What are the US and France trying to do in Syria?
U.S. President Donald Trump’s March 30 statement that the U.S. would be withdrawing from Syria “soon” came as a surprise for all Syria-watchers. It also sent shockwaves through his own administration, because it ran completely opposite to the Syria policies declared by top figures in foreign policy and defense circles.
Despite Trump’s remarks, it would not be realistic to expect an imminent U.S. withdrawal from Syria. Firstly, this was not the first time that he has taken a stance - without consulting the administration - that differs from official U.S. policies. On many occasions, Trumps has taken by surprise people within the foreign policy and defense bureaucracy, including his ministers and close associates.
It is not difficult to predict that Trump’s latest announcement regarding Syria will face stiff resistance from his own administration. According to official statements, the U.S.’s intention to keep troops in Syria is not limited to the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Its attempts to counterbalance the increasing influence of Russia and Iran in Syria, including using the Syrian Kurds as part of this strategy, play a key role in shaping Washington’s Syrian policies.
However, if implemented, the most important outcome of this new policy will be that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran will have more room for maneuver. Likewise, Turkey will not have to confront the U.S. whenever it takes actions against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, as happened in Manbij. Even if the U.S. army does not ultimately withdraw from Syria, Trump’s statement has weakened the perception that the U.S. is an important element in the Syrian equation.
The Kurdish political line represented by the PKK/YPG, which has not seen the kind of support they expected from the West, should itself draw some conclusions following Trump’s announcement. Most likely the thinking that “the West has once again used the Kurds and hung them out to dry” will once again gain currency.
French President Emmanuel Macron on March 29 received a delegation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), including members of the YPG, in the Elysee Palace, but it is not realistic to expect France to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. in Syria.
Since he moved to the Elysee Palace, Macron has been trying to make France once again a powerful actor in the international arena. As part of those attempts, he wants to establish a high profile for France in Syria, which of course was once within France’s zone of influence.
It could be argued that Macron wants to add France to the Syrian equation by courting the Kurds. In doing so he is also responding to criticism from the French public and politicians that he has not done enough to protect the Kurds in Afrin.
Members of the Kurdish delegation that met Macron announced that “France would send troops to Manbij,” but the Elysee Palace denied that on March 30. Apparently France does not want to risk a military confrontation with Turkey in Manbij. But it is possible to say that the tension between Washington and Ankara stemming from the YPG in Syria is spreading to Turkey-France relations on the European front.
There is a point I would like to underline: In its statement, the Elysee Palace stressed the target of “achieving stabilization of the security zone particularly in the northeast of Syria, within the framework of an inclusive and balanced governance … through a political solution.”
The expression “particularly in the northeast of Syria” was significant.
This emphasis probably points to the critical issue that may arise if Turkey takes control of Manbij in the coming days. This issue is related to the kind of governing model that will emerge for the Kurds living in the 400-kilometer-long area just across the Turkish border, stretching from the east of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border.
The main point of contention between Turkey and the West will probably be about the nature of the status that the Kurds will have in this region.