President Trump has announced an immediate withdrawal of US forces from Syria in characteristic fashion, tweeting on Wednesday “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.” The US has maintained a troop presence in Syria since 2014 as part of the ongoing fight against Islamic State (IS) in the region. There are currently approximately 2000 US troops in Syria. They constitute part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition formed to combat IS. The primary constituent of the SDF coalition is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who function as the military force for the autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), also known as Rojava.
Trump has long wanted to withdraw troops from Syria, stating in March that troops would leave Syria ‘soon’, while finally agreeing for the troops to remain in April to achieve a complete defeat of IS. According to administration officials, the order for immediate withdrawal was given on Tuesday, for US military commanders in the region to begin executing the withdrawal overnight. Trump’s tweet on Wednesday came in the wake of reports by US media breaking the order to withdraw. While no precise time-frame was given for what constitutes ‘immediate withdrawal’, these initial reports have since been tempered slightly by statements from anonymous officials to Reuters who claim the withdrawal will take place in a period of 60-100 days. Reuters reports further that troops have already begun returning to the US, and that the directive was issued for all US State Department officials to withdraw from the region within 24 hours.
Trump’s announcement of a successful defeat of IS in Syria comes on the heels of the liberation of Hajin, a city in the Deir ez-Zour region of eastern Syria, by the SDF. Hajin was considered by many to be the last stronghold of IS along the Euphrates. The fighting has not ceased, however, as conflict monitors have confirmed clashes remain ongoing in the suburbs of Hajin, the territory is being gained rapidly though. Further, the SDF also launched an attack on Wednesday against militants in the Baghuz region of Deir ez-Zor. In fact, the coalition has conducted 208 airstrikes against IS in Syria in the past week, according to its weekly report. The operation against IS remains very much alive.
The Trump administration stresses that this is not the end of their fight against IS. On Wednesday, White Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders released a statement declaring that “now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate,” but this “[does] not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign.” Rather, the troop withdrawal is part of the “transition to the next phase of this campaign,” though the administration has failed to explain this statement further for what the Pentagon has called “operational and security reasons.” It’s also true that following this withdrawal order, US troops would still remain stationed in Iraq, which currently numbers approximately 5200, and the majority of the warplanes that conduct the airstrikes against IS fly out of bases in Qatar and other regions in the Middle East, and so would also be unaffected by the withdrawal. However, as National Security Correspondent David Martin told CBS News Wednesday, the withdrawal would remove troops responsible for calling and coordinating the airstrikes within Syria, and so their effectiveness would be severely limited. Yet for me, this raises the question, why the immediate necessity to withdraw forces from the ground in northern Syria, if US presence is still to remain in the general region? I will attempt to answer this question later.
It can be reasonably argued that the back of the IS Caliphate has been effectively broken; at its height, the IS Caliphate spanned more than 34,000 square miles, from Baghdad to the Mediterranean. Its heart was the city of Raqqa in northeast Syria, which was liberated by YPG forces in 2017. Today, IS controls only an estimated 20-30km of territory, or 1% of the territory controlled at the height of the Caliphate, according to US special envoy Brett McGurk in an 11 December State Department briefing. Apparently, this is enough for Trump to declare ‘mission accomplished’. Trump declared as much, stating “So, you know, all of a sudden it gets to a point where you don’t have to stay there.” But the question raises itself, why is now this point? Yes, the impending liberation of Hajin represents the capturing of the final IS stronghold, but as Peshmerga Commander Sirman Barzani commented to Rudaw, the US was striking IS positions on Mount Qarachogh in Makhmour, Iraq more than one year after the declared defeat in Iraq. In fact, there are reports that five airstrikes were conducted on Aliya Rash village at the base of Mount Qarachogh this Wednesday alone.
Yet there are more grave concerns, which have caused many members of the US government to express strong disagreement and utter confusion with Trump’s announced withdrawal. First, it is a widely held opinion even amongst members of Trump’s own administration that the successful defeat of IS is not as close as it may appear to be above. The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates between 20,000-30,000 IS militants remain in Syria and Iraq. As Special Envoy McGurk reiterated in that same State Department briefing, “even as the end of the physical caliphate is clearly now coming into sight, the end of ISIS will be a much more long-term initiative.” Further, many analysts note IS appears to be making the transition to guerrilla warfare tactics, blending in with the surrounding population and country-side, as opposed to their earlier tactic of systematically capturing and establishing control over territory. As Pentagon Spokesperson Commander Robertson commented just a few months ago, “IS is well-positioned to rebuild.”
