Oct 7th 2019
IT SEEMED ALMOST inevitable that America would forsake the Kurds in Syria. On the evening of October 6th President Donald Trump announced that American troops would withdraw from the area around Syria’s border with Turkey. Numbering around 150 (out of a total contingent of 1,000 in eastern Syria) the troops near the border were largely a tripwire to prevent a long-threatened invasion by Turkey, which views the Syrian Kurdish militia in control of the region (the People’s Protection Units, or YPG) as a terrorist group. “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” Mr Trump’s statement read, adding that American troops “will no longer be in the immediate area.” Hours later the pullout had already begun, with American soldiers abandoning outposts near the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain.
This was remarkable language from the White House, all but giving Turkey a green light to invade what has been an American protectorate. It should also come as no surprise. Mr Trump has long been clear about his desire to remove American troops from Syria. He tried to do so in December after a telephone call with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That decision (announced, naturally, on Twitter) prompted the resignation of his defence secretary, James Mattis. American officials saw it as a betrayal of Kurds who fought bravely and effectively against the jihadists of Islamic State (IS) with American encouragement and support. Many worry that, as the Kurds turn to face the Turkish army, IS will have an opportunity to regroup. In a rare split with Mr Trump, Republican lawmakers—including Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader—joined their Democratic colleagues to condemn the move.
They are right to worry—but Turkey has a point, too. The YPG has close ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebel group that has fought a long insurgency against the Turkish state. No Turkish president would accept a Kurdish-led statelet across the border. By relying on the Kurds to lead the fight against IS and allowing them to set up a semi-autonomous region called Rojava, America set up an unavoidable clash with a NATO ally. To head off a Turkish incursion America had to promise the Kurds an open-ended deployment in north-east Syria. That was an untenable strategy.
In seeking to correct it abruptly, though, Mr Trump may make the problem worse. For months the Pentagon has urged the YPG to mollify Turkey by pulling back from the border. The YPG has begun to withdraw heavy weapons, which were a valuable deterrent. Last month American special forces released photos of destroyed YPG outposts, saying their removal “addresses legitimate security concerns along the border”. With its allies declawed, America has now abandoned them altogether.
Still, talk of an imminent slaughter of Kurds is probably overblown. Despite a reputation for standing their ground, Kurdish fighters deprived of American support will probably not want open conflict with a larger and better-equipped Turkish army—especially not on the flat plains of north-east Syria. But a Turkish incursion could nonetheless displace many of the 750,000 people living in the proposed Turkish “safe zone” along the border. Mr Trump warned Turkey against pushing too far into Syria. “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!)," Mr Trump tweeted.
Hunkered down on their side, the YPG will have nowhere to turn for help but south. The group is likely to cut a deal with Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator, relinquishing some of its autonomy in exchange for protection from the regime. To the long list of unintended consequences in the Middle East, add this: Kurdish fighters trained by the American armed forces could end up pressed into service under Mr Assad’s army.
The American withdrawal is also grim news for 3.6m Syrian refugees living in Turkey. They have overstayed their welcome, in the view of many Turks. Opposition parties blame them for an economic downturn and want them deported. Mr Erdogan now seems to agree and hopes to send up to 1m refugees to Turkish-controlled slices of northern Syria, “safe zones” in name only.
What Mr Trump gets in return is unclear. Fully half of his two-paragraph statement on the withdrawal was devoted to the tens of thousands of IS fighters detained in north-east Syria. They are held under YPG guard in camps like Al-Hol, home to some 70,000 people who live in increasingly desperate and unsafe conditions. In Mr Trump’s words, Turkey promised to be “responsible” for the detainees. This may come as news to Mr Erdogan. Last month, in a speech at the United Nations, he held up a map of the proposed safe zone. It pointedly did not include Al-Hol. And Turkey does not have a good track record when it comes to jihadists. Many first reached Syria by taking advantage of lax Turkish border controls.
America never had a coherent Syria policy. Barack Obama called for Mr Assad to go yet refused to do anything that might help rebels get rid of him. He declared the use of chemical weapons a “red line”, then failed to enforce it. Expedient as it was, his choice of the Kurds to fight IS put America at odds with Turkey. Mr Trump has merely accelerated an inevitable conflict. In typically impetuous fashion, though, he does not seem to have thought about what comes next.
Original Headline: Donald Trump gives Turkey the green light to invade northern Syria
Source: The Economist