|Early on December 19, President Donald Trump announced via Twitter, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” and thus set in motion the process to withdraw the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. Trump had stated back in March that he intended to take this important step but had apparently been persuaded by Defense Secretary James Mattis and others in the administration to refrain from implementation. However, the flurry of news reports that followed immediately, citing unnamed administration sources who said that a withdrawal was imminent, indicated that a major reversal of policy was underway.
This was formally confirmed by White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders who said, “We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.” A U.S. official then informed told Reuters that all State Department personnel in Syria would be evacuated in 24 hours and the troops were “expected to be withdrawn within 60 to 100 days,” which was followed by a statement from Pentagon spokesperson Dana White who said, “We have started the process of returning U.S. troops home from Syria as we transition to the next phase of the campaign.”
The move came as a surprise to almost the entire administration, and Trump reportedly had to overcome some internal resistance. There had been strong indications from officials in recent months that the U.S. military mission in Syria was being adjusted but maintained as the conflict with Islamic State was moving toward an end in order to counter growing Iranian influence in Syria as part of the overall policy of confronting Iran. The advocates of this approach included Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton who said on September 24 that the U.S. troops were “not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders.” U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey—who was in Turkey for three days of talks prior to the Trump-Erdogan call and according to a Politico report attempted unsuccessfully to “slow-roll” Trump’s decision—had stated on September 6, “The new policy is we’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year…That means we are not in a hurry to pull out.” Another Pentagon spokesman Commander Sean Robertson had said on December 13, “Coalition forces are working closely with the Syrian Democratic Forces who are in the midst of offensive operations against ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. We should not and cannot allow ISIS to breathe at this critical point or we will jeopardize the significant gains we have made alongside our Coalition partners and risk allowing ISIS to resurge.”
A major clue to understanding Trump’s unexpected action was provided by an unnamed U.S. official quoted by Reuters who said that the decision had come after the phone call between Trump and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on December 14. The official added, “Everything that has followed is implementing the agreement that was made in that call.” According to a senior Turkish official quoted by ABC, Trump told Erdogan during the call that “he was planning to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.” In fact, Trump’s move came as long-standing U.S.-Turkish differences over northern Syria had once again threatened to flare up into a major dispute between the two countries.
On December 12, Erdogan had once again denounced U.S. military engagement with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)—identified by Ankara as an integral part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey has been fighting for decades—in the context of the ongoing fight against the Islamic State under the umbrella of Syrian Democratic Forces. After registering his usual complaints about the provision of “20,000 truckloads and over 3,000 planeloads of military supplies” to YPG and the failure of the United States to implement the June roadmap the two countries had agreed to in June 2018 involving the departure of Syrian Kurdish elements from Manbij, west of the Euphrates, Erdogan had threatened to send Turkish troops into the area between the river and the Syrian-Iraqi border where U.S. forces were stationed “in a few days” to “cleanse it of terrorists.” Confirming that there would be “no hostility against U.S. soldiers in Syria,” Erdogan said, “in spite of everything, we continue to see the U.S. as a strategic ally with whom we can advance together in the future if we can agree on the right basis.”
Having privately conveyed his unhappiness over the emergence of “a terrorist belt” with the support of Washington in northern Syria many times during the past four years to both of his U.S. counterparts—Barack Obama and Donald Trump—to little perceptible effect, Erdogan was signaling that he was at the end of his patience. He emphasized his intention to act with another similar declaration on December 14 prior to his conversation with Trump. He said, “We are determined to establish peace and security east of the Euphrates . . . They should eradicate these terrorist organizations, or else we will do it . . . Turkey has already lost a lot of time to intervene in the terror swamp east of the Euphrates. From now on, we cannot afford even a one-day delay.” Addressing the United States directly, Erdogan said, “Either you clear them out or we will do it.” In line with Erdogan’s warnings, Turkish TV stations sought to underline the seriousness of the developing crisis through constant live coverage of the military buildup along the border.
Despite Erdogan’s assurances that the planned operation would not target U.S. soldiers, U.S officials were clearly concerned by the potential threat. On December 13, for example, Robertson said, “We would find any such actions unacceptable,” a position which was confirmed by his colleague at the Pentagon, Robert Manning on December 17. Jeffrey added on the same day, “We think that any offensive into northeast Syria by anyone is a bad idea, and that was a position that I conveyed when I was in Ankara, that everybody from the president on down has conveyed.” Having long endeavored to reconcile its ongoing tactical engagement with the YPG against the Islamic State with its relationship with long-time ally Turkey, many members of the U.S. administration wanted to be able to maintain both relationships. The clearest example of the stalling which characterized this dual approach was Manbij where the United States permitted the Syrian Kurds to cross over to west of the Euphrates—despite Ankara’s public declaration that this was “a red line” it did not want to be crossed—and then to take control of Manbij before engaging Turkey in protracted negotiations over Manbij, eventually agreeing to a roadmap and, after a long delay, to joint U.S.-Turkish patrols outside Manbij.
Despite the intense speculation in Turkey, the order to proceed to a military operation was not given as Erdogan wanted to see if Trump would move to end the duality in U.S. policy following their conversation. On December 17, he sent another public message to Trump. After referring to his conversation with him and reiterating the promise that the operation would be designed “to avoid harming U.S. soldiers,” Erdogan continued, “We have foiled the plot in other regions to a great extent. Now it is time for east of the Euphrates. I address those who openly back the terrorists in the region; you are making a mistake . . . We can start an operation at any moment along the 500-kilometer border . . . Our brave military has completed its preparations and plans. As I always say, we could move suddenly one night.”
Although there has not yet been a public response by Erdogan to Trump’s important gesture, which significantly came on the same day that the State Department approved after a long delay the possible sale of U.S.-made Patriot missile system, there is little doubt that he welcomes it as a major diplomatic gain which clears the way for a third Turkish military advance into northern Syria. Following Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016 and Olive Branch in January 2018—which the United States did not oppose as they were east of the Euphrates—Turkey had gained effective control over most of the territory west of the Euphrates immediately below the Turkish-Syrian border, with the notable exception of Manbij. Erdogan seems intent on carrying out a similar operation, once again utilizing members of the opposition in the Free Syrian Army loyal to Ankara along with the Turkish army. While the scope and depth of the operation will be seen only after it is launched, it will undoubtedly expand the area of direct Turkish influence while pushing the YPG away from the border and weakening its capabilities. Having engineered the return of over 300,000 Syrian refugees previously living in Turkey into areas under its control, as Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu claimed on December 18, Erdogan also must be expecting the return of even more after the projected operation. Needless to say, he will anticipate a welcome surge of popular support as his government grapples with an economic downturn while preparing for potentially difficult municipal elections in March 2019.
Beyond its impact on U.S.-Turkish relations, which is entering a new phase in which Erdogan will expect other long-standing issues on the bilateral agenda to be solved in a similar manner, Trump’s move will have a profound impact on the U.S. relationship with the Syrian Kurds as well as on the U.S. factor in the complicated Syrian geopolitical equation. However, in the immediate future, all eyes will be on the details of the implementation of his decision as well as on the Turkish-Syrian border.
Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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