The apparent decision by US President Donald Trump to order the complete withdrawal of US forces from Syria was preceded by a looming crisis between the US and Turkey. It is worth looking at this crisis in detail as it may well hold the key to this latest dramatic development.
Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan discussed the matter of Syria in a phone call last Friday. In a speech on Monday, Erdogan then reiterated his threat to launch a military incursion into north-east Syria.
This operation, if undertaken, would have pitted Turkish troops against a US partner force – the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Ankara sees the latter as inseparably linked to the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), which has been engaged in an insurgency against Turkey since 1984.
To his audience in Konya Province, Erdogan asserted that the Turkish incursion would commence 'at any moment now.' According to local media reports, both Kurdish and Turkish forces had begun to dig entrenchments along the border, in anticipation of the coming fight.
The Turkish threat placed the US in a difficult position. On the one hand, Turkey is a NATO member state, with a powerful army. The air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey is an important US strategic asset in the Middle East. Under President Erdogan and the AKP, Turkey has in recent years been set on a path of increasing authoritarianism at home, and support for Sunni Islamist and jihadi forces in the region.
In recent months, Ankara has been strengthening ties with Russia. Turkey is set to pursue the Russian S-400 air defense system and is an active participant in the Russian-led attempt at a diplomatic process to conclude the Syrian civil war on the basis of continued rule by the Assads. Yet precisely because of the problematic nature of its leadership, coupled with its size and economic and military power, the US is concerned to prevent further Turkish drift towards closer relations with western rivals and enemies in the region.
On the other hand, the SDF (with the Kurdish YPG at its core) has emerged as an example of a reliable and successful partner force for US air power and special forces (and western strategic objectives) in the troubled Syrian arena. The SDF was the main ground force in the war against ISIS. The territorial phase of this war is now almost completed, with the SDF's conquest of the town of Hajin in the lower Euphrates river valley earlier this month. But the US partnership with this force, and tacitly with the de facto governing authorities in the area that it controls, goes beyond the conventional fight against the Sunni jihadis of ISIS.
The SDF is linked to the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, which is the Kurdish-led authority in roughly 30% of Syrian territory. De facto ownership of this territory by a US ally brings with it a series of advantages to the west. Firstly, this area contains around 80% of Syria's oil and gas reserves. Whoever controls it hence becomes automatically a key player in any discussion of Syria's future. Secondly, ISIS may have disappeared as a ruling authority. But it remains very much in existence as a networked insurgency.
A recent Pentagon estimate suggested that the movement still possesses around 30,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, and has access to $400 million. Control of the territory east of the Euphrates, and alliance with a ground force of proven reliability provides the opportunity for continued action where necessary to prevent the re-emergence of IS.
Thirdly, possession of Syria east of the Euphrates forms a partial land obstacle to the Iranian ambition of building an area of contiguous control from the Iraq-Iran border to the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon and the border with Israel. For all these reasons, Israel has supported and continues to favor the maintenance of the current arrangement in eastern Syria.
The preferred US method for resolving this dilemma until now has been to seek to avoid it. Washington has tried to keep both sides happy.
Regarding Turkey, the US made no attempt to prevent Ankara's destruction in January 2018 of the Kurdish canton in Afrin in north west Syria. Rather, the US stressed that since that area had no part in the war against IS further east, it was not included in the alliance between the US and the SDF.
Similarly, the relationship with the de facto rulers in eastern Syria has been officially limited to the purely military. Neither the US nor any other country have recognized the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.
Yet the US has also sought to reassure the Kurds, and indeed the relations between the sides have been deepening on the ground. The US recently committed to the training of '35000 to 40,000' additional local forces to provide stability in eastern Syria, according to a recent statement by Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Washington recently also established a series of observation points along the border – at Tel Abyad, Ras al Ain and Kobani. Both Kurds and Turks understood these as intended to deter any possibility of a Turkish incursion.
Ankara evidently was no longer willing to acquiesce to this ambiguous situation, and wanted to test the issue. Why now? Turkey's substantive concerns notwithstanding, there are local elections due in the country in March. The poor state of the economy has led to a sharp decline in current levels of support for the AKP and its allies. A bout of nationalist saber–rattling may have helped to rectify this.
But this does not mean that the threat was not a serious one. Erdogan would have noted not only the precedent of Afrin, but also the abandonment by the west of its rebel clients in Deraa and Quneitra Provnces in summer, 2018, in the face of a determined assault by the regime, Russia and Iran's proxies. He would have listened carefully to the many ambiguous statements by US officials regarding the relationship with the SDF. In the most recent example, James Jeffrey, Special Representative on Syria, had described the relations as 'transactional' and 'tactical' and noted that the US does not have 'permanent relations with sub-state entities.'
Vladimir Putin addresses servicemen during his visit to the Khmeimin air base in Latakia province, Syria in December 2017.
All this may have encouraged him to believe that the US, after perhaps some words of disapproval, would acquiesce to threats of a Turkish campaign whose actual purpose would be the expulsion of Washington from the Syrian space, so that Ankara, Moscow, Teheran and Damascus could then seek to broker an end to the war in the country.
What remained to be seen was who would blink first. A major military incursion east of the Euphrates would have been a clear act of defiant aggression against the expressed will of Washington. At that point, the US would have needed to decide whether its interests in Syria and its credibility more broadly were of sufficient importance to necessitate an effort to induce Ankara to reverse course. Or of course the confrontation could be avoided by the wholesale US acceptance of Turkish demands, in contradiction to stated US policy.
The contradiction between the western attempt to appease Turkey, and the tentatively emergent strategy vis a vis Syria had been apparent for some months. It now looked set to be resolved – one way or the other.
If the US indeed now follows through with the rapid withdrawal of the American military presence in Syria in its entirety, as a number of news outlets have reported and the President appears to have confirmed, then we have an answer. It means that the US has indeed blinked first, and is set on reversing course in Syria – by embarking on a hurried exit from the country. This will be interpreted by all sides as a strategic defeat, an abandonment under pressure of allies, and a debacle.
Jonathan Spyer is a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, a research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Strategic Studies, and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (2010).