President Trump’s decision to pull US forces out of Syria had several immediately noticeable effects. If the first was to cause surprise amongst military partners, in particular within the remainder of the coalition against Islamic State (IS), then an equal mix of opportunity and trepidation could be felt amongst the Turks and the Kurds in Syria respectively. The US’s crucial allies against IS, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), are wholly dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the name used by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) when it operates on Syrian territory. The PKK, which has conducted a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state, is a proscribed terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, and the EU. The US’s partnership with the YPG/PKK since 2014 has, therefore, caused tension between Ankara and Washington, NATO’s two largest militaries, creating divisions within the alliance that have only served the interests of a revisionist Russia and Iran across the Middle East. This article explores the delicate relationship between states and non-states within the wider context of the Syrian civil war, specifically within the impending Turkish military offensive against the Kurds. Despite key areas of non-state influence, particularly militarily, ultimately system behaviours are determined by states’ national interests, especially in the Middle East.
Regarding the troop withdrawal announcement itself, opinion is split whether or not it represents a reversal of US policy; some claim unequivocally so, whilst others maintain that it is merely a continuation of policy since Obama’s shift from the Middle East to Asia. Initiated in 2011 by the then-President, the geopolitical interests of the US have shifted from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific region, a rebalancing of interests which Trump has sought to galvanize; the Syrian withdrawal a further example of this geopolitical rebalance. However, in a rebuke to Trump’s foreign policy decision making and of current US interests, Brett McGurk, until recently the US special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat IS, quit his post following the withdrawal announcement. Stating that even though IS militants in Syria were on the run, they had not yet been defeated and that a US withdrawal could create the conditions required that led to their rise. This was in addition to the much more public resignation of the Secretary of Defense, General Mattis, in an apparent disagreement over US national interests and treatment of US allies.
Whether or not the US troop withdrawal represents a sudden change in US policy, what it has unquestionably enabled is a more assertive Turkey to flex its muscles against the Kurds. The Kurdish fighters who make up the YPG have been a staunch US ally in the region since it has served western interests with the onset of IS in 2014, helping against IS in Syria since they first took hold in Raqqa and established the caliphate. Often the only ground force available during the heavy urbanized warfare systematic of the campaign against IS, they have proved indispensable allies to the US. The fragility of their situation, however, becomes apparent once again during great state rivalry and the continuing evolution of the conflict. Finding safe haven from the formidable Turkish military in the north of Syria, running approximately west to east alongside the Turkish border stretching to the Iraqi border, the YPG has operated out of this area alongside friendly US forces since 2015. Maintaining airbases at Harab Isk in the west and at Rmeilan in the east, in addition to eight military bases for ground troops, the US withdrawal will leave Kurdish fighters without a security guarantee against future Turkish operations in the region; something that the US has until now managed to postpone with its continued presence in northern Syria.
As an immediate consequence of the US withdrawal, Turkish aggression towards the Kurds may be far sooner than previously expected, having delayed a planned military operation against Kurdish elements it deems supportive of the PKK. Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, claimed a day after Turkish military reinforcements were sent to the Syrian border in December 2018, that; “We plan to enter areas east of the Euphrates River as soon as possible”. Turkish funded elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have since been deployed to the west and to the north of the town of Manbij, in preparation for a suspected Turkish assault early in 2019. Held by the YPG since its successful offensive against IS in August 2016, the town, located 30 kilometers from the Euphrates, will be the focal point of an imminently renewed offensive by Turkey against Kurdish forces. On the main supply road from Aleppo to the Iraqi border, Manbij is seen as the gateway to further YPG-held territory further east which Ankara will be keen on seizing from the Kurds. The conditions to deny this ground to Kurdish forces across northern Syria have already been set by Erdoğan personally assuring Trump that Turkey can continue the fight against IS in the region after the US withdrawal. Unfortunately for the Kurds however Ankara has often framed its fight against IS in Syria as a cover for pursuing its greater strategy; hunting down the Kurdish forces, in particular, the YPG, which it claims maintain links to the PKK.
These claims aren’t without substance. The Turkish Syrian border has long been a region of intense insecurity felt more keenly by Ankara than Damascus, in particular, heavy smuggling activities, including weapons, drugs, and people. Drawn up in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire as part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916, later ratified by the Treaty of Ankara 1921, the 800-kilometer border split numerous towns and villages down the middle, creating the environment for smuggling to become a permanent enterprise across the region. Since the PKK started conducting offensive actions against the Turkish state in 1984 it routinely utilized the Syrian border to move around the battlespace undetected. More recently, since mid-July 2012, when Syrian regime forces withdrew from The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, commonly referred to as Rojava, the PKK/YPG have effectively controlled the self-declared cantons of Efrin, Kobani, and Jazira with direct manning and support from the PKK leadership in the Qandil Mountains, northern Iraq. These cross-border PKK/YPG operations led Turkey to heavily securitize the border in its attempt to mitigate this threat to its territorial integrity. By 2015 Turkey had placed half of the 40,000 military forces guarding national borders on its southern flank with Syria, in addition to heavily securitizing parts of the border with over 300 kilometers worth of ditches and 160 kilometers of barbed wire.
