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Let Them Fight: The Case for Leaving Syria

“If the United States and its NATO allies consider Turkey to be a partner worth keeping—and both the size of its military and its contributions to NATO’s budget suggest that it is—then a situation placing Turkey in conflict with Russia is to their benefit.”

The time has come for the United States to withdraw from Syria. Participation in the conflict has long since passed being of any strategic value for Washington, given President Bashar al-Assad’s pyrrhic military victory and the territorial defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in March of 2019. The United States lost its leverage to support a diplomatic resolution to the conflict when Turkey’s October 2019 military intervention catalyzed an American withdrawal from all but a narrow strip of land containing the country’s oilfields known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). The United States’ decision to arm the Syrian Kurds, who comprised about 10% of the pre-war Syrian population, has alienated the country’s majority Sunni Arab populace and temporarily brought together longtime historical foes Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The approximately 900 remaining American soldiers are increasingly vulnerable, surrounded by hostile Iranian proxy fighters to the west, south, and east across the border in Iraq and to the north by Turkish mercenaries who engage in near-daily artillery exchanges with the United States’ Kurdish allies: the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Leaving Syria will not only save American lives but also place American adversaries in a quandary by removing the common enemy of the Syrian Conflict. 

A Mission Run Amok

The tacit American policy in Syria since the territorial defeat of ISIL in March of 2019 has been to create a Kurdish state in northeastern Syria to act as a bulwark against any future Salafi jihadist organizations and to interdict weapons shipments from Iran to Lebanon and southeastern Syria for use against Israel. The failures of this approach are multiple. For one, ISIL has endured in Syria in the form of the al-Hawl refugee camp protected by American and YPG forces. Inside, some 62,000 peoplemostly wives and children of former fighters—have organized to indoctrinate inmates and govern the camp in a manner that is preserving ISIL’s extremist views. Intermittent YPG raids into the camp have not managed to dislodge ISIL control of the prisoner population, and the United States has been unable to respond due to both domestic and foreign legal constraints on its behavior toward captured foreign fighters. 

Furthermore, Washington’s hopes for a Syrian Kurdish state have been frustrated by the YPG’s inadequate attempts at governance. Famine, drought, and an energy shortage, though prevalent across Syria, have been acute in YPG-administered areas. The legislative council that governs YPG-held areas failed to implement measures to address these problems in 2021, citing budgetary issues. Riots against YPG management are routine in the Arab-majority regions of the AANES. Syrian Arabs are already woefully underrepresented in local councils and the security services and the YPG has imitated President Assad’s oppressive tactics to silence dissidents. Finally, the American goal of blocking Iranian weapon shipments transiting Syria has failed. Indeed, the southern bank of the Euphrates River is bristling with Iranian munitions. Iranian proxies have used these weapons for strikes both on American forces and on Israel.

Victory Through Retreat

Pundits have been quick to describe the Syrian Conflict as a struggle pitting the United States and the YPG against an alliance of Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Assad regime, and the lingering elements of the Syrian opposition. In reality, this partnership is so riddled with strategic cleavages that the most likely outcome of an American withdrawal is a conflict pitting them against one another. Russia and Iran, President Assad’s staunchest allies, disagree wildly over whom among them should be the most influential actor in post-conflict Syria. Turkey is the only party still calling for President Assad’s removal, though would prefer its Islamist mercenaries take his place. President Assad is in need of funds to stabilize Syria and his search for partners in Europe and among the Gulf Cooperation States will likely fray relations with Russia and Iran, respectively. Moreover, the war between President Assad and the Syrian opposition continues in Idlib Province, the most visible indication that Russia, Iran, and Turkey have conflict in their future, not cooperation.  

Advocates of maintaining American forces in Syria point to the admittedly poor records of Russia, Iran, and Turkey at combating Salafi jihadist groups in Syria as evidence of the need for American engagement. The problem with that perspective, apart from the fact that ISIL is far more of an issue outside of Syria, is that all three countries have reason to prevent an ISIL resurgence. For one, the governments in Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran all aim to destabilize the Western-led international order, and failing to rehabilitate Syria would be a blow to their ability to offer a credible alternative to American leadership. On a more concrete level, undermining the American presence in Syria is a costly endeavor for each country. Without American involvement, their governments will have more resources available not only to fight each other, but ISIL as well. It is also important to remember that these authoritarian states have no qualms about jailing political dissidents indefinitely. This renders them more suitable to resolving the problem with the ISIL-run camp at al-Hawl than the morally-bound United States.

The removal of American forces in Syria will need to be coordinated and will leave a power vacuum in the eastern extremities of Syria. The United States and the YPG control Hasakah Province in the northeastern corner of Syria and the northern bank of Deir ez-Zor Province in the east. Iran would likely quickly occupy Deir ez-Zour, which leaves the fate of Hasakah open to determination. For Washington, the difficult yet rational option for replacing American troops in Syria is Turkey. Ankara has multiple incentives to seize additional Syrian land. For one, Turkey has a historical claim to Hasakah dating back to the National Pact of 1920, which were the borders sought by the last Ottoman parliament before its dissolution. Occupying this area thus represents a revanchist victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who faces reelection in 2023. Moreover, anti-Kurdish operations generally lead to spikes in his popularity, which he needs given Turkey’s current economic crisis. 

