Chaos could follow US pullout from Syria
US forces reportedly began pulling out of north-eastern Syria on October 7, appearing to abandon a key ally to clear the way for a Turkish military incursion that analysts said could severely undermine security in the area and spur an Islamic State resurgence.
Following a phone call between US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the White House announced that Turkey would soon move forward with its long-planned operation and US forces would clear the area.
US forces had been arming and training the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in north-east Syria and, backed by US artillery and air power, the Kurdish-led group made up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which all but defeated the Islamic State (ISIS) in the country.
Turkey sees the YPG and SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting an insurgency in Turkey for three decades and is labelled a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.
Even a limited Turkish operation would erode regional security, undercutting the YPG’s willingness to continue counter-ISIS operations, said Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“If the US green-lights a full-on military offensive of the entire north-east, it will be a security mess in every possible way,” she said. “I don’t think the US has anything to gain with this. They’re throwing away their leverage. They’re jeopardising the safety and security of their partners and contributing to a potential ISIS resurgence.”
The YPG has destroyed many of its fortifications along the Turkish border, in compliance with a US-Turkey plan of a safe zone, leaving it more exposed to attack.
The SDF said that it removed its fortifications, heavy weapons and combat troops from the area based on its confidence in the United States. "Erdogan’s threats are aimed to change the security mechanism into a mechanism of death, displace our people and change the stable and secure region into a zone of conflict and permanent war," the SDF military operations centre said in a tweet.
The White House statement also said it would no longer help the SDF shoulder responsibility for detained ISIS members and their families, including thousands from Europe. “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years,” said the statement.
Some 10,000 ISIS prisoners, including 2,000 foreigners, are spread across detention centres in north-eastern Syria while as many as half of the 70,000 residents of al-Hol camp are said to be ISIS loyalists.
Speaking on October 7 at Ankara airport, Erdogan said Turkey was working on a solution to extradite foreign fighters from Al-Hol to their home countries, reported Ragip Soylu, a correspondent at Middle East Eye.
Erdogan said US troops had begun to pull out of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn and said the number of ISIS detainees in the area had been exaggerated, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency stated.
“If the US is handing over control of these camps and detention centres to Turkey, it means they are handing over large swathes of the area, if not all of it,” said Khalifa.
Dozens of ISIS-linked women escaped the camp in September and are thought to have fled to Turkey. Days later, SDF commander Mazlum Kobane said his security forces at al-Hol were overwhelmed and that ISIS could soon take over the camp.
“Let's be ready soon for a second rebirth of Daesh,” Syrian activist Omar Abu Layla, who runs independent news outlet Deirezzor24, said in a tweet, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Some observers say the YPG has been the key force against ISIS, while Turkey turned a blind eye to jihadis crossing the border in the conflict’s early years, perhaps leading to the creation of ISIS.
In January, Trump vowed to protect the Syrian Kurds, saying in a tweet that he would “devastate” Turkey’s economy if it attacked the Kurds. Trump has previously clashed with US officials about planned withdrawals from Syria.
"Donald Trump is not a commander-in-chief. He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation," former US envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk said in a series of tweets shortly after the decision was announced. "Turkey has neither the intent, desire nor capacity to manage 60K detainees in al-Hol camp, which [US State Department and Department of Defence officials] warn is the nucleus for a resurgent ISIS."
Aron Lund, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, wondered if Trump was hoping to trick his Turkish counterpart with the move.
“If it doesn't seem to make sense, one reason might be it doesn't: part of this could be Trump lashing out in anger or even counter-bluffing, telling Erdogan that if you want Syria, OK, fine, have fun with al-Hol,” he said in a tweet.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, predicted that the SDF would turn to Syrian President Bashar Assad for protection. Khalifa said it was more likely that the YPG would move large numbers of their core fighting force to secure areas exposed to the Turkish military.
“That would lead to an immediate collapse of the security networks in this area that have been keeping ISIS cells in check,” she said.
Khalifa acknowledged that Turkey was never going to accept long term Washington’s partnership with the YPG and the reality of a PKK-linked group on its border. “But I also think going to the extreme opposite end of the spectrum and green lighting a military operation is jeopardising US security interests,” she said.
Erdogan has said he planned to repatriate into this area up to 2 million of the 3.2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, which analysts have said would remake the area’s demographics, turning a majority Kurdish area to a mostly Arab one.
“Journalists/analysts asking what happens to al-Hol and its lot of foreigners,” Nadim Houry, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, said in on Twitter, “but who is asking what happens to [local] residents... is there a plan for them?”