New security challenges lie ahead for Turkey in Syria
The total and immediate pullout of U.S. troops from Syria surely corresponds to the beginning of a new era in the seven-year-old civil war in the Middle Eastern country. This sudden move by U.S. President Donald Trump will bring about important consequences to the entire region with drastic impacts on the fight against terrorism, ongoing efforts for a political settlement to the Syrian civil war and the positions of various states and non-state actors.
Perhaps, at first glance, some positive assessments over the withdrawal of the U.S. army could be underlined in regards to further mending bilateral ties between Turkey and the U.S. Leaving the “YPG problem” behind will surely boost political relations between the two allies.
The fact that three working groups set up to resolve all pending issues between the two countries will convene on Jan. 8 in Washington D.C. should be taken as a step in the right direction. One of these working groups is focused on Syria and is believed to coordinate the U.S. withdrawal from the war-torn country with Turkey.
The need for coordination is pretty clear because the aftereffects of the withdrawal could create new fault lines in the already unstable Syria. There are so many potential challenges ahead, but one should first take into account the sudden departure of the U.S. would break the balance in the Syrian theater to the advantage of other state actors, notably Syria, Russia, and Iran.
The Syrian army and Iran-backed militias have already started to advance toward the southern outskirts of Manbij city and to reinforce their positions in southern Syria toward Raqqa and east of Deir-ez-Zur. It would not be surprising to see an intensified mobilization of forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad from south to north and west to east in order to control the areas to be evacuated by the U.S. military in the coming months.
The course of events could put Turkey and Syria face-to-face first in Manbij and then in other parts of northeastern Syria. The Turkish government has announced that it has delayed an announced operation into the east of Euphrates, but has, at the same time, reiterated its determination to eliminate the YPG from the region.
Turkey’s chances to launch a unilateral land operation into the said area are getting slim, as Russia and Iran will oppose the move while they will encourage the Syrian army to reinstate its full authority in the east of Euphrates River. Thus, Turkey will either heed to its Astana partners and will halt its operations or will run the risk of a direct confrontation with Damascus.
In relation to this, getting the control of almost all of Syria would encourage Assad not to compromise with moderate opposition groups. That would leave years of efforts by the international community futile and complicate the return of millions of Syrian refugees to their homeland.
The position the YPG will take is also important. The French government has said its troops won’t leave Syria, but questions linger about its ability to provide full protection to the YPG. One option for the YPG is to accept Damascus’ authority and stand with the pro-Assad forces to get a chance for extending its military presence in the region and political status in the future. Or, it can go wild and capture a relatively small but safe territory along the Syrian-Iraqi border where they can merge with the PKK.
As Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu highlighted, expectations that the U.S. will recollect all the weapons given to the YPG are unrealistic. But the U.S. can destroy some of the facilities and military equipment before leaving the area, which is what Ankara expects.
News that the Arab elements of the SDF are quitting are also very important. In the absence of the U.S. troops, traditional ethnic fault lines between Kurds and Arabs may resurface and lead to new clashes.
Last but not least, ISIL can re-group and retain some of the territories it had lost. After the U.S. withdrawal, it will surely feel a lot more comfortable in re-strategizing its actions both in the region and beyond. ISIL is believed to have around only 2,000 members, but its ideology is still very powerful and can lure new recruits mainly from Syria and Iraq. Therefore, ISIL may pose a continued threat to world peace and Turkey may be one of the immediate targets of the jihadist terrorists.
All these scenarios mentioned in this column are just about apparent challenges and risks that can be observed after the U.S. withdrawal from Syria. Developments in the field may lead to unforeseen consequences as well.
This new era in Syria obliges all relevant parties to stay in close contact and engagement so that unwanted acts can be averted. The seven-year Syrian civil war has already proven that its prolongation will continue to risk world peace. All the relevant parties, mostly Russia and Turkey, should evolve their policies on Syria bearing these risks in mind.