This fact led Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), one of only two US members of Congress to have visited Rojava, to remark in a tweet that Trump’s proposed withdrawal would be “an Obama-like mistake”, alluding to the Obama administration’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011 which left a vacuum that ultimately allowed IS to come to power in the first place. Trump himself criticised this move in 2011, arguing that the US did not do enough to equip and train Iraqi forces to keep peace in the region, evidenced by the lack of resistance they offered to IS forces. As National Security Correspondent David Martin remarked to CBS News on Wednesday, the situation now looks “very similar” to the 2011 troop withdrawal from Iraq. Earlier this month, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford confirmed these parallels, stating the US lacks a sufficiently equipped local force to provide stability for the region, having only trained about 20% of the local forces.
Additionally, this withdrawal represents a complete reversal of the Trump administration’s policy in the region. While the defeat of IS has always been a primary motivation for US presence in Syria, it has not been the only one. The US has stressed the importance of establishing lasting stability in the region, which has essentially been in a state of chaos following the outbreak of civil war between rebels and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. As discussed above regarding the lack of sufficient training for local forces, this goal is far from realised. In April, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis summed it up as follows; “We do not want to simply pull out before the diplomats have won the peace. You win the fight – and then you win the peace.” In fact, the Pentagon has yet to confirm the order, and numerous Pentagon officials have been trying to talk Trump out of executing the withdrawal order since hearing about it. Following the order becoming public, the Director of Press Operations for the Pentagon, Colonel Robert Manning, said, “At this time, we continue to work by, with and through our partners in the region.”
The US has also been wary of the increasing influence of Iran in Syria, as Rouhani seeks to increase the influence of Tehran in the region, and fearing a possible ‘land bridge’ between Tehran and Damascus, which would also have the effect of shoring up Iranian support for Hezbollah against US-ally Israel. This goal as well remains far from completion, as Iranian forces remain active in the region. Trump himself painted the ousting of Iran from Syria as a primary goal of US presence, as integral to achieving lasting regional stability, earlier this year. National Security Advisor John Bolton re-iterated this commitment to the UN in September, stating, “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside the Iranian border, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”
Looming behind all of this stands Russia, who has been supporting both the Assad regime and Iranian presence in Syria as they pursue their own interests in the region, engaging in a series of stand-offs and proxy clashes with the US throughout the conflict. Assad, Iran, and Russia have formed a triad that seeks to install control over the Syria region, and while on Wednesday their joint proposal for a new Syrian constitutional committee failed at the UN due to disagreement over the final list of members, their cooperation is sure to continue. According to the New York Times, Secretary of Defense Mattis has stated this withdrawal effectively concedes Syria over to Russia and Iran, with Steven Swinford of the Telegraph reporting that UK officials have echoed these same concerns. At the time of writing, Secretary Mattis is reportedly on his way to a meeting with Trump, so the outcome of this discussion and its implications are unknown. But suffice to say, there is a strong internal division within the Trump administration regarding this sudden withdrawal.
At this point the question seems to be forcing itself; why has this withdrawal order been issued. It seems as if it has come from nowhere; why now? Why the immediacy? From my perspective, the answer is one word: Turkey. To explain, I will first offer a bit of brief background and a small timeline of relevant events.
Since the 1980s, Turkey has been engaged in a vicious guerrilla war with the forces of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), whom Turkey, as well as the collective of Western nations, has classified as a terrorist organisation. In 1998, the PKK relocated its base of operations to the Qandil mountain range in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, where they have remained active ever since. In 2004, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) formed the YPG to function as their armed wing. The YPG has been active as the primary military force in Rojava since its establishment in 2012 at the start of the Syrian civil war. Following the onset of the fight against IS, Western nations, and particularly the US, have allied themselves with YPG, providing arms and material support. Turkey, however, views YPG as a Syrian outgrowth of the PKK, given the fact that YPG forces regularly fly flags portraying PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan (who has been imprisoned in Turkey for nearly 20 years), and has subsequently labelled the group as a terrorist organisation.
