanbul in a major blow to the Turkish dictator in June 2019. Erdogan’s self-proclaimed aims include ethnic cleansing and forced population transfer, both unambiguous violations of international law. By invading Syria and forcibly resettling millions of mostly Sunni Arab Syrian refugees in the homes of Turkey’s historic ethnic enemy the Kurds, Erdogan hopes to stoke nationalist pride while assuaging voters angered by the influx of over three million refugees. 
Erdogan cited SDF ties to the PKK as the security rationale for driving the SDF from portions of Syria. This does not withstand scrutiny. The SDF is not a threat to Turkish security. It was fighting ISIS, not Turkey. Incidentally, the Iraqi Kurds that Turkey bombed in 2015 were also fighting ISIS. The Turkish military is more than capable of defending its borders without invading Syria. Its fully modern military is the second largest in NATO, and fourth in terms of firepower. There has been no recent cross-border aggression from Syria into Turkey, nor is there evidence of cross-border material support from the SDF to the PKK.
Prior to the Turkish invasion, the US and Turkey agreed to conduct joint patrols of the Syrian-Turkish border. The US even persuaded the SDF to dismantle its fortifications. By weakening its position, the SDF clearly demonstrated that it did not seek aggression toward Turkey.
Comparing Turkey’s justification to Israel’s security buffer in Southern Lebanon from 1982-2000 is misleading. Israel launched its invasion following more than a decade of cross-border aggression by the PLO, including murder raids, the launching of thousands of rockets, and a high-profile attempted assassination. US military leaders in Syria never communicated any indication that the SDF was attacking or planning to attack Turkey.
The Russian interest
Russian President Vladimir Putin is adept at manipulating other nations to his advantage. In Syria, Trump handed Putin an easy win. Russians were already gloating over what they called a hasty US retreat as they took over abandoned US bases. Kurdish fighters with years of intimate cooperation with US Special Forces will undoubtedly be prodded by the Russians to give a full and detailed account of US Special Operations’ tactics, techniques, procedures and capabilities. This would be a significant intelligence coup for Russia.
Prior to the US withdrawal, the battle lines in Syria were at a stalemate. The US withdrawal from Syria forced the SDF to make a deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Putin, to survive the Turkish onslaught. This paves the way for Assad to retake northeastern Syria with Russian help, boosting Russia’s image as a reliable and capable partner.
The Syrian interest
Assad had little hope of surviving the Syrian civil war before Russia turned the tide, and until now, had no feasible plan to regain control over the SDF controlled regions. When the dust settles, Syria will likely demand that Turkey withdraw from Syrian territory, and offer to keep the SDF from the border regions as a conciliatory measure. In this way, Turkey wins by clearing the border of Kurds and forcibly deporting Syrian refugees, and Assad wins by regaining control over Syria, with Turkey forcing the SDF to surrender to his rule.
The Iranian interest
Assad’s Alawite regime is backed by Iran. Assad’s ground forces are aided significantly by Iran’s Shia proxy, Hezbollah. The reconstitution of eastern Syria under Assad’s control clears away an impediment to an Iranian land corridor into Lebanon, allowing it to entrench military assets throughout Syria and into Lebanon, encircling Israel. This is one of the reasons why former US national security advisor John Bolton advocated maintaining a US presence in Syria until Iran withdrew.
The US interest (or lack thereof)
In the words of Lord Palmerston, states have no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests. That said, US interests suffered. By reducing its trustworthiness, the US harmed its ability to work with proxies for counterterrorism as it postures its military to counter Russia and China.
President Trump was not compelled to withdraw. The US had no obligation – moral, international law based, or alliance based – to open the door for Erdogan’s adventure. Neither was there any domestic political impetus. The withdrawal is not “bringing soldiers home.” Rather, they are being redeployed to Iraq, while another contingent are being deployed to Saudi Arabia.
The argument that the US was required to oblige its NATO ally Turkey’s request to invade Syria is false, because the notion that Turkey wanted to launch this invasion for national security reasons is false. The national security angle was a pretext, not the motivation.
While Turkey is officially an ally, it does not act like one. Recent Turkish actions include: Bombing US partners fighting ISIS in Iraq; allowing ISIS to recruit and transit in Turkey; refusing to let the US attack ISIS targets from air bases in Turkey; and buying Russia’s S-400 air defense system. That said, Turkey was not about to wage war against the US if Trump refused to withdraw. Erdogan did not “call Trump’s bluff.” Erdogan was bluffing and Trump folded.
Former military leaders, including former defense secretary James Mattis, former CENTCOM commander Gen. Joseph Votel and former SOCOM commander Gen. William McRaven, have criticized the abandonment of the SDF as harming America’s ability to leverage partners in the future. Ground forces are needed to secure territory. The SDF lost 11,000 fighters and more than 30,000 injured serving as the infantry in the campaign against ISIS. The transfer of control over northeastern Syria to Assad and Putin may suppress ISIS, but it will bolster Hezbollah, enhance Iranian entrenchment and increase the likelihood of a major regional conflict. Subcontracting counterterrorism to the world’s top sponsor of terrorism is unwise.
Domestically, the US withdrawal was condemned by a majority of Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and by vast swaths of voters, including staunch Trump supporters. Leaders of Trump’s Evangelical base balked at the decision as well. Neither the US soldiers who served with the SDF nor their families were clamoring for withdrawal. Many expressed grief and shame at what they considered a heinous betrayal.
The military presence in Syria did not come at the cost of high casualties or great fiscal expense. Unlike in Afghanistan where they abound, there have been no instances of “green on blue” attacks on US forces by their SDF partners.
Honor and interests are more important to the American electorate than isolationism. If Trump’s base wanted the type of foreign policy espoused by Rand Paul, they would have supported him in the primaries.
What now?
By withdrawing from Syria following a phone call with Erdogan, Trump hurt the US image, its credibility with partners, and his ability to leverage a reputation for toughness to pressure Iran, North Korea, China and Russia. The US gained nothing internationally, and Trump did not benefit domestically. It is hard to find any saving grace in this decision.
The recent operation to kill Baghdadi, and the administration’s decision to keep troops in Syria, ostensibly to protect the oil fields from being exploited by ISIS, suggests that the administration understands the importance of maintaining operational capabilities in Syria for the time being. This, however, does not repair the damage done, nor is it consolation to the SDF fighters who deserved better than callous abandonment.
Jeremiah Rozman is a National Security Analyst with a defense related thinktank in Washington D.C.