Smoke rising in Rasulayn after Turkish shelling. Photo Credit: Arif Hudaverdi Yaman/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.
Turkey’s invasion into Northeast Syria in the wake of the Trump Administration’s withdrawal of troops that were supporting Kurdish partners in the area has left the once stable region in turmoil. The United States’s choice to leave Kurdish allies vulnerable in the face of a major Turkish offensive hurts US credibility with our other allies in the region and strengthens the positions of regional powers that are hostile towards the United States, such as Iran, Syria, Russia, and the Islamic State. The Trump administration’s decision has weakened the credibility of US support for our allies in the region and the credibility of US commitment to regional peace and stability. Moreover, it has initiated a rebalancing of power in the Middle East that will haunt the United States foreign policy goals in the future.
Partners High and Dry
In the face of a known planned attack on US partners across another countries border, the United States sat back and allowed its Kurdish allies to fall under fire. For many smaller nations who have been working with the United States around the world on important military issues, such as counterterrorism, this sets a problematic precedent. The Kurds were forced into making a deal with the Syria government in the face of the impending military actions coming out of Turkey. This deal means that Syrian forces have now re-entered territory in Northern Syria that it had not occupied in the years since the US-Kurdish partnership.[i] Though aspects of the deal are still uncertain, the American move to pull out of the Kurdish territory and the arrival of hostile Turkish troops left the Kurdish government negotiating from a position of weakness that will certainly have consequences for their autonomy in the region.
The situation in Syria has degraded rapidly, and the growing regional instability strengthens our adversaries’ in the region. Iran was emboldened by the success of their September drone attack on Saudi oil refineries, and, as one of Syria Leader Bashar al-Assad’s closest allies, has been active in the conflict since it began.[ii] The Iranians continue to expand their power and influence through their allies and renewed military conflict in Syria gives Iran more opportunities to do so. The alliance forged between the Syrian and Kurdish governments has allowed Syria to take back land rich in resources and re-establish control of the area moving forward.[iii] As one of Syria’s closest allies, the reclamation of the land occupied by the Kurds and its resources is a positive outcome in and of itself for Iran, but the additional blow to US power projection in the region has much larger and more long-term opportunities for the country.
The change in Syrian-Kurdish relations has brought Syrian troops into areas they have long been unable to control. With this re-established military presence in the area, and the lack of US military forces to counterbalance the Syrian presence, the dream of a Kurdish autonomous state has been severely set back.[iv] The other complication is the Islamic State. Although the Islamic State has lost its territorial holdings in Iraq and Syria, it is still not eradicated in Northeast Syrian where many of the prisons and refugee camps housing suspected ISIS members and their families are located.[v] The Turkish offensive has forced Kurdish forces tasked with guarding those prisons and camps to choose between fighting off Turkish troops and their guard duties.[vi] Detainees at the prisons and ISIS family members in the camps have reportedly escaped, offering the group a chance at reemergence in the region in the midst of renewed chaos[vii].
In addition to Iran, Syrian and IS militants, Russia, another long-time supporter of the Assad government, has troops on the ground operating alongside Assad’s Syrian Defense Forces.[viii] This adds to the confusion and, with US troops still in parts of Northern Syrian, it increases the danger that the fog of battle could lead to accidental confrontation between the U.S. and Russia or Syrian forces. This, of course, would only serve to increase tensions between the three governments. On the larger geopolitical level, President Vladimir Putin visited Saudi Arabia, a move that demonstrates Russia’s growing power in the region.[ix] The more the United States steps away from its partners in the Middle East, the more Russia is able to lean in and fill the power vacuum that is left. This practice further undermines US alliances in the region, leading regional actors to lose trust in the U.S. and instead seek a relationship with Russia.
