US President Donald Trump wants to end what he has called "endless wars" – but he increasingly faces hurdles in Syria because US policy is running up against the reality that once you get into a conflict, it's hard to get out. The US-led coalition and its Syrian Democratic Forces partners on the ground defeated ISIS this year in March, but the jihadist threat still exists. Turkey has said it will launch an operation into eastern Syria in areas where the US and its partners are present, potentially leading to instability and more refugees.
The problem for the US in Syria, which Trump vowed to withdraw from in December, is that it got into Syria to defeat ISIS but now faces challenges from Russia, Iran, the Syrian regime and Turkey, the latter of which is supposed to be a US ally.
All of these countries oppose the US presence for different reasons. The Syrian regime opposes the US because it doesn't want America empowering local forces and appearing to harm its "sovereignty." Russia opposes the US because Moscow supports the Syrian regime, but also because it wants to see US influence weakened. Moscow has condemned the US role in Raqqa, arguing that the city has not been rebuilt since it was liberated in 2017, and has slammed the US role in Tanf, a desert base, accusing Washington of training militants and harming Syrian infrastructure, even stealing oil.
Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the Syrian government all oppose the US presence, for different reasons.
Iran's opposition to the US is historically clear: It wants to undermine America's role in Iraq, while not provoking a conflict with Washington. Yet the US has sanctioned the IRGC, which is active in Syria, and has condemned Iran's role in the war-torn country. Tehran understands that the US in Syria poses a challenge to their decision to carve out influence there, and a corridor of Iranian power that stretches from Al Bukamal on the Iraqi border to Damascus.
Lastly, Turkey is concerned about the US role because it believes the SDF is an umbrella group that contains the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both countries view as a terrorist group.
From Ankara's perspective, there are questions about why Washington would support terrorists along Turkey's southern border. A Turkey-PKK ceasefire fell apart in 2015 and Turkey has fought against the PKK in cities in its eastern areas as well as through air strikes in northern Iraq and through the invasion of Afrin in Northwest Syria in January 2018.
Turkey wants to totally destroy the PKK and all its affiliates. It has launched air strikes against Yazidi members of the PKK in Sinjar and against a PKK camp near Makhmur. It seeks a total war across the region against anyone linked to the group. As such, eastern Syria is a target.
But Turkey has a hurdle in the presence of US forces. For years, Ankara has threatened an operation. It increased rhetoric last fall – and its rhetoric is not just about launching a military operation, but about giving Syria to its "true owners," as the Turkish President said on December 12.
And who are the "true owners"? This is not spelled out, but Turkey has said it wants to help mostly Arab refugees who fled Syria during the ISIS war return to their homes. This already resulted in demographic change in Afrin, changing a historically Kurdish area into one that is more Arab.
Some 167,000 people, most of them Kurds, fled Afrin in 2018; Turkish media says 150,000 Syrians went into Afrin – but they are apparently not the same people who fled, leading to concerns about whether a Turkish operation in eastern Syria would be another repeat of Afrin. Ankara doesn't view the operation this way, claiming that it merely wants to create a "peace" corridor along its border and remove "terrorists." On August 4, Turkey told the US and Russia it would launch an operation.
This has sent the US scrambling. Since January, it has been trying to work on a "safe zone" concept with Turkey that would allow some kind of international force to patrol the border inside Syria. But it was never clear what this plan entailed because US envoy James Jeffrey was always tight-lipped about what America really thought would occur.
If the US appears to abandon Syria's Kurds, they will seek Syrian regime support against Turkey.
This is a tightrope for Washington, because the US knows that if it appears to abandon the SDF and hand over part of eastern Syria to Turkey, then the SDF will seek Syrian regime support to prevent towns and cities it fought to liberate from ISIS, ending up run by Turkish soldiers or Syrian rebel forces. That would create a crisis in eastern Syria, as the regime rushes to secure areas – and as Turkey seeks to work with Russia to get approval for another Afrin-style operation, leaving US forces marooned and with no real function, a fait accompli for Washington, ending years of Syria policy in disgrace.
The US also knows that its plans for "stabilization" in eastern Syria are not going well. The precarious situation in Syria is such that stabilizing the area after the ISIS war requires cash, but in 2018 most of the investment the US envisioned was not forthcoming.
Washington went hat in hand to Riyadh, and several hundred million dollars was supposed to arrive. But Trump's decision to leave Syria left the fate of the cash up in the air, as the US tinkered to turn 2,000 troops into 200 in eastern Syria, while asking the UK, France and others to send troops.
So far, the UK and France seem willing only to send a token. Germany rejected US requests. Turkey knows it has influence over the UK and Germany, and that it can pressure these countries regarding any decision to commit to a framework Ankara rejects. Amid the Brexit debacle, the UK will need Turkey, maybe more than Turkey needs the UK.
Turkey is determined to go it alone if its last-minute demands of the US are not met. Turkish officials have told this message to its leading media: Anadolu, Daily Sabah and others. Jeffrey is looking into the abyss, as he looks at a year of work perhaps going down the drain. He was appointed in August 2018; now Turkey is the one making the demands: that the US must be flexible.
Washington has warned that there could be 15,000 ISIS fighters still at large in Syria. Hakki Ocal at Daily Sabah said this was a scare tactic – and anyway, the Turkish officers in the tanks on the border are ready to go into Syria regardless.
Trump Has another message. He warned European countries over the weekend to take back their thousands of citizens who are being held in eastern Syria and who were previously ISIS supporters that were captured during the war. They could be released, he warned: Someone needs to take responsibility. If there is a conflict as Turkey moves into eastern Syria – and the regime and Russia along with everyone else scrambles – the increasing danger of ISIS sleeper cells and the thousands of its former members would indeed be a threat. Already they are described as a ticking time bomb; already there are dozens of attacks a month by ISIS sleeper cells in eastern Syria.
Turkey could be blustering. It has done this before to get what it wants. Telling the US that it will launch an operation and leaking stories about wanting the coordinates of US units, ostensibly so those units wouldn't be hit in an operation, may be more rhetoric than reality. Will the US Air Force really open up the skies of eastern Syria to a Turkish military operation of the sort that took place in Afrin?
The US knows that this would be humiliating: to see its partners run to Damascus to sign a deal, and see the Russians demanding entrance to eastern Syria – while the US is poised to withdraw, or try to hang on to some canton in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. This is not how the US wants its involvment in Syria to end. And for Trump, that is the major Syria problem.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.