Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently announced in the parliament that his country would no longer delay creating a safe zone in northern Syria with or without the U.S. help. It wants to create a 300-miles safe zone along the borders between the two states, starting from the East Euphrates River to Tal Abyad. Turkey wants to resettle around 2 million Syrian refugees migrated since the civil war started in 2011.
The creation of a safe zone will eliminate the Kurdish forces, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), situated in the northern part of Syria as the Turkish government always considered them as a terrorist group linked with PKK in Turkey. According to the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, Turkey and the U.S. conducted a third joint patrol and signed a peace accord to facilitate safe passage to refugees back home. Despite condemnation from Syrian Foreign Minister Waled-al-Moallem in U.N. General Assembly about the military presence on the Syrian border region, the two actors adamantly conducted the patrol. President Trump’s call for withdrawing American troops immediately in December was halted by his military officials, and out of 2,000, some 1,000 are still deployed in the region and 150 more were sent for the joint patrols.
Although Turkey embraces U.S. involvement, it is equally dubious about its role because of the U.S. alliance with the YPG forces in tackling Islamic State and authoritarian regime of Bashar-Al-Assad. However, the Turkish military surge will put the U.S. in a difficult position with its allies. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria have certain political implications that are discussed further.
Political Implications for the US
First of all, the withdrawal will nullify the U.S. mission in combating ISIS, whose power remains intact to date. The recent report published by United States Institute of Peace, ‘Syrian Study Group’ revealed that ISIS insurgency is unblemished. And without any “effective pressure against it, it can utilize Syrian sanctuary for organizing, instructing and inspiring external attack” (USIP 2019). This report delineates that, although ISIS has no territorial presence, is still a threat to the U.S. national security. Syria as a conflict zone is a challenge for the U.S. because of the presence of multiple actors in the region. The northern part of the region is under the Kurdish militias called the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Its objective is to establish self-rule in the Kurdish dominated area. The U.S. trains and provides resources to the YPG to fight the ISIS.
Apart from political and security reasons, the U.S. involvement is due to the Russian growing influence in the region in every sector, from military, diplomacy to energy. The growing influence of Assad regime in alliance with Russia and Iran has also become a matter of concern for the U.S. In this case Ankara’s attitude towards the U.S. demands careful scrutiny as the US-Turkey relations under the Trump administration seem troubled with issues like Qatar diplomatic crisis, where Turkey supported Qatar and condemn sanctions, whereas U.S. defended Saudi Arabia and UAE.
Another crisis, which upset the U.S. was Turkey’s purchase of S-400 air defense system from Russia. The souring relation between the two is a matter of concern and will not work in favor of Syrian crisis, which seems far from any political stability.
In the energy sector, investment in gas pipelines is crucial to understand the economic importance of the region. The politics of gas famously dubbed by Qatar based media Al- Jazeera, the “Pipelineistan war,” reflects on the economic interest of different actors in Syria. It talks about the two gas pipelines, first one, the Qatar pipeline backed by the U.S., running from Qatar through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria to Turkey and second one backed by Russia going through Iran, Iraq and Syria and will extend all the way to Europe. Thus, Assad in the past, tried to block the U.S. backed Qatar pipeline so that it does not undermine European reliance on Russian energy. Russia is trying to gauge actors involved in Syria as well as in the whole of the Middle East to regain its political and economic ground to sustain its power in the energy sector.
On the other hand, most of the gas reserve is in northern Syria from where the Qatar pipeline will pass. It is dominated by the Kurds force and jolts U.S. into more complicated position. As of now, because of the Turkey-U.S. attacks in Kurds dominate area, the YPG feels betrayed by the U.S. and so asked Assad regime for its protection. In this case, Assad’s forces have the potential to destroy the pipelines, which will harm Turkey’s economy and its long-term desire not to depend on Russia for its natural gas supplies. Along with this, Iran is equally influential in economic as well as social terms in Syria. Despite the Israeli airstrikes, it has been successful in gaining reliable grounds in the Syrian economy and has been involved in the state since 2012 due to shared sectarian values. It has also helped the Assad regime by providing military and economic support to fight against the U.S. Iran is also providing jobs and scholarships to the Syrian Shia community and setting up Shia religion center to provide social and economic benefits.
The switching of alliance in the Syrian War is something unique with changing national interests. It will have severe impact on U.S. mission in Syria, whether it is in terms of war against the terrorist group like ISIS and Al-Qaeda or overthrowing Assad’s authoritarian government. Whatever the scenario is according to the Syrian Study Group, “Sharp Shifts and reversals in American policy, and the failure of senior U.S. government officials to prioritize the issue with their counterparts, have undermined American credibility and the effectiveness of U.S. policy” (USIP 2019).
Image credit: Shealah Craighead [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is pursuing her Post-graduation in International Relations at the South Asian University.