The historical concerns Turkey has with its vulnerable border with Syria, in addition to the recent securitization of this space by the Turkish military, suggests that either an increased support for the FSA around northern Syria is to be expected, such as currently witnessed around Manbij, or that once Turkey crosses ‘east of the Euphrates’, then it will attempt to seek a more permanent presence in the region, such as that of the US until recently. This course of action would seek to serve three key national security objectives for Turkey. First, this would further deny territory to the Kurds; second, it would assist in protecting its lawless border, on both sides; and third, it could even dissuade regime forces from reinserting into northern Syria. By controlling the region Ankara may wish to throw its support to a more politically elite, Islamist faction, perhaps allied to the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to further guarantee its border security in the region once the US has withdrawn and both IS and the Kurds no longer pose such a threat to its national sovereignty.
Though Turkey and its proxies seem willing to fill the power vacuum the US withdrawal will create, in a further example of the great power complexities surrounding the Syrian civil war, this action would likely increase already high tensions between itself and the remaining powers, Iran and Russia. Whilst Iran and Russia will surely seek to have the void in northern Syria filled by pro-regime forces, Turkey opposes any such action, in addition to stating that it will contest any terrorist organization fulfilling the vacuum, either Islamic terrorists or Kurdish nationalists. This explains the recent FSA movement around key towns in the area, which will be challenged by a joint YPG – pro-regime alliance, which is stronger than Turkey would like to admit, in order to minimize Turkish influence in the region. Though Iran, Russia, and Turkey may appear to cooperate closely on issues surrounding a lasting peace in Syria, as displayed by the tripartite summits held in Iran and Kazakhstan in 2018, each state has their own interests to pursue and will do so with little regard for one another; the impending assault on Manbij will be the first demonstration of this great state rivalry within Syria between these powers once the US has withdrawn.
Herein lies a crucial distinction within international relations, and a harsh reminder of the practicalities of the state-based international order. Trump’s calculation to withdraw US hard power from Syria and with it, US influence, may not be based on such an irrational decision-making process that many commentators have sought to point. Iran and especially Russia seek to create divisions within NATO throughout the Syrian civil war, primarily by seeking closer cooperation with the Turks at the expense of US and western European interests. By supporting the YPG, the US has also alienated Turkey, the second largest NATO military, for the majority of the campaign. By withdrawing US forces out of northern Syria, effectively leaving the region for Turkey to pursue its own national security objectives against the Kurds, Trump has signaled to Ankara that it seeks closer cooperation between the two in the future; US support for the Kurds the main sticking point between closer bilateral dialogue, and one in which Trump feels on balance is the lesser of two relationships worth keeping (at least for now). The US seeking closer cooperation with a crucial NATO ally, one which has seen increasing overtures to Iran and Russia, is no mere irrational decision; rather, a calculated rebalancing of the strategic importance which Turkey, as a powerful NATO member, maintains to both US and western European interests across the wider Middle East region.
That the US has sought to distance itself from the YPG, offering no security assurances in the wake of its withdrawal and their subsequent position at the hands of the Turks, demonstrates the fragility of non-state actors operating in an environment of such fluid, asymmetrical relations which will be fundamentally dominated by state interests. Brett McGurk was broadly correct in his assessment of IS’ current position; highly degraded militarily on the ground by the YPG. Nonetheless, it was the lethality of the US and other western states’ special forces units, in addition to coordinated air superiority, which has seen such depletion in IS’ offensive capabilities. In a similar position of vulnerability to state interests and power, the YPG must now endure further insecurity from Turkey in the wake of their relative protection from the US disappearing. What this latest development in the Syrian civil war demonstrates is that non-state actors must ultimately rely on state-based interests and behaviour, no matter how opposing those non-state actors may be to one another, for in a conflict such as Syria, powerful states dictate the rules to others; a sign of how the international order is still one dominated by states who pursue their interests as defined in terms of power.
Header Image: by Spc. Daniel Herrera, U.S. Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This article first appeared in Manara Journal – University of Cambridge’s Middle East and North Africa Society.
Robert Clark is a postgraduate researcher at Kings College London War Studies Department. His research interests include British military interventions in the Middle East and Afghanistan, British foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific, and Chinese foreign policy across the MENA region and South Asia.