The way appears to have been cleared for an invasion of north east Syria by Turkey and its allied Sunni Islamist militias. If such an invasion takes place, it will end one of the more successful partnerships achieved by US military diplomacy in recent years- namely that between the United States Armed Forces and the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). It will also have profound implications, both strategic and tactical, for the US in the Middle East, and for the strategic balance in the region as a whole.
In June, I sat with a senior Syrian Kurdish official in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Suleymaniya. Did he expect, I asked him, that US forces would withdraw from the area under de facto joint US-Kurdish control? The man’s answer avoided emotionalism or rhetoric. ‘I don’t know. We hope not. But they may well leave,’ he said, before adding: ‘If they do, we have made it clear that the following day we will make a deal with the regime.’
In April 2017, I asked a Palestinian activist supporter of the Syrian regime in Aleppo how Damascus would secure the return of the lands then and currently under the control of the Syrian Kurds and the US. ‘We don’t know,’ was his honest reply. ‘But we know that we will be returning there.’
Both men now have an answer to the questions that were perplexing them. Only the regime supporter is likely to be pleased with the outcome.
If Turkish and allied forces enter northern Syria, the immediate Kurdish concern will be at the prospect of widespread ethnic cleansing. The fear is well founded. Around 200,000 Syrian Kurds fled the advancing Turkish army and its Sunni allies when Erdogan destroyed the Kurdish Afrin canton in north west Syria in January, 2018. The Kurds expect that a repeat of this operation on a larger scale is currently brewing to the east.
To avoid it, they are likely (as my interlocutor in Suleimania suggested) to permit the Russians, the Assad regime and its Iranian allies to enter the areas presently under their control.
There is no love lost whatsoever between the Assad regime and the Syrian Kurds. But Assad, the Russians and the Iranians have no interest in a large scale ethnic cleansing of Kurds, of the type a Turkish invasion is likely to produce.
Following the US announcement, there were already reports of a movement of regime and Russian forces toward the city of Manbij. An unseemly race for the spoils between the regime/Russians/Iranians and the Turks/jihadis appears set to start. The latest confused reports from the area suggest that a Turkish force has already penetrated the border in the Tel Abyad-Ras al-Ain area. ISIS, meanwhile, has emerged in Raqqa and is attacking SDF positions in the city.
Should the southern part of the area east of the Euphrates fall to the regime and its allies, the result will be the consolidation by Iran of its ‘land bridge’ from the Iraq-Iran border to Lebanon, the Mediterranean and the border with Israel. With pro-Iranian militias currently suppressing dissent in Baghdad, this will leave the Iran-led regional alliance as the major victor of the turbulent events in the Levant over the last decade.
A large movement of populations is a real possibility. At the UN General Assembly, President Recep Tayepp Erdogan declared his intention of creating a ‘safe zone’ stretching eventually to a line between Raqqa and Deir e Zur, around fifty miles into Syria.
Such an area, Erdogan suggested, would enable the resettlement of up to 2 million Syrian refugees. Life for the remaining Kurds in Turkish-controlled Afrin (200,000 have been displaced) has become a daily round of humiliations at the hands of the thuggish Islamist groups whoare the allies of the Turks in the area. If Turkey seizes control of areas close to the border such as Kobane, Amude and even the city of Qamishli, (all within the area proposed by Erdogan) Kurds are likely to head south in large numbers to the areas set to come under regime control, or east towards Iraqi Kurdistan, on the other side of the Tigris River.
The fate of the 60,000 ISIS prisoners currently held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, should also be considered. The Kurdish-led SDF was holding these captives as part of their alliance with the US. That alliance has just been pronounced dead. The SDF looks set to be about to fight an advancing Turkish army – a project for which, it may be presumed, it will be in need of all available personnel.
Can Turkey, whose own relationship in recent years with ISIS included verified episodes of collusion, be trusted with the task of holding these individuals in continued captivity, pending some future legal process? The record would suggest otherwise.
This US decision brings to an end any lingering hopes that the Trump Administration intended to pursue a coherent, region-wide policy to contain and turn back Iranian expansion – or more broadly to reward friends and punish enemies. The signs had been accumulating over the summer. The failure to respond to the Iranian downing of the RQ-4A Global Hawk drone over the Gulf in June, the departure of hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton, the failure to act against the attacks on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in September, and then the sudden overtures to President Rouhani of Iran in early October all suggested an absence of focus or interest on this matter.
The apparently imminent abandonment of eastern Syria will confirm it. In the Middle East, this Administration does not want to win. It wants out. Enemies of the US will certainly be taking note. Allies, potential and existing, will do so too.
It is, of course, not too late for the US to reverse course. Hopefully, this will happen. All efforts should be made in that regard. The scenarios discussed above are conditional on no such reversing of direction taking place.