US Troop Withdrawal In Syria A Gift or Curse for Turkey?

An Analysis

On Monday morning, American military personnel began pulling back from the Syria-Turkey border as the White House effectively green lit a Turkish offensive against hitherto U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria --- who have led the fight against Islamic State militants. Despite the negative bipartisan reaction against Mr. Trump's sudden foreign policy move, and the President's latest tweet threatening Turkey, Ankara is expected to push full-steam ahead through this geopolitical storm.

Question(s):

What are the immediate regional implications of planned American troop withdrawal from northern Syria? What are the emergent Turkish domestic and regional security perspectives on the withdrawal? 

Andrew R.

US-based Academic

Turkish incursion into Syria will have significant short and long term consequences for US foreign policy. First, it demonstrates a lack of desire on the part of the US for engaging in the region militarily. This will only further embolden Iran, ISIS, the Taliban, and Russia, knowing that the US is unlikely to intervene into any assertions of power. Second, it represents a warning to other potential allies not to trust the US. It spent years funding and supporting the Kurdish fighters and promising them long term protections. The US leaving them to be attacked by Turkey will make it very difficult for the US to gain future military partners in the region and around the globe, particularly in the fight against terrorism..

Aykan E.

Former Member of Turkish Parliament & US-based Turkey Analyst

Within the US, there has been a bipartisan reaction to Trump's decision to withdraw from northeast Syria and perceived green-lighting of a Turkish incursion into the region. There will be various bipartisan attempts in the US Congress to push back against Ankara's unilateral military action, as policy makers try to restrain the Erdogan government by way of sanctions. For state and non-state actors in the Middle East, Trump's Syria policy is yet another proof of the unreliability of the US as a partner and ally, and they will feel the need to pivot to Russia and Iran, as part of an attempt to hedge their foreign and security policy. Even if Washington reverses its course of action in Syria in due course, the long-lasting damage to its reputation and credibility is there to stay

Nikolay P.

US-based Russia Analyst

International reactions will be muted considering many other international crises at the moment. The EU in general and European countries individually might be more critical, considering the Kurdish influence and anti-Turkish feelings in Europe. A possible Turkish incursion in Syria will increase pressure on Russia. Moscow will have to decide how to react to this invasion without damaging relations with Ankara and Damascus. The most significant impact on US foreign policy in the region will be the continuing erosion of US credibility. The Syrian Kurds placed their bets on Washington's support. Now that this support is gone, other prospective US partners will think and pause before starting their cooperation with the United States.

Alexander B.

Europe-based NATO Expert

It is clear that the intimidate effect of a Turkish incursion into Syria would spell doom for the Peshmerga operating within that theatre. Such an event would lead to a ripple effect, escalating regional violence, notably between Kurdish and Turkish forces, and including civilian targeting by both sides. To this end, a sustained conflict and regional de-stabilization should be expected. In a long-term setting, the US will pay a dear price, should Turkey not adhere to the ill-hidden tweet-threats by Trump, warning against transgressions in Syria; as the US will have sacrificed an important regional partner; the semi-autonomous Kurds. Should US abandonment turn costly for the Kurds, then it will serve as a stark reminder that the US cannot be trusted in the region, and undermine US interest

Frank B.

Global Affairs Consultant

It's worth noting that the Syrian Kurdish militias have been allied with US forces since 2015. Trump's decision to withdraw US troops sends a clear message to our allies and enemies alike: the US is a fickle partner. Moscow and Iran will cheer this decision as it will restore Damascus's control over the whole of Syria. Turkey should proceed with caution, lest their planned engagement against the Kurdish forces becomes a full-on Turkey/Syria engagement. The US departure also sends a message to its allies in the Gulf who counted on the US to confront Iran; the withdrawal undermines Iran containment strategy, gives Iran more influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and imperils troops withdrawals elsewhere (e.g., Afghanistan and Iraq).

Ege O.

US-based International Affairs Professor

The Turkish government has been waiting for this moment for a long time now. The Trump administration has the intention to use Turkey to teach a lesson to European forces who do not want back ISIS fighters (citizens of European countries) and yet, the Kurdish forces are going to be the collateral damage which is damaging because they were the ones who most actively and most successfully fought against ISIS. There is enough evidence showing that the Turkish government has been soft against the jihadists in Syria, and it is very likely that ISIS might reemerge probably under a different name. It is also important to wait for the Russian reaction. This is a continuation of the US foreign policy in the region since Trump was elected: calling the US troops back, using allies in the region. 

Alessandro G.

Europe-based Security Expert

The short-term effects will be limited to outrage among Kurds, political opposition to Turkey's move and criticism to the US. Turkey's role in Syria will increase, but this may spark an open conflict with the Kurds that in the long-term risks dragging Turkey in a complex counter-insurgency operation (including within its own territory). The area could be destabilized once again, also because the turmoil (and the potential escape of former IS fighters now under Kurdish custody) could favor the re-emergence of Jihadi groups. America's image and credibility will be harmed as it suddenly abandoned a key on-the-ground partner making a huge concession to Turkey, who has bought weapons (S-400) from Russia in defiance of NATO and whose relations with key US allies (Israel, KSA, Egypt) have deteriorated

Ragip S.

Turkish Journalist

Domestically in Turkey, expect some medium to large size protests in Kurdish majority cities but authorities already have those towns under control. Their impact will be slim. YPG could easily conduct attacks against targets in Turkish border towns in the initial phase of the Turkish operation. But wouldn’t create a large impact. In large cities, albeit now hard, PKK also could try to deploy fighters through the Northern border. PKK suicide bombings could hurt Turkish stability and economy, but PKK network is being crushed since 2016, so don’t expect a string of attacks. Regionally, Iran nor Russia would do anything other than expressing broad opinions, because they previously declared their support to Erdogan in a meeting last month. Assad would be happy to see US forces gone.

Dimitris T.

US-based Turkey Expert

Turkey's decision to send troops into Syrian territory will affect the neighborhood' security balance. There will likely be repercussions in terms of Kurdish retaliation close to the border and loss of life for Turkish soldiers. This will hardly affect life in large Turkish cities, however the government in Ankara is beefing up security measures. Further afar, Turkey's decision is tolerated but hardly welcomed by regional powers, as well as Russia and the US. Should the security situation escalate by way of sizable losses, Ankara's offensive is likely to backfire. The government can for now count on domestic support as it boosts nationalist feeling but should the price prove too high reaction will be vociferous.