Throughout the Syria civil war, Turkey aligned itself with the forces opposing Assad, funding and facilitating numerous rebel groups within the region. Yet this alignment has been a strange one, as they also stand against one of the primary forces within Syria opposing Assad; the YPG, the SDF, and the broader DFNS. Turkish President Erdogan has made it clear time and again that Turkey cannot tolerate an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria. In 2017, Turkey began occupying a region of northwestern Syria to secure their own interests against both Assad and the Kurds. On 20 January 2018, Turkish forces launched an invasion of the town of Afrin, succeeding in ousting YPG and YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) forces and occupying the territory on 24 March. In the wake of the conflict, the UN estimates more than 300,000 Kurds have been expelled from the Afrin region. Currently, Turkey occupies a region of approximately 3460 square km in northwestern Syria, encompassing nearly 500 settlements. The US has called for Turkey to avoid escalation and invasion of Kurdish Syria, but these calls are ultimately without teeth, as the US has also said they are aligned with Turkey in their fight against the PKK.
After the invasion of Afrin, Erdogan vowed to carry on the campaign to Manbij, a city in northwestern Syria that YPG liberated from IS in August 2016. On 4 June, Turkey and the US reached a deal for YPG forces to withdraw from Manbij to install local leaders in an effort to promote peace and stability. However, no concrete details or timeframe for the withdrawal was given. Meanwhile, Turkey has continuously shelled various Kurdish positions in northern Syria, as well as conducted routine air strikes against alleged PKK outposts in northern Iraq. The US, on the other hand, has used its presence and influence to deter Turkish attacks on Kurdish settlements, particularly in the Kobane region, and to arm and train local Kurdish militia groups, while trying to simultaneously appease Turkey in their war against the Kurds. Turkey has responded by claiming that these actions from the US put the future security of Turkey in danger, and have frequently threatened to invade Manbij if the US does not facilitate the withdrawal of Kurdish forces.
And this brings us to the current situation. As a response to threats from Turkey, US forces began patrolling the Syria-Turkey border in early November, establishing observation posts later in the month to maintain security and prevent escalation. On 12 December, in a televised speech, Erdogan announced that a military operation against Kurds east of the Euphrates would begin “in the next few days.” Pentagon Spokesperson Commander Robertson responded by urging dialogue, stating that any operations in the vicinity of US forces could put US troops at risk, and “we would find any such actions unacceptable.” Turkey stressed their targets would not be US troops, but such an operation could implicate US forces, and even an indirect attack has the potential to massively escalate tensions between the two countries.
Then on Friday, 14 December, Trump and Erdogan had a now nearly infamous phone call where they discussed the Rojava situation. Neither leader commented on the details of the call, but on Monday 17 December, Erdogan said he received “positive answers” from Trump regarding northeastern Syria. Trump denied these remarks, stating the administration offered no ‘green-light’ for the invasion of northeastern Syria and stressing that the US discourages Turkey from further escalation. Then the next day, Tuesday 18 December, Trump internally issues the order for a full troop withdrawal from northern Syria, and troops began returning to the US that same night.
On the same day, the US finalized the $3.5 billion USD sale of 80 Patriot guided missiles, 60 other missiles, and related equipment and launching systems. Even more noteworthy, this deal marked the third time the US tried to sell Patriot missiles to Turkey; first in 2013, when Turkey instead chose a Chinese missile system, and then in 2017, when Turkey opted for the Russian S-400. Erdogan is the sole decision-maker for these missile procurement deals, and the S-400 deal was widely lauded as more political than anything, serving to further normalise relations between Turkey and Russia after the Turkish military shot down a Russian Su-24 military aircraft near the Turkey-Syria border in November 2015. NATO expressed their unhappiness with Erdogan’s decision, as it marked the first time a NATO member has ever deployed a Russian S-400 missile system. This third offer was an attempt to prevent Turkey from buying more missiles from Russia. And it was approved, following the phone call, one week after Turkey threatens to invade northeastern Syria, on the same day US forces are ordered to withdraw immediately. That is just too much for me not to think those are related.
And I’m not the only one; an anonymous US government official reportedly told Reuters “Everything that has followed is implementing the agreement that was made in that call.” Now the anonymity of this individual is perhaps a good reason to take this report with a grain of salt, but I do not find it unreasonable. It sounds like a standard appeasement/quid-pro-quo situation. And what’s more, perhaps uncharacteristically, Trump (technically) did not lie about the ‘positive responses’ in the phone call with Erdogan; essentially he said ‘Oh no we don’t think you should invade, but actually I think we will leave,’ with a big ol’ wink. More of a blind eye than a green light, really. It seems like Christmas came early for President Erdogan, thanks to the Donald, and he showed his due appreciation in the form of a $3.5 billion USD purchase of death machines.
