1 January 2019

Syria’s Changing Power Grid: What Turkey Wants

Steven A. Cook

The U.S. withdrawal from Syria removes the main obstacle to a Turkish campaign to eradicate Syrian Kurdish forces and could lead to a more dangerous phase of Syria’s civil war.

President Donald J. Trump on Wednesday announced that the approximately two thousand U.S. forces in northeastern Syria will leave immediately, now that the forces of the so-called Islamic State have been defeated. Trump’s announcement set off a scramble within the U.S. government to develop a plan for withdrawal, as well as a mixture of alarm and criticism from lawmakers of both parties. The regional jockeying for power will be intense; Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime stand to gain the most.

The president’s announcement betrays Washington’s primary partner on the ground, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which control nearly one-third of Syria. It leaves other regional allies, especially Israel, more vulnerable to Iran and Hezbollah, which have a presence in Syria. Without the United States in Syria, regional actors will depend on Russia to achieve their interests.

Trump’s decision also boosts Turkey. The Turkish government has sought an end to the United States’ military and diplomatic relationship with the SDF. Ankara argues that the SDF’s primary component, the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), are part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a terrorist campaign against Turkey for almost thirty-five years. Yet the advantages to Turkey may be short lived.

Why It Matters

The U.S. withdrawal from Syria—along with the administration’s decision to sell Turkey Patriot missile systems (pending congressional approval)—will do much to repair ties between the United States and Turkey, but it entails tremendous risk for the Turkish government. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had announced that he would delay a planned incursion into northern Syria; if the Turkish military does invade and drive to the Iraqi border to try to destroy the YPG and render Syrian Kurdish autonomy moot, Turkey could find itself locked in an irregular war in a foreign country. According to press reports and other analyses, the YPG component of the SDF numbers anywhere from thirty thousand to sixty thousand soldiers, and they have gained significant combat experience over the last four years. If the decades-long fight against the PKK is any guide, Turkey could be setting itself up for a prolonged struggle against guerrilla-like forces.

In addition, the YPG is likely to turn directly to the Syrian and Russian governments in the wake of the Trump administration’s decision. The Kurds are almost certain to make a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who can probably live with some form of Kurdish autonomy in the northeast if it maintains the fiction that he retains overall control of Syrian territory. That would raise the possibility of a confrontation between Syria and Turkey, which wants to enlarge its sphere of influence in northern Syria to prevent Kurdish autonomy in any form and provide a haven to which Syrian refugees could go. Russia, which provides diplomatic and military support to Syrian Kurdish forces, can be expected to play all sides of the issue, ensuring it has maximum leverage with Ankara and further weakening Turkey’s already frayed ties with NATO and Europe.

What to Watch For

Note what the YPG and the Assad regime do. All of their incentives point toward a deal that increases the chances of Assad reestablishing control over Syrian territory and provides the Kurds with a modicum of protection from the Turkish military and its militia allies. If this happens, the situation in northern Syrian could deteriorate markedly, especially if Erdogan gives the order to invade.

Also watch Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is now the undisputed broker of the future of Syria, but Moscow will have to handle the competing interests of Syria and Turkey. If Putin can manage this complicated situation without a major confrontation between the Turks and Kurds, and between the Turks and Syrians, he will solidify his role as a regional leader.

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