As a member of NATO and a long-time ally to the United States, Turkey now poses a major conundrum. Turkish forces have bracketed US troops and blocked their retreat from the frontlines.[x] Adding to the difficult situation are the US tactical nuclear weapons housed at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.[xi] The actions of the Turkish military endanger US military personnel and the nuclear weapons located in Turkish territory. The Turks are not behaving as allies and are in the midst of rebalancing as adversaries. Consequently, they should be treated as such moving forward, and the U.S. should move to remove its nuclear weapons from Turkish territory. The Trump Administration has decided to initiate tariffs and has threatened sanctions in response to Turkey’s actions, but with the growing number of dead and displaced it seems to be far too little, much too late[xii]. Even now, with a shaky ceasefire brokered between Vice President Mike Pence and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kurdish-controlled land has been split up between Turkey and Syria with little hope of the Kurds regaining a sense of autonomy. The Kurdish dream of a sovereign Kurdish state has been shattered, and instead Kurdish leaders fear ethnic cleansing and subjugation.[xiii]
The U.S. has retreated from its promises and obligations in Northeast Syria with the Kurds. In the two weeks since the beginning of this conflict a rebalancing of power in the region in favor of US adversaries such as Iran, Syria, Russia and the Islamic State has accelerated. Now these adversarial nations are more integrated into regional power dynamics and will continue to entrench themselves and continue the shift in power. The world has watched the U.S. abandon its commitments in the Middle East, casting aside its partners for its own interests, and that will make it much more difficult to conduct multilateral foreign policy in the future.
[i] Erin Cunningham, Sarah Dadouch, Asser Khattab, and Dan Lamothe, “Syrian Troops Enter Towns in Northeast as Erdogan Warns of Wider Offensive,” Washington Post, October 14, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/syrian-troops-enter-towns-in-northeast-as-erdogan-warns-of-wider-offensive/2019/10/14/3fe2c420-ee06-11e9-bb7e-d2026ee0c199_story.html.
[ii] Ben Hubbard, Palko Karasz, and Stanley Reed, “Two Major Saudi Oil Installations Hot by Drone Strike, and U.S. Blames Iran,” New York Times, October 14, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/14/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-refineries-drone-attack.html.
[iii] Fabrice Balanche, “The United States in Northern Syria: Geopolitical Strategy Cannot Ignore Local Reality,” Hoover Institution, October 14, 2019, https://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/383981576-the-united-states-in-northeastern-syria-geopolitical-strategy-cannot-ignore-local-reality_1.pdf.
[iv] Erin Cunningham, Sarah Dadouch, Asser Khattab, and Dan Lamothe, “Syrian Troops Enter Towns in Northeast as Erdogan Warns of Wider Offensive,” Washington Post, October 14, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/syrian-troops-enter-towns-in-northeast-as-erdogan-warns-of-wider-offensive/2019/10/14/3fe2c420-ee06-11e9-bb7e-d2026ee0c199_story.html.
[v] Dominique Vidalon, “France’s Le Drian Says Turkish Offensive In Syria Could Undermine Fight Against IS,” Reuters, October 14, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-suria-turkey/frances-le-drian-says-turkish-offensive-in-syria-could-undermine-fight-against-is-paper-idUSKBN1WT2A7.
[vi] Miriam Berger, “Here’s What We Know About The ISIS Prisons Controlled By The Syrian Kurds,” Washington Post, October 14, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/10/12/inside-isis-prisons-controlled-by-syrian-kurds/.
[viii] Ben Hubbard, Anton Troianovski, Carlotta Gall and Patrick Kingsley, “In Syria, Russia Is Pleased to Fill an American Void,” New York Times, October 20, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/15/world/middleeast/kurds-syria-turkey.html?searchResultPosition=2.
[ix] Olesya Astakhova and Stephen Kalin, “Saudi Visit Signals Putin’s Growing Middle East Influence,” Reuters, October 14, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-russia/saudi-visit-signals-putins-growing-middle-east-influence-idUSKBN1WT0KH.
[x] David Sanger, “Trump Followed His Gut on Syria. Calamity Came Fast,” New York Times, October 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/world/middleeast/trump-turkey-syria.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage.
[xii] “The Syrian War, Today’s Top Developments,” New York Times, October 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/world/middleeast/turkey-syria.html.
[xiii] Ben Hubbard, “As U.S. Leaves Allies in Syria, Jurdish Commander Struggles With Fallout,” New York Times, October 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/20/world/middleeast/pelosi-syria-turkey-jordan.html.