OPN 191010 US troops-1570709246151
US troops walk past a Turkish military vehicle during a joint patrol in the Syrian village of Al Hashisha on the outskirts of Tal Abyad town along the border on September 8, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Within hours of President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement on Monday that he was withdrawing US troops from northeastern Syria, following a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a day before, the White House and the Pentagon were quick to explain that no such pullout was planned and that American soldiers were only relocating along the Syrian-Turkish borders.

Facing an unprecedented bipartisan condemnation for his impulsive move, the president later tweeted: “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, 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 (I’ve done before!).”

It was another bizarre day in Washington where Trump initially appeared to endorse a Turkish military operation east of the Euphrates in Syria against Kurdish YPG/SDF forces, only to be pushed back by pressure from his GOP allies in Congress and close aides. The apparent reversal of position by Trump left America’s Kurdish allies, who have been instrumental in the crushing of Daesh in that region, in shock and fear of being abandoned. Turkey on Wednesday launched a military operation against YPG/SDF forces, which Ankara considers as terrorists. Erdogan has been frustrated with Washington’s failure to implement an agreement to create a safe zone along the Syrian-Turkish borders. Critics of the Turkish move suggest that Erdogan wants to impose a new demographic reality in northern Syria ahead of a possible political deal that would end the civil war in that country.

The decision to withdraw troops from Syria underlines the Trump’s administration’s lack of a clear strategy on Turkey, Syria, Iran and Russia.

- Osama Al Sharif, political commentator in Amman

Initially, Trump suggested that Turkey would take over responsibility for more than 60,000 captured Daesh fighters now in Kurdish run detention centres. He blamed Europe for failing to repatriate foreign fighters in Syria. He also said he wanted to get out of “ridiculous and endless wars” that have nothing to do with US interests. The US now has about 1,000 troops in northeastern Syria and at one point maintained more than 2,500 soldiers as part of a multinational coalition fighting Daesh.

This was not the first time that Trump had ordered a troop pullout from Syria. Last December he announced that all American military personnel would be returning within days or weeks. Facing a backlash from his Congressional allies and the Pentagon he then walked back on his decision. Close aides say Trump wants to fulfil an election pledge to bring the troops home. On Monday he tweeted that “Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation [in Syria] out.”

Deflecting attention from impeachment probe

But critics saw the sudden move as Trump’s way of deflecting attention from the ongoing impeachment inquiry by the House of Representatives over his controversial call with the president of Ukraine last July in which he pressured Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on his Democratic political rival Joe Biden and his son. Trump has been tweeting on daily basis attacking the Democrats and describing the impeachment inquiry as another witch hunt.

The decision to withdraw troops from Syria underlines the Trump’s administration’s lack of a clear strategy on Turkey, Syria, Iran and Russia. From a geopolitical angle the pullout will benefit regional players as well as Moscow at a time when America’s allies in the region see growing evidence that the White House cannot be relied upon. The Kurds lost 11,000 of their own fighting Daesh, while not a single US soldier was hurt in operations in northeastern Syria.

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The void left by the Americans let Turkey to target Syrian Kurds and complicate the Syrian crisis even more. It will embolden the Iranians and their proxies — something that Israel, which was taken aback by Trump’s decision, sees a real and present danger. When Turkey moved in and captured over 3,460-sq km of Syrian territory in 2016, it was accused of evicting Kurds from their homes and allowing Sunni Arabs to settle in their stead. Now he plans to settle over 2 million more East of the Euphrates, according to analysts.

Wednesday’s invasion of Kurdish territory will result in unimaginable humanitarian crisis and will drag Ankara into an open-ended conflict. Even more alarming is the fate of thousands of Daesh fighters in detention camps under Kurdish control. A war between Turkey and YPG/SDF will allow Daesh prisoners to escape and rejoin extremists along the Syrian-Iraqi borders; something that US intelligence agencies agree is likely to happen.

For now Trump’s decision appears to be on hold. Erdogan has not heeded his warning over military adventure. But the message that the White House keeps sending to its allies in the region is a real cause of worry. It is another indication of America’s waning influence and Trump’s limited understanding of the geopolitical consequences of his isolationist agenda.

— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.