US withdrawal from Syria has been a gift to the Assad regime
Trump put the Kurds in the position of having to choose between reconciling with Bashar Al Assad and living to fight another day for their political rights, or being crushed by Turkey
US President Donald Trump appears just as bewildered as everyone else is by his own Middle East policy.
In a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr Trump promised to withdraw American protection from Kurdish allies who had fought with the US against ISIS for years, which effectively gave a green light to Turkey to invade northern Syria, where Kurdish militias backed by the US had held sway.
When it did so, the US president simultaneously condemned Turkey’s actions while stressing its importance as a "big trading partner", lamented that the Kurds had done nothing to help the Allies during the invasion of Normandy in the Second World War, indicated that he did not care if Turkey and the Kurds fought it out, and finally imposed sanctions on Ankara.
If your head is spinning, it is because none of it makes sense. But with his impulsiveness, the American president has reshaped the region’s geopolitics and empowered the regime of Bashar Al Assad and his backers. He has forced his Kurdish allies back into the Syrian government’s fold, propelling Mr Al Assad ever closer to total victory and crushing long-held dreams of Kurdish autonomy, while shaking the foundation of America’s regional alliances.
Let’s take a step back and examine the roots of the current conflict.
When protests first erupted against Mr Al Assad’s authoritarian state in 2011, they were met with relentless violence. In due course, both Turkey and the US called on the Syrian president to step down, but the administration of Barack Obama was wary of getting involved. While Ankara wanted a no-fly zone to protect civilians who were fleeing across the border into Turkey in increasing numbers, the US favoured a programme to arm and train vetted rebels.
As extremist groups like ISIS emerged and the US intervened more forcefully in Syria and Iraq to stem their advance, these rebels refused to prioritise the fight against ISIS over fighting Mr Al Assad. Washington turned to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Marxist Kurdish militia that had carved out a small autonomous region in north-eastern Syria.
Turkey, a Nato ally, saw this alliance as a major national security threat. The YPG was the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an insurgent separatist group that had fought for years against the Turkish state. Ankara watched with growing alarm as the YPG expanded the area under its control as it reclaimed cities and towns from ISIS, culminating in the liberation of Raqqa, the so-called caliphate’s capital.
The current going military offensive, launched on Monday by Turkey under the Orwellian name Operation Peace Spring, is Ankara's third major campaign inside Syria and relies primarily on Syrian rebel fighters who earn salaries from, and are trained and equipped by, the Turks. It is the only coherent remaining rebel military force that isn’t a designated terrorist group, except that it takes orders from Ankara and only fulfils strategic Turkish goals. After years of defeats and abandonment by their allies, Syria’s revolutionary soldiers are neither fighting for Syria nor for the revolution.
After Mr Trump initially announced that he was pulling US troops from the immediate area near the Turkish border, he later ordered the withdrawal of almost all remaining American troops inside Syria.
Let us first examine what Turkey wants out of the campaign, before looking at the implications of Mr Trump’s move.
Turkey has two goals in the operation. The first is to crush the Kurdish drive for an autonomous region in northern Syria, a generational dream that seemed within reach, by securing a long strip of territory from Kobane to the Iraqi border and eliminating the YPG presence there.
Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds proffered the single most generous gift to the Syrian regime since the Russian intervention, which ensured Al Assad’s survival
The second is to send back hundreds of thousands of refugees into this newly secured safe zone, a population transfer that would amount to a major violation of international law if done without consent. Turkey hosts about 3.6 million Syrian refugees, generosity that has become too costly politically for Mr Erdogan, who was punished for it by a populist base struggling under economic hardship and mismanagement in recent parliamentary and municipal elections.
Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw the protection of the Kurds probably proffered the single most generous gift to the Syrian regime since the Russian intervention in the war ensured Mr Al Assad’s survival. The Turkish campaign against the YPG has been recast as a tragic story of American perfidy. But more importantly, Mr Trump put the Kurds in the position of having to choose between reconciling with Mr Al Assad and living to fight another day for their political rights, or being crushed by Turkey. Naturally, they chose survival and invited Mr Al Assad into the region, surrendering what little autonomy and leverage they had left.
What this means in practical terms is that Mr Al Assad has reclaimed almost the entirety of the country, cementing his total military victory and hold over Syria after more than eight years of atrocities. The Kurds will now have to fight for political rights from within the fold of a regime that oppressed them for generations.
This development has also offered the defeated ISIS its one best chance at a resurgence. The YPG holds thousands of ISIS fighters and family members captive and reports have already circulated of prisoners breaking out of detention and melting away. It is unclear if these militants are fighting their way out, taking advantage of the chaos of the war to flee, or are being deliberately set loose, but it will likely prove a major setback for efforts to defeat the group and repatriate foreign fighters. With the YPG in retreat, there will be greater freedom of movement, at least in the short term, for ISIS fighters to regroup, plot and carry out attacks.
Strategically, this is the end of the American campaign in Syria and at best, gives the US’s allies in the region pause if they were ever to rely on Washington for diplomatic and military backing against external aggression. This was already evident in American flip-flopping and impulsiveness on a number of major crises in the region, such as the absence of any real response to the Iranian attacks on Saudi oil facilities, the conflicting messaging on Iran more broadly, with the administration pushing harsh sanctions and withdrawing from the nuclear deal while ostensibly appealing for direct talks with Tehran, and its provocative and destabilising policies on Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The US is simply not a reliable partner.
Turkey had already understood this. Its pivot towards Russia in 2016 came out of long-running exasperation with American policy in Syria, dating back to the early months of the conflict and culminating with the alliance with the YPG. It refused to back down from purchasing the S-400 missile defence system from Russia, despite the risk of irreparable damage to its position in the Nato alliance and the possibility of American sanctions.
Now Washington has sanctioned Turkish government entities and ministers as punishment for the military campaign in northern Syria, even as the US washes its hands of the region and its allies on the ground. US Vice President Mike Pence and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are both going to press Mr Erdogan for a halt in operations. But there will be little appetite to enforce any of Washington’s priorities in the region because the message heard loud and clear is that the US is not to be trusted. In a few hours, Mr Trump unravelled a decade of Syria policy and left his allies facing an existential threat. That list of allies will only dwindle.
Updated: October 16, 2019 08:42 PM