Another fine mess: Syria after the US exit

Turkey’s invasion means Europeans can no longer be bystanders to Syria. They must now take three urgent steps.

And so, it comes to this. A Turkish incursion, a hasty American withdrawal, and a Kurdish plea to the Assad regime for protection. The Syrian government now looks likely to reassert control over much of Syria’s north-east. It is tragedy for the Kurds, a debacle for the Americans, and a risky venture for the Turks. But together they have managed to create a mess that will likely benefit none of them.

Donald Trump has long made clear that he wanted out, even test-running the withdrawal announcement last December. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long insisted that Turkey would not accept a Kurdish presence along its border; there had been signs of an impending Turkish military operation for months. And the Kurds, meanwhile, chose to ignore Trump’s indifference to their plight and to believe the US officials who told them America would stand up to Turkey – they now have little choice but to turn to the Assad regime.

Europeans have been mostly bystanders in all of this, but the American withdrawal also presents new challenges for them. It is time they acted.

The Turkish incursion

The Turkish government sees the incursion as a first step towards a larger territorial footprint. It is taking control of a 160-kilometre strip that includes the Arab-majority towns of Tel Abyad and Resul Ayn. But, ultimately, the Turkish military could expand all along the 444 kilometres of border region (32 kilometres in depth), across an area that has been under Kurdish control for the past few years.

Erdogan views the fight against Syrian Kurdish forces on Turkey’s southern flank as an extension of his country’s long-running fight with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). He considers this an existential necessity to prevent a future division of Turkey. He has engaged in peace talks with the PKK in the past, but shows no interest in them now.

Instead, Erdogan’s current goal is to push PKK-affiliated groups away from the Turkish border, to continue to target PKK strongholds in in Iraq, and to sustain the political pressure on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, the HDP, within Turkey.

Erdogan regards all three theatres – Syria, Iraq, and Turkey – as part and parcel of the same fight against terrorism. The military aim is to push Kurdish forces away from Turkey’s border. But the larger political goal is to destroy the Syrian Kurdish experiment in self-government.

The US withdrawal

Many US officials wanted to remain in Syria. They believed the US presence there was necessary to lock in the gains against the Islamic State group (ISIS), and that it could support broader ambitions to combat Iran’s regional influence and maintain pressure on the Assad regime. So, despite the guidance from Trump, they continued to advance a strategy based on a long-term American presence. But a US foreign policy that the US president does not support cannot sustain itself. The efforts of US officials and Congress only resulted in incoherent and precipitate withdrawal.

Under pressure from Congress and public opinion over his decision, Trump has imposed sanctions on Turkey: a travel ban and asset freeze on three Turkish officials, including the minister of defence, and higher steel tariffs. But these penalties are mild – they do not include senior members of the Erdogan regime and they do not involve the banks. The financial markets agree: the Turkish lira barely budged after the US announcement. Erdogan still regards Trump as his key interlocutor in Washington and as amenable to Turkey’s concerns.

It is important that it is not only Erdogan and Assad who step into the void.

In the end, Syria is distant from American concerns and, as the pictures of the Turkish incursion fade from the headlines, the pressure on Trump will similarly recede. US overseas adventures have never welled up from the populace – they have always been sustained by an activist president supported by an outward-looking political class. Without the president on board, interest in Syria will fade.

The Kurdish plea for protection

Ankara may well succeed in securing control of a northern zone, but the hasty US withdrawal has also inspired the Syrian Kurds to seek help from the Assad regime and, by extension, its Russian backers. The emerging deal between the Kurds and Damascus will allow the regime to move back into the region to block further Turkish advances.

Syrian government and Russian forces have already entered the key city of Manbij. After a coordinated takeover, Russians now occupy US bases that were vacated in the hasty exit.

The Syrian regime will likely use the prospect of further Turkish incursion to regain control over much of north-east Syria. The Syrian Kurds may prefer this fate to Turkish domination, but it spells the end of their experiment in real autonomy.

What Europe can do now

Europeans have been mostly bystanders in this process, but with the American withdrawal, they will need to more directly assert their interests. It is important that it is not only Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad who step into the void left by the American withdrawal.

Currently, European opinion does not weigh too much in the Turkish decision-making process. Turkey believes the migration deal with Europe will ultimately confine Europe’s response to a loud but symbolic stance. Even though parts of the European Union have imposed a ban on arms exports, Turkey has become more self-reliant in defence over the past decade. Erdogan has spoken to Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson since the Turkish operation began and, while briefing journalists last weekend, he remarked: “Europe gets the message.”

This limited influence over Turkey means that at this stage Europeans should seek a ceasefire across the region – something that Washington now seems to be entertaining. Three more direct actions would support this general call.

Firstly, pressing Turkey to limit its military advance. This should include requesting that Ankara ensures its Syrian proxies do not engage in abuses.

Secondly, Europeans need to think about how they can salvage some space for the Kurds and the Syrian Arabs who have been living under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

Of course, the new element here is that the Assad regime is now present in north-east Syria. If Europeans want to help Kurds salvage some form of political space, they will have to acknowledge this regime position and seek to shape it, likely through Moscow, to the least destructive end.

Finally, Europeans must urgently repatriate any of the European ISIS fighters that it can still access, recognising the immediate danger that leaving them in Syria could pose if ground conditions significantly deteriorate and they are able to escape.

These steps feel like too little too late. But they are also a way of re-engaging Europeans in a struggle that deeply affects them, but that they have unwisely outsourced to the United States and Turkey. Now, America is going home, and Turkey is threatening Europeans with forced migration. They can no longer be bystanders.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow
Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Research Director
Director, US Programme

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