The Implications of a Turkish Intervention in Northeastern Syria

Late on October 6, President Donald Trump spoke to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and said he would no longer oppose a Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria against the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The estimated 100 to 150 U.S. military personnel who were deployed to the area have begun to withdraw from U.S. military facilities near the Turkish border, although some U.S. troops are expected to remain in eastern Syria. The White House announced that Turkey would assume responsibility for all Islamic State group (ISG) fighters in the area. Late on October 7, Turkish shelling reportedly hit a Syrian border town.

Q1: How does this announcement shift U.S. policy in northeastern Syria?

A1: Even after President Trump’s announcement of a full U.S. withdrawal from Syria on December 19, 2018, roughly 1,000 U.S. troops remained stationed in the area. These troops worked with the Kurdish-led SDF to help stabilize areas captured from the ISG. The goal of the U.S. troop presence was to ensure that conditions remained hostile to the return of ISG fighters.

Turkey has another terrorism problem on its mind. The government equates the SDF with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group in Turkey. In recent months, Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to conduct a military operation to clear a 20-mile strip along the border, which it described as a “safe zone,” sometimes threatening to resettle forcibly there more than a million Syrian refugees who had fled to Turkey.

For months, U.S. diplomats and military officials have been seeking ways to reduce tensions between Turkey and the SDF. In August, the two sides agreed to jointly administer the border zone. The United States implemented a series of confidence-building measures with Turkey, including joint patrols and reconnaissance flights in the border area. The U.S. government also convinced the SDF to dismantle its defenses in the border area.

The Turkish have been unhappy with the implementation of the agreement, and President Erdogan announced the completion of preparations for a military incursion into northeast Syria on October 5. Although President Trump stated that the United States does not support a Turkish intervention and will not be involved in it, by withdrawing U.S. troops from the area, the United States has removed the last obstacle to the move.

Q2: What has the initial reaction been to the withdrawal announcement?

A2: President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the border was taken against the counsel of his senior advisers and seems to have taken them by surprise. U.S. allies also appear to have been blindsided. Britain and France deploy small numbers of military personnel to the area and issued statements urging Turkey not to intervene. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has announced his intention to introduce “veto-proof” bipartisan sanctions against Turkey if it invades as well as pledging to call for Turkey’s suspension from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Kurdish leaders have expressed shock at the decision. Assurances of U.S. support convinced the SDF to agree to remove their defenses and withdraw heavy weaponry from the border zone. They now lie vulnerable to a Turkish attack and have predicted a “massacre,” citing the “grave atrocities and human rights abuses” that occurred in Kurdish-majority areas of northern Syria after Turkey invaded in 2018 as a sign of what is to come. They called on Congress, the Pentagon, and U.S. allies to reverse the U.S. withdrawal.

Growing condemnation of the withdrawal decision appeared to prompt President Trump to tweet a threat to Turkey, promising to “totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey” if it does anything he considers to be “off-limits.”

Q3: What are the greatest risks of the withdrawal decision?

A3: A Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria is likely to result in a high number of casualties in the near term and significant instability in the longer term. For years, the SDF was the principal U.S. partner in the campaign against the ISG, and it has grown into a formidable fighting force.

Perhaps the greatest fear is the resurgence of the ISG in Syria. With the SDF focused on the north to repel a Turkish attack, it will redeploy forces from southeastern Syria. These areas have already witnessed sporadic attacks from ISG cells and a spike in tensions between the local Arab tribes and the SDF in recent months. The attack may also mean the release of up some 12,000 jihadi prisoners and tens of thousands of dependents who are in areas controlled by the SDF. The ISG has called on its members to free the detainees. The White House claims that Turkey will assume responsibility for these detainees, but the chances of a smooth handover from Kurdish to Turkish authorities is slim.

In addition, the humanitarian impact of a Turkish attack likely would be dire. The United Nations says that more than 758,000 people live in the border zone, many of whom have already been displaced at least once during the conflict. These civilians would likely flee south from the border area into Arab-majority areas and across the border to Iraq, which is experiencing widespread and violent protests. Turkey’s plans to resettle as many as a million Syrian refugees to the border area would dramatically change the ethnic makeup of the region, fueling further instability.

Q4: Who wins and who loses?

A4: Turkey has long considered the SDF an existential threat and will gain greater freedom to act against them as a result of the U.S. withdrawal to defend its national security. In taking control of another part of Syria’s territory, Turkey will acquire another card to play in negotiations about Syria’s future. Turkey will also benefit domestically. Anti-refugee rhetoric has spiked in Turkey in recent months, and repatriating hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to the border zone would likely boost President Erdogan’s domestic popularity. However, a Turkish-led operation into northeastern Syria will be a costly endeavor, and Turkey will struggle to ensure the stability of the area in the face of twin insurgencies led by Kurdish fighters and ISG cells. Taking responsibility for ISG detainees in the area would also represent a long-term challenge for Turkey given the deteriorating conditions in the detention camps and Western states’ unwillingness to repatriate their citizens. International condemnation of a Turkish invasion and President Trump’s threats to destroy the Turkish economy will also result in significant international scrutiny over Turkey’s intervention.

Russia and the Syrian regime will both benefit. Russia will further enhance its ability to determine Syria’s future because the United States is giving up a key aspect of its leverage in Syria without gaining any concessions from the Syrian regime in return. Russia will likely accelerate its outreach to the SDF to forge an agreement with the regime as the SDF scrambles to look for new allies. Such an agreement would see Damascus extend its control over Syria’s territory, potentially including over oil fields and other key economic resources.

The United States is sending signals to its allies in the Middle East and around the world. U.S. deterrence of Iran seems no longer to be working, and allies complain about being left exposed. The apparent abandonment of close Kurdish allies threatens to spur hedging behaviors among U.S. allies worldwide.

Syrian Kurds stand to lose the most. They would likely lose control of the most populated area of the zone under their control and would struggle to maintain control of the rest of the territory under increased pressure from the Syrian regime, its allies, and a resurgent ISG. In addition to their territorial losses, they would lose their political leverage over the regime and so would struggle to defend the rights they have won for Syrian Kurds during the conflict. The SDF’s political allies were omitted from the UN-sponsored political process to draft a new Syrian constitution that began last month, and so, Kurdish groups will have little ability to influence Syria’s future.

Q5: What does this mean for the future of U.S. policy in Syria?

A5: If the Trump administration allows a Turkish incursion into northeast Syria, a full U.S. withdrawal from Syria appears inevitable. Without a presence on the ground, the United States will have no ability to achieve its three articulated aims in Syria: an enduring defeat of the ISG, the removal of Iranian forces and its proxies from Syria, and an irreversible political transition. U.S. leverage in Syria would essentially be reduced to economics—the ability to increase its sanctions and deny reconstruction funding. Russia and Iran will both benefit from the new status quo. The withdrawal could also undermine future U.S. efforts to partner with nonstate actors in the region in the future since the Syrian Kurds depict the withdrawal as a betrayal and warn others from placing trust in the United States as they did.

However, the Trump administration could walk back this decision as it did before. Although the U.S. public does not support a long-term U.S. presence in Syria, there appears to be bipartisan support in Congress to defend the United States’ Kurdish partners—which lost 11,000 fighters in the campaign against the ISG—and to continue U.S. operations in Syria to prevent a resurgence of the ISG.

Will Todman is an associate fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Will Todman
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program