Trump Is Making the Mess in Syria Even Messier
He inherited the conflict. It’s up to him to resolve it responsibly.
Although there is little worth salvaging in the United States’ flawed approach to the conflict in Syria, the Trump administration should stop making the situation worse. Inadequate policy coordination, incoherent presidential tweets, and discordant remarks by senior advisors have created confusion across the Middle East. And the disorderly withdrawal of U.S. troops, which President Donald Trump has already put in motion, will only serve to exacerbate tensions between Turkey—a NATO ally with legitimate security concerns—and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters who spilled blood for the United States and deserve fair treatment.
This tension has long been at the heart of U.S. military activity in Syria. Former President Barack Obama long resisted calls to directly intervene in the Syrian civil war but sought an expeditious way to defeat the Islamic State. When the United States launched an air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria in September 2014, it deployed special operators to assist local forces on the ground. They found a faction of Syrian Kurds—the YPG—to be effective fighters and began developing their capabilities. The problem: They are affiliated with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey and the United States designate as a terrorist group. Although the United States argues that the YPG has not received the same designation, government officials and congressional leaders acknowledge the ties. Gen. Raymond Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, said he told the YPG to rebrand given Turkish concerns—which led to the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces: an umbrella group composed of YPG and a small number of Syrian Arab fighters. The Trump administration continued this approach.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan objected all along to U.S. cooperation with the YPG. He said fighters moved freely between the YPG and PKK, worried supplies provided to the YPG by the United States could reach the PKK, and described a YPG-controlled region along the Turkish border as an existential threat. Although the YPG itself has not threatened Turkey, it has refused to sever operational ties to the PKK. This gives cause for concern, as the PKK’s armed struggle against the Turkish state for Kurdish rights has resulted in some 40,000 deaths in recent decades. Tensions in Syria also spilled into Turkey’s domestic politics, contributing to the breakdown in July 2015 of peace talks that Erdogan had initiated with the PKK, as well as a 30-month cease-fire.
The United States made several promises to assuage Turkish concerns. The military vowed to collect weapons from the YPG at the end of the Islamic State campaign. Former Vice President Joe Biden publicly promised that YPG fighters would leave the predominantly Arab city of Manbij after clearing out the Islamic State. And State Department officials said U.S. cooperation with the YPG was “temporary, transactional, and tactical.”
In addition, the Turkish government has long sought to create a buffer zone. This would serve the dual purposes of pushing back YPG forces and providing a safe haven for some of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees flooding the country. The United States negotiated with Turkey throughout 2015 on a joint military operation, whereby U.S. air support to Turkish and Syrian opposition fighters would create a de facto buffer zone. These plans floundered over divergent opinions on whether certain Syrian fighters were sufficiently “moderate” for the United States to support, suspicion of Turkey’s desire to defeat Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria rather than the Islamic State, and Erdogan’s insistence on a no-fly zone; they became moot after the Russian military entered Syria in September 2015. So Turkey launched its own missions in northwestern Syria: Operation Euphrates Shield in summer 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in spring 2018 succeeded in pushing the Islamic State off the Turkish border and blocking further YPG expansion.
When Trump spoke to Erdogan in December, staffers prepared him to caution the Turkish leader against a new military operation targeting U.S.-backed YPG fighters (and intermingled U.S. forces) in northeastern Syria. Instead, Trump seized the opportunity to fulfill a campaign pledge to bring home U.S. troops and task Turkey with defeating the remaining remnants of the Islamic State. The details quickly became garbled, with U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton outraging Erdogan by conditioning U.S. withdrawal on Turkish assurances of the security of the Kurds. Trump upped the ante with tweets threatening to “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds,” warning “the Kurds [not] to provoke Turkey,” and obliquely referencing the creation of a “20 mile safe zone.”
Although a subsequent phone call smoothed relations, the United States needs to articulate and implement a single Syria policy. As Trump has repeatedly stressed his desire to leave Syria, his advisors have done him a disservice by setting out longer-term objectives (for instance, to counter Iranian influence) that he clearly does not share.
The best solution would be to develop a holistic approach that addresses the root of the problem. In particular, the administration should encourage the PKK and Turkish government to resume a peace process: If the PKK is no longer a threat at home, its YPG affiliates will not be a threat next door. As Asli Aydintasbas wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post, “Americans would need to do what they have been avoiding — that is, rolling out maps and engaging in geostrategic engineering, to develop a comprehensive peace plan between Turks and Kurds across Turkey, Syria and Iraq.” Yet the Trump administration likely lacks the required time, patience, and diplomatic heft (with no U.S. ambassador in Ankara since October 2017).
At minimum, the Trump administration should conclude diplomatic and military negotiations with Turkey that ensure an orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops and prevent a leadership vacuum that Russia and Iran will readily fill. The United States must honor past promises to Ankara, which include collecting all heavy weapons given to the YPG and finishing a “Manbij roadmap” that addresses security and governance arrangements.
The United States must also help Turkey feel secure along its border. The administration is rightly concerned that sustained Turkish attacks on YPG forces could harm civilians in a burgeoning part of a war-torn country, spark conflict with Russia, distract attention from the Islamic State’s efforts to regroup, and exhaust the Turkish military. Yet as Turkey and the United States discuss the creation of a buffer zone along the border, many significant details remain to be clarified—including its size, its scope, and the composition of forces policing it. Any Turkish-created zone must respect diversity on the ground: Given the large number of Kurds living there, it should enable local governance and not provoke a mass exodus. It should also be a temporary solution, tied to the goal of a broader political settlement in Syria.
Although the Trump administration did not create this Syria conundrum, it must help resolve it responsibly. The deaths of U.S. soldiers and civilians in Manbij following an Islamic State suicide bombing on Wednesday show how dangerous and volatile the situation remains.