Syria at a crossroads
The Syrian civil war has entered its eight year with no sign of ending soon. On the contrary, the further entanglement of regional and international actors in the conflict hints at a likely continuation of violence. The humanitarian aspect of the civil war has already become the biggest ever crisis in the world, with a huge number of internally displaced people, refugees, and people requiring assistance in the country. The involvement of regional and international actors with their varying aims further complicates the situation. There is clearly no easy way out the Syrian quagmire.
Since the beginning of the conflict there have been various attempts to ease the tension ranging from the French-led “Friends of Syria Group” to U.N.-brokered Geneva Talks, the Vienna Process and finally the Russia-led Astana Process. As part of the latter, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Sochi on Nov. 22, 2017, to finally try to find a viable political solution.
That process has so far produced the “de-confliction zones” concept in parts of Syria. The three leaders met in Ankara once again yesterday to review the progress so far. The timing of the Ankara meeting was quite important as it coincided with mixed signals coming from U.S. President Donald Trump. It also followed French President Emmanuel Macron’s latest foray into the problem.
Last week, during a speech in Ohio, Trump suddenly announced his intention to withdraw American troops from Syria “soon,” saying that “other people should take care of it now.” The announcement obviously caught the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense unprepared, as no one expected such a remark from the president given the prevailing atmosphere in Syria. Trump, per his character, surprised U.S. officials by raising expectations without any concrete strategy for the withdrawal, leaving the bureaucracy to sort out the ramifications of such a move.
The most likely outcome will be resistance from the Department of Defense to early withdrawal, as in Afghanistan. It would not be realistic to think that the defense bureaucracy shares Trump’s stance on the issue, especially considering both the Russian and Iranian presence and the effective cooperation against U.S. designs in the region. Clearly, it would be a risky strategy for the U.S. to make a major policy change in Syria at a time when Trump has also been trying to tighten pressure on Iran.
At the same time, French President Macron reiterated France’s support to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in order to stabilize the northern Syria and to prevent revival of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a March 29 meeting with delegates from Syria. His later offer to mediate between Turkey and SDF, as well as his pledge - according to Kurdish representatives attending the meeting - to send French soldiers to Manbij to help the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-affiliated YPG against possible Turkish moves, drew an angry reaction from Ankara. Although his Manbij promise was not confirmed by the office of the French president, the timing of both offers after President Macron’s talk with President Trump and his announcement of withdrawal intention was significant.
Under such a rapidly changing environment, Turkey’s various moves and high-level messages for further military operations has raised concerns among both its allies and its opponents in the region. Keeping them guessing could be a viable policy line in the short term, but by itself this will not provide the results that Turkey seems to aiming at. For that, further involvement and long-time commitment might be necessary.