With US pullout, Turkey loses counterbalance against Russia
U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to pull out troops from Syria has been met by shock in the world’s Western sphere. It has nearly been accompanied by sadness, as though U.S. military presence has brought peace and stability.
For a European observer, U.S. military presence might have a positive connotation: U.S. support in ending WWII in Europe, its alliance during the Cold War, and its interference during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo might have left a positive mark in the European psyche.
The same has not been valid for the Middle East.
Ever since the Gulf war, U.S. presence in the region has meant devastation for countries to which American forces claimed to bring peace and stability.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results,” Albert Einstein is believed to have said.
We might want to try to see what can happen in the absence of the U.S. military.
Then again, international relations are much more complicated than nuclear physics. At least you might predict how an atom can react in a given circumstance.
That is not the case in anything with human involvement. The region could have looked equally devastated had U.S. soldiers stayed away for the past two decades. We might not know that.
It would therefore be naive to expect everything to look like a bed of roses in the U.S. forces’ eventual (complete?) pullout from Syria.
It would then be too early to have a healthy projection on whether it will be better or not for Turkey (and the region) in the short/medium/long term.
But we can make some predictions. The U.S. pullout will certainly release the immediate pressure on bilateral relations. The tension in relations caused by an open military assistance to a group perceived by Turkey as an existential threat was not sustainable. The U.S. would probably continue its covert assistance, but that will probably be more manageable for Turkey. With U.S. soldiers gone, this will leave Turkey face to face with Syria, Iran and Russia as state actors in the field.
And the Oscar goes to…
The Oscar goes to Bashar al-Assad for best scenario. Facing an assault from the West at the beginning of the civil war seven years ago, he decided to release all radical (Islamist) elements from jail. Targeting Europe’s Achilles heel, al-Assad told the West “If I am gone you will be facing radical Islamists.” Targeting Turkey’s Achilles heel and to counter Turkish dreams to pray in a “mosque in Syria” as voiced by the former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, he ceded control in the north to Syrian Kurds.
As the oldest and the strongest armed group in the region, the PKK hijacked the Kurdish cause in Syria and probably will now opt to seek an agreement with its former protector: The regime in Damascus. And Al-Assad will not create so much difficulty in cooperating with an arch enemy of a country that tried to topple him.
So in a way we might go back to where we were in the 1990’s when Syria was hosting PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. The difference today is that Syria is much more dependent on Russia and Iran, and the shots will be called by the former.
Russia is therefore Turkey’s real interlocutor in the field. How would Turkish-Russian cooperation shape after the departure of U.S. forces? To answer that question, we need to understand Russian intentions in Syria. Russia currently perceives a threat from the West, NATO in particular. Control over Syria consolidates his geostrategic standing against NATO and uses Turkey to split the NATO alliance.
The PKK will now fully turn into a trump card in Vladimir Putin’s hands. Putin will never let Turkey completely eradicate the PKK’s presence and influence in Syria. Let’s not forget that the PYD has had a political representation office in the Russian capital since 2016.
In addition to fighting the PKK, Turkey will also now be fighting ISIL, alone.
Prior to U.S. departure, Turkey could use the U.S. against Russia and Russia against the U.S. in Syria. Now with the U.S. soldiers out, what kind of leverage will it have against Moscow?
Perhaps it is going to be easier to deal with a former enemy-turned-“strategic partner,” whose intensions are easier to predict that an ally that turned into an adversary whose intentions are not exactly clear due to the “Trump” factor.
At any rate, the U.S. pullout might not be catastrophic, but the future might not look any brighter than it is today.