On Sunday, the White House announced that the United States would be withdrawing its forces from the northern Syria border region, and Turkey may soon begin a new military operation there. The announcement also said the United States would not interfere in a likely conflict between its NATO ally and America’s local partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The news is a sudden and devastating blow to America’s Kurdish allies in northern Syria. The United States was working with Turkey to establish a “security mechanism” along Syria’s northern border in the hopes of finding a palatable solution for Turkish security concerns, while also safeguarding the SDF from a Turkish assault. But those efforts appear to have ended.
Negotiations between the United States and Turkey over northern Syria were already on shaky ground. And should Turkey begin a new incursion into Syria, this would not be the first time that Ankara will fight pitched battles with America’s Kurdish partners. In early 2018, Turkey invaded the YPG-controlled region of Afrin. The pullback from the border can also be viewed as a continuation of Trump’s original Syria withdrawal announcement in December 2018.
While this week’s policy decision will not reverse existing political trends, they probably will exacerbate and catalyze them — and that is itself a dangerous and damaging outcome.
Syrian Kurds may move closer to Moscow and Damascus
The United States has been a critical military ally of the YPG and SDF. However, Syrian Kurds have long known that relations with the United States would be difficult to parlay into a broader political settlement, and in particular in Damascus. The result has been a hedging strategy — the Syrian Kurds maintain close ties with the United States for security assistance, while courting engagement with Moscow and Damascus.
Syrian Kurds understand that U.S. military partnership is highly “transactional” and that long-term political survival in northern Syria would require alternative avenues to gain leverage in negotiations with Damascus and alternative sources of protection from Turkish incursions.
And even if the United States wanted to play an active role in helping its Syrian Kurdish partners strike a bargain with the capital, it is not clear that the United States would be the most effective advocate. While a recent report demonstrates that the United States may have some leverage in Syria, in relative terms, Washington has limited leverage over Damascus compared with other actors such as Moscow.
Syrian Kurds have also not shied away from engagement with Damascus, particularly when it comes to checking Turkish incursions. In fact, such appeals to the capital were made by the YPG during the previous Turkish invasion of Afrin.
If Syrian Kurds respond by advancing engagement with Damascus or Moscow, it won’t reflect a new strategy of spurning American guardianship, but the continuation of wise and well-established hedging approach.
Continuing harm to U.S. credibility
Local nonstate actors will probably mark this as yet another reason not to trust partnerships with the Americans, but astute actors in the region — the SDF included — already know not to do this. Syrian Kurds simply need to look at the previous withdrawal announcement to know that U.S. support has limits. America’s refusal to keep the peace between Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi military after the 2017 independence referendum continues to resonate in the region as well. It is a long-held Kurdish adage not to trust Washington as a partner.
The damage being done is not that America’s credibility will take a sudden plunge — it has been in steady decline for years. It is that America’s reputation as a highly transactional partner is becoming solidified and the trend is unlikely to reverse to the detriment of future U.S. partnerships.
Will there be an increased opportunity for the Islamic State to make a resurgence in the region?
This is a reasonable expectation, as the Islamic State feeds on political instability and fighting between the YPG and Turkey will be destabilizing.
But the reality is that an Islamic State resurgence has already begun. There has been a growing fear that as U.S. forces withdraw from Syria, the SDF will be increasingly strained in its ability to manage the postwar landscape. Two crises were already coming to a head: first, the increasingly ungovernable al-Hol camp that hosts nearly 60,000 refugees, including a bold contingent of Islamic State families; and second, growing concerns over the YPG’s ability to control Islamic State prisoners.
Concerns over an Islamic State resurgence existed before Sunday’s announcement. While there will not be a change in the Islamic State’s trajectory in Syria, the tipping point of an ISIS resurgence will probably be accelerated.
Of course, as with any Trump administration announcement, it is too early to tell what will actually unfold.
And while this decision may drive Syrian Kurds further from America’s political sphere, harm broader U.S. credibility in the region and catalyze the Islamic State’s regrouping, it is best to view these as a notable change of pace in existing trends, and not a change of direction. But for an area as complex as northern Syrian, the timing, planning and predictability of policy decisions is almost as important as the outcomes themselves.
Morgan L. Kaplan is executive editor of International Security at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School