Donald Trump’s troop withdrawal leaves Syria a ticking time bomb
Even by his own erratic standards, US President Donald Trump’s decision on Sunday night to withdraw American troops from Syria and give the green light to Turkey’s military incursion into the mainly Kurdish-run north-east of the country, is wilful.
In a phone call with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr Trump told the Turkish president to carry on with his plans to create a military buffer zone along the Turkish border, 30km-deep into northern Syria. He added that the US would be leaving its Syrian Kurdish allies — the spearhead in the fight against Isis — to their own devices.
A White House statement said a Turkish invasion was imminent and that US troops would “no longer be in the immediate area”.
When Mr Trump said at the beginning of the year he wanted to pull US forces out of Syria, he threatened to “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds”, referring to any move by Ankara against the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union party (PYD) and its battle-hardened People’s Protection Units (YPG), which had dismantled the Syrian part of the Isis caliphate. He reiterated the threat on Monday, tweeting “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey.”
Until now, the US president had been dissuaded from a sudden Syrian withdrawal by his military and security advisers, on the grounds it could make a bad situation immeasurably worse. But this overnight decision — and US withdrawal from the border area was already under way on Monday morning — will widen the vacuum the US is leaving in the Middle East, into which Russia, Iran and Turkey have enthusiastically stepped.
The move is also likely to set the Euphrates valley on fire once again, just after the region had almost been cleared of Isis — an achievement for which the US has the Syrian Kurdish fighters it has just sold down the river to thank. A new Turkish incursion will push the PYD and YPG into the arms of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which is backed by Russia and Iran.
So what are the dimensions of what looks to be an imminent Turkish invasion of Syria?
This would be the third formal Turkish incursion in three years into the war-wracked country, which has suffered up to 500,000 dead and half of its population displaced since a rebellion against Mr Assad’s tyranny began in 2011. In 2016, as part of a frantic response to an abortive coup against Mr Erdogan, Ankara launched Operation Euphrates Shield, pressing down towards Manbij in north-west Syria, where US forces helped to shield YPG forces. In 2018 they seized Afrin, a Kurdish canton west of the Euphrates, in Operation Olive Branch.
Both operations needed the go-ahead from Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, who in 2015 committed his air force to salvaging the Assad regime’s rule. And, just as Russia and the Assads concentrated on eliminating mainstream Syrian rebels rather than Isis, so too Turkey focused on the Kurds rather than the jihadist threat, even as Isis attacks killed hundreds inside its own borders in 2015-16.
Mr Erdogan says he now wants to create a “peace corridor” along the border to replace a “terrorist corridor”. He claims the PYD and YPG are merely the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ party that has waged war against Ankara in south-east Turkey and from Kurdish northern Iraq for 35 years.
Reports in Istanbul say he is calling the new operation Fountains of Peace. Others see it as extending Turkey’s frontier 30km into Syria — hardly a recipe for peace. Mr Erdogan says he wants a “safe zone” across north-east Syria where he wants to settle up to 2m of the 3.6m Syrian refugees Turkey now hosts, amid growing domestic tensions.
Were this to happen, he would dramatically change the demography of the area. North-east Syria is sparsely populated, with less than 1m people, three-quarters of them Kurdish. But its oil resources and self-government have created an embryonic Kurdish state — precisely what Turkey fears.
In late August, a senior Turkish official told the Financial Times it was unlikely that Mr Erdogan could or would press to establish a military buffer as deep as 30km into Syria. US and Turkish troops then started joint patrols about 15km over the border. YPG forces pulled back from the border itself and positions that were indefensible without American air cover, such as Tal Abyad. The border was starting to clear.
But then Mr Erdogan warned that Turkey needed control of “the entire region”. And that was before Mr Trump decided simply to walk away and leave it — like a hand grenade on the negotiating table.