Managing uncertainty in Syria
After U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw forces, a new uncertainty developed in Syria. However, compared with the eight years of chaos in the country, this latest uncertainty seems more manageable.
Uncertainty is visible especially in the U.S. media. Will the U.S. withdraw from Syria? Is Trump slowing down the process? What will happen to the Kurds? Who will fill the vacuum after the U.S. leaves? Similar questions are being discussed in the world as well as in Turkey.
Some experts say the withdrawal is just an act of diversion and some believe that it is reversible. It is hard to blame skeptical analysts about their stance since the U.S. broke her promises to Turkey about their activities in Syria many times. Especially promises about stopping the arming and protecting of the PKK-affiliated YPG.
But this time it should be said that the promises of President Trump does not aim appeasing Turkey or any other actor. This is an American decision and President Trump will not retrieve. He signaled this during a cabinet meeting when he described Syria in two words: “Sand and death.” He did not attribute importance to the country, saying, “We are talking about sand and death, we’re not talking about vast wealth, we are talking about sand and death.”
With these words he did not leave any door open and in a way implied that confusing the words of Senator Lindsey Graham about the withdrawal was just the senator’s struggle to maneuver.
In my opinion, the right question about the U.S. withdrawal from Syria should not be “if” but “how?” How will the U.S. withdraw from Syria, under which circumstances? What kind of time table will be implemented? How does the post-withdrawal plan look like? I think it is important to define these parameters for a right analysis.
The U.S. has around 2,000 soldiers in Syria and controls almost all territory in the east side of the Euphrates River. Four of the 14 provinces of Syria are under the control of American supported forces.
There are three big questions that the U.S. needs to handle during the withdrawal process.
First of all protecting the image of the withdrawing U.S. army is important. This is the easiest problem to manage. Each withdrawal from a war zone can be used by the rivals as a failure and defeat. That’s why President Trump began with victorious exit rhetoric when he revealed this policy. He described the U.S. mission in Syria as the fight against ISIL and said this mission has been accomplished. When you look at the territorial loss of ISIL, the facts on the ground supports Trump’s rhetoric of victory.
Furthermore, President Trump does not hide his intention to divert the source that was spared in Syria. According to the Cost of War report by the Watson Institute, the U.S. spent $41 billion on Syria. This is twice the amount of the cost of the Wall that the President wants to build at Mexican border. Obviously Trump does not want to bury this money under sand and death in Syria. So, withdrawal is a genuine decision with American domestic concerns.
The second issue about the withdrawal is the word of U.S. “betrayal to its allies.” This idea has been circulated by diplomats and military officials who have been working with the YPG. Supporters of this idea criticize the administration by saying that Kurds are being left to the mercy of Turkey. Trump, in his speech at the mentioned cabinet meeting, pointed out that Kurds sold oil to Iran and implied that if there is a betrayal it was started by the Kurds.
The ground of discussion on betrayal in the U.S. sounds weird in Turkey. Turkey and the U.S. have been two countries sharing a common fate since the 1947 Truman doctrine. The two countries worked together for the last 70 years in different places, in Korea War, in the Cold War, did common operations under the NATO umbrella, in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and are making common military planning. It is a 70-year-old alliance. During this period of time the U.S. decision on Jupiter missiles during the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962, arms embargo on Turkey when Turkish Cypriots were massacred and arming the PKK-affiliated groups were actions which have closer meaning to the word of betrayal.
In addition to this, “betraying Kurds” is misleading and wrong. The PKK-YPG-PYD do not represents Kurds altogether. Kurds living in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria is not monolithic. There are many political parties and fractions, nationalist, conservative, Islamist, socialist and even extremists. Different Kurdish political movements are active in these countries. It is not realistic and right to read all Kurds from the lenses of Marxist YPG-PYD, which is actually the farthest to the Kurdish society in terms of belief, emotions and thoughts. This is the real betrayal to Kurds. Because the YPG purged and alienated opponent Kurds, other local ethnic groups and forced them to leave the area.
President Trump’s statement is important that he wanted to protect Kurds but he also underlined the fact that he was not happy that the Kurds were selling oil to Iran, meaning that they were the first to betray.
The third and most difficult issue about the withdrawal is who will fill the vacuum. This must be planned delicately and realistically. The U.S. administration should stay away from biased opinions like David Ignatius’. He wrote that “[Withdrawal] It ends a low-cost, high-impact mission and creates a vacuum that will be filled by one of a series of bad actors — Iran, Russia, Turkey, Islamic extremists, the Syrian regime.” He is reflecting a view common in the U.S., portraying secular Turkey as an Islamist country and citing it with extremists and Syrian regime,” describing as “Bad actors.” This is the biased and misleading approach which should be left in Washington soon.
Turkey and the U.S. have to work together on a common ground, with an inclusive plan with local actors, cleaned from terrorists. The two countries can bring Astana and Geneva processes closer and strengthen legitimate opposition forces.
Uncertainty is deep and the visibility is low in Syria’s foggy political atmosphere. Moving slow and being cautious is the best way to act for each actor, now.