The Best Bad Option

The general attitude in Washington toward Turkey—especially in the wake of President Erdoğan’s recent decision to reject Sweden and Finland’s bids for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—is overwhelmingly negative. Prominent think tanks and newspapers have called for Turkey’s removal from NATO and mistakenly believe Turkey to be a loyal Russian ally. The true nature of Ankara’s allegiances is more complicated and needs to be considered in historical context. Since the late Ottoman period, Turkish rulers have been acutely aware of their weakness relative to the great European powers of the early 20th century and later to the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War. This has prompted sultans and presidents to adopt a reactive foreign policy, allying with whomever is willing to protect Turkish interests. Great Britain guaranteed the protection of Turkey from the predations of Tsarist Russia in the mid-19th century. When London failed to preserve Ottoman holdings in Africa and the Balkans, the empire pivoted to Germany shortly before the outbreak of World War I. The Republic of Turkey sent troops to fight alongside the United States in Korea in 1950 and joined NATO in 1952 as part of a reaction to Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s statement claiming the Dardanelle Straits for the Soviet Union. 

Russia remained the most significant external threat to Turkey until 2015, when the United States decided to train and equip the YPG. For all of President Erdoğan’s bluster, he is correct to label the YPG a euphemism for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated foreign terrorist organization in both the United States and Turkey. The YPG’s upper echelons are dominated by PKK members; the organization is subject to guidance from the PKK headquarters in the Qandil Mountains of Iraq; and its foundational ideology is rooted in the teachings of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan. The main interlocutor between American and YPG forces is Mazloum Abdi, a PKK member since the 1990s and longtime friend of Ocalan’s. The groups are so intertwined that they shuffle troops between Iraq and Syria depending on where Turkey focuses its counterterrorism operations. The PKK has been a communist organization since its foundation and trained under the Soviet Union.

Many would justifiably bristle at the thought of encouraging Turkish forces to backfill an American withdrawal. The human rights abuses committed by both Turkey and its mercenaries against Syrian Kurds in 2018 and 2019 were gruesome and earned widespread condemnation. However, the hard truth is that a Kurdish state in Syria is not viable. Apart from the Euphrates River to the south, it is landlocked and without natural borders. The Syrian Kurdish population, traditionally confined to three cantons across northern Syria, is too small to create an ethno-state. And by remaining part of the PKK, any YPG political entity will be unable to substantially trade with Turkey or the increasingly pro-Turkish Iraqi Kurdish government, both vital markets due to the former’s connection to Europe and the latter’s access to oil.  The best future for the Syrian Kurds is, tragically, reconciliation with the Syrian government. Rejoining Damascus will summarily grant the Syrian Kurds the protection of both Russia and Iran, neither of whom are as hostile to the YPG as Turkey. 

Returning northeastern Syria to Turkish control rewards both those in the United States who consider Turkey an adversary and those who deem partnership with Turkey, however difficult, to be necessary in light of greater threats such as Russia. For the latter, consider Syria’s oilfields, which are badly managed by the YPG. Before the war, Syria produced 380,000 barrels per day,while under Syrian Kurdish control they can only manage about 25,000. Turning over control of these resources would be a boon for Turkey and damage Russia’s most important point of leverage over Ankara. While Turkey has exacerbated the humanitarian conditions in the AANES, to include cutting off the YPG’s access to water from the Euphrates River, Ankara lavishes humanitarian aid on the parts of Syria it controls. Its over $7.6 billion in assistance and its successful resettlement of some of its Syrian refugee population demonstrate Ankara’s commitment to stability, albeit on its terms. 

And for those in the United States Congress and the Department of Defense, institutions increasingly averse to Turkish interests, granting Turkey additional territory in Syria is a curse, not a blessing. The most likely outcome for the YPG in a potential withdrawal of American forces would be to strike a deal with the Assad regime ending their political autonomy but allowing them to return as soldiers in the Syrian military. The prospect of tens of thousands of experienced, anti-Turkish fighters rejoining President Assad is a nightmare scenario for Ankara. Syrian-Turkish relations have long been tense because Damascus has allowed PKK fighters, including Ocalan himself, to live in the country. President Assad has never given up his desire to restore Syria’s territorial integrity and will almost certainly sanction attacks by former YPG fighters on Turkish forces stationed across Syria to force them to leave. With the prospect of similar efforts from Iranian proxy fighters, Turkey will face nothing short of a multi-pronged insurgency that exceeds its capacity to manage. 

The Turkish military is already overextended in Syria, with about 8,000-10,000 soldiers stationed in the country. Even alongside its Syrian mercenaries, this number is inadequate to secure its 3,400 square miles of occupied territory. Turkey will be compelled to pour more resources into the theater to resist the combined efforts of Russia, Iran, and the Syrian governments to oust Turkish forces from Syria. Turkey will become the common enemy and will face something akin to the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century, a bloody conflict that left the Ottoman Empire exhausted shortly before the outbreak of World War I and prone to strategic realignment. If the United States and its NATO allies consider Turkey to be a partner worth keeping—and both the size of its military and its contributions to NATO’s budget suggest that it is—then a situation placing Turkey in conflict with Russia is to their benefit. All that it requires is for the United States to leave a conflict after having realized its strategic goals.  

Mark Bhaskar is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews. His doctoral research focuses on empire building in the 21st century, with a focus on the imperial strategies of modern China, Iran, and Turkey. He previously worked as military analyst in the United States covering the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. 

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