On December 19, 2018, US President Donald Trump reversed American policy in Syria. He announced that US troops would return home in 30 days since the Islamic State had been decisively defeated. Four days later, responding to concerns that some ISIS fighters remained in the country, President Trump tweeted that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would “eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria”. Mr Trump immediately lost his defence secretary James Mattis and his special envoy for the fight against ISIS, who both swiftly resigned in protest.
Mr Trump then diluted the timeline for the soldiers’ return, saying on December 26 that it would be “a strong, deliberate and orderly withdrawal” from Syria, and that US troops would remain in Iraq to handle any possible ISIS resurgence and “to watch over Iran”.
Two of his seniormost officials — secretary of state Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton — agreed that Mr Trump’s withdrawal plan left the Syrian Kurds at the mercy of the Turkish Army and attempted to assure the Kurds that no harm would come to them. But Mr Pompeo affirmed that there would be a quick withdrawal from Syria, while Mr Bolton insisted on conditions relating to the Kurds’ safety being met by Turkey. President Erdogan sharply rejected these conditions, saying: “Turkey’s national security is non-negotiable.”
Mr Bolton was also rebuffed in Washington — responding to queries relating to “conditions” set by him for the withdrawal, the military spokesman said: “We don’t take orders from Bolton.”
With the US committed to withdrawal, Turkey faces two immediate challenges. The first is how to handle the threat from the Syrian Kurds who, with US support, have carved out a large chunk of Syrian territory in northeast Syria as their “homeland”.
The second pertains to Idlib — in September last year, Turkey and Russia had agreed to delay the Syrian government’s assault on this last rebel enclave. This was based on the assurance that Turkey would separate the extreme jihadis from “Hayat Tahreek al Shaam” (HTS), the new name of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra that controls this town, from the “moderate” rebels made up of the Turkish-sponsored Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Four months later, Turkey can show little success at Idlib — in early January, HTS militants attacked FSA forces, evicted them from Idlib and now control large parts of the western countryside. This has provided the opportunity for the Syrian government to launch its much-delayed attack on Idlib.
Observers see in this development a considered Turkish decision to prioritise confronting the Kurds over maintaining influence in Idlib. This could be part of a Turkish-Russian “grand bargain”: Russia has always been most concerned about the proliferation of jihadi elements in Syria. As recently as January 11, the Russian foreign office spokesperson noted that Idlib had become a “shelter for thousands of terrorists”.
On the Kurdish front, Turkish leaders have been threatening to take the town of Manbij once it is vacated by the Americans and then move against the Kurds east of the Euphrates. However, Turkey’s generals know that military action will pose serious difficulties — it will require more forces than Turkey has in Syria, they will have to move deeper into Syrian territory, and above all they will have to accept heavy casualties.
Here, Mr Trump appears to have resolved Mr Erdogan’s dilemma. On January 14, Mr Trump posted a tweet in which he threatened to “devastate Turkey economically if they hit the Kurds”. He also referred to the need to set up a 32-km “buffer zone” along the Syria-Turkey border.
Showing uncharacteristic self-restraint, Mr Erdogan refused to attack Mr Trump and instead focused his remarks next day on the buffer zone idea. He recalled that this had been proposed by him to President Barack Obama earlier and that he had repeated it to President Trump in a recent telephonic conversation. He added that the buffer zone “will be formed by us (Turkey)”, though he later clarified that nothing had been finalised and all aspects would be discussed with parties concerned.
The situation in northern Syria has just been complicated by two ISIS attacks, one on January 16 and the other on January 21. In the first attack in Manbij, four US soldiers and five Kurd fighters were killed, while in the second suicide attack on a US-Kurdish convoy near Hasakeh, five Kurds were killed. Fearing that these attacks might delay the US withdrawal, Mr Erdogan has hastened to assure Mr Trump that Turkey could immediately assume responsibility for security at Manbij. As of now, the US response remains unclear.
Amid the competitions and uncertainties in Syria, the Gulf Arab countries have initiated restoration of diplomatic ties with the Bashar al-Assad regime — the UAE opened its embassy in Damascus on December 27, and this will be followed shortly by Kuwait and Bahrain. This is clearly aimed at countering the influence of both Turkey and Iran, though Turkey is viewed as the more immediate challenge. In the coming months, more Arab nations are expected to affirm ties with Syria based on their shared Arab identity and the promise of generous funding for reconstruction, while maintaining a strong outreach to Russia.
Russia remains at the centre of regional diplomacy, with Moscow still the go-to capital for all West Asian players. Its principal challenge is to reconcile the competing interests of Turkey and Iran, keep intact the Astana peace process and ensure that its own interests in Syria and the region are safeguarded.
Given the priority it attaches to maintaining Syrian integrity and sovereignty, it is opposed to Turkey’s territorial ambitions in the north. It will seek to address Turkey’s security concerns by promoting Kurdish interests not through a “homeland” but through autonomy in a united, federal Syria. It will also back the “buffer zone” idea but insist that it be under the Syrian government rather than Turkish control. This makes sense because the border has a mixed population of Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen.
Mr Trump’s withdrawal announcement has set all interested parties scampering to seek the best advantage for themselves, but America’s own interests and intentions still remain confusing and uncertain, even obscure. Welcome to the Trump era!