And further, this answers the question above regarding US presence in Iraq and warplanes from Qatar; they can stay because they are not directly in the way of the impending Turkish invasion of Rojava. Some have noted that there are legal difficulties with maintaining a troop presence in Syria after the military defeat of IS, solely for the purposes of mitigating Iranian influence, but something tells me, Trump, and other US presidents before him, could find a way to circumvent these meagre legal limitations if his desire was strong enough. Others have commented that this could be Trump’s way of distracting from domestic issues, specifically the recent revelations of the Russia investigation and the sentencing of his former lawyer Michael Cohen. This may well be a nice added benefit, but I struggle to believe it is the primary motivation; the entire interaction with Turkey over the past week is just too neat as if it were gift-wrapped with a bow on top.
From the Kurdish perspective, Trump’s ordered withdrawal represents the latest in a long line of exploitation and betrayal by the international community, dating at least as far back as the Treaties of Sevres and Lausanne. Almost humorously, ‘betrayal’ is also the language used by Pentagon officials who have denounced the order to withdraw, according to the New York Times. This situation does, however, raise a series of questions for the future of the YPG, SDF, PKK, and even Rojava as a whole, which cannot be answered right now. Will the SDF be able to continue their fight against IS, and if so how? If (or when) Turkey invades, will full-on war break out between YPG and Turkey, presumably drawing in the PKK cadres from Qandil? Or will the SDF/YPG be forced to make a deal with the Assad-Iran-Russia triad, and could such a deal prevent or mitigate further brutality by Turkey? Only time will tell.
It also raises questions for a number of other international parties in the region. Specifically, regarding the fate of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq, if the international community allows Turkey to exercise its genocidal impulse against the Kurds. Turkey has a long history of military operations against the PKK in northern Iraq, but the intensity has again been increasing in recent months. Most recently, Turkish forces conducted airstrikes in the Iraqi Kurdish regions of Sinjar and Makhmour on 13 December, claiming that the PKK was using it as a base for activities, as the PKK had liberated Sinjar from IS in 2014. Turkey hailed the strike as a success, but this time it drew criticism from Baghdad, with Iraq’s Minister of Foreign Affairs giving the Turkish ambassador a ‘letter of protest’, calling for a stop to the “repeated aerial violations” of Iraqi sovereignty. Nothing has come of the protest letter, except more airstrikes from Turkey on 15 December. Iraqi Kurdistan could see an increase in violence and further violations of sovereignty if the conflict between Turkey and PKK forces in Qandil escalates.
Another party afflicted by US troop withdrawal is Israel, as the US project to curb Iranian encroachment into Syria was considered crucial to prevent the aforementioned possibility of a land bridge between Tehran and Damascus that would provide a direct route for support of Hizbollah forces in Lebanon. Many opposition leaders in Israel have voiced these concerns about Iran, but Netanyahu was much more measured, saying that he will “study” the proposal, and that “[it] is, of course, America’s decision.” Why would he be so nonchalant about the whole thing, I wonder? Perhaps because of some conversations of his own, stating “I spoke with US President Donald Trump [on Monday] and yesterday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told me that it was the president’s intention to withdraw their forces from Syria and made it clear that they had other ways to express their influence in the arena.” Now, what is that supposed to mean? I can only imagine it has something to do with the details of the tit-for-tat orchestrated by Erdogan and Trump.
It seems that with the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, all significant players are appeased, for now. That’s Turkey, and the US accounted for with the phone call deal, and Israel suitably assured. This presumably fits Russia’s own pro-Assad agenda, as SDF commander Polat Can has warned that Russia is urging Turkey to go ahead with the operation in northeastern Syria. And Iranian President Rouhani seems to be in a downright celebratory mood, declaring, “the days of US political dictatorship [are] over.” At the time of writing, on Wednesday 19 December, Rouhani has just touched down in Ankara to partake in the meeting of the Iranian-Turkish High Level Cooperation Council, serving as just another reminder of how obscene the collusion really is. Meanwhile, the Kurds stand shut out from all the hand-shaking and back-room dealing, left to themselves and the mountains, and betrayed. Again.