Turkey’s War in Syria Was Not Inevitable
U.S. strategy in Syria has long been plagued by short-term thinking, while Russia, Turkey, and Iran played a long game. Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds is just the latest chapter in Washington’s bungled approach to the region.
In February 2016, I drove through the picturesque Turkish city of Sanliurfa down rural roads toward the border with Syria. In the distance were hundreds of white shapes, like birds on the horizon. They turned out to be a refugee camp near Suruc for mostly Kurdish refugees who had fled the Islamic State.
Throughout the spring of 2016, Turkey was still in the midst of a difficult war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that saw urban fighting throughout eastern Turkey. The country was also on high alert due to Islamic State threats and trying to accommodate millions of refugees fleeing Syria. Ankara was launching airstrikes in Iraq against the PKK, a foreshadowing of the attacks this week against Kurdish groups in Syria that Turkey alleges are linked to the PKK.
The seeds of today’s conflict in eastern Syria, where Turkish forces carried out more than 180 air and artillery strikes this week, were sown over the last several years. It didn’t have to turn out this way, with a Turkish invasion into eastern Syria attacking the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have been a vital partner in the United States’ struggle against the Islamic State. However, key decisions along the way, both in Ankara and Washington, put the two sides on a collision course.
A more robust engagement by members of the anti-Islamic State coalition, combined with a clear long-term goal in eastern Syria, was jettisoned in favor of short-term decisions on all sides. This myopic strategy left the U.S. military hamstrung, misled Washington’s mostly Kurdish partners on the ground, and enabled Russia, Iran, and Turkey to make gains at the expense of U.S. interests.
I spent the last five years covering the war against the Islamic State and witnessed the way each side painted itself into a corner in eastern Syria. It is worth beginning with Turkey because Ankara’s agenda has been clear for three years. In June 2016, the SDF had pushed Islamic State fighters back from many parts of northeastern Syria in a remarkable campaign that combined limited U.S. support and fierce devotion from the SDF fighters.
For Ankara, however, the SDF was nothing more than a rebranded version of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which was linked to the PKK. Turkey saw a rising PKK tide along its border, aiming to link up with the Kurdish area of Afrin in northwestern Syria.
When SDF units crossed the Euphrates River to liberate Manbij from Islamic State forces in June 2016, Ankara was alarmed. But Turkey was plunged into momentary chaos by the July 15 coup attempt. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed after the coup to stop the SDF advance.
U.S. officials told Ankara that the SDF would withdraw from Manbij and head back across the Euphrates. When that didn’t happen, Ankara launched an offensive called Operation Euphrates Shield into northern Syria, pushing Islamic State fighters away from the border and checking the advance of the SDF. Ankara threatened to go into Manbij next and fight the U.S.-backed SDF.
At this moment, several wars in Syria began colliding with one another. For much of the Syrian civil war, the conflict was compartmentalized. The United States had backed a plethora of vetted Syrian rebel groups, alongside Turkey and Jordan, from 2012 to 2017 in western Syria. When the Islamic State captured Raqqa and invaded Iraq in 2014, committing genocide against the Yazidi minority, then-U.S. President Barack Obama ordered airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Soon U.S. forces were advising the Iraqis to fight the Islamic State and eventually U.S. special operations forces would cross into eastern Syria to work with the SDF. In doing so, the U.S. government shifted priorities from backing the rebels to backing the SDF. This meant largely abandoning the hope that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be forced from power and focusing on the narrower goal of defeating the Islamic State by empowering Kurdish and other fighters in eastern Syria.
Turkey, which had done little against the Islamic State, was dismayed while Russia and Iran watched with suspicion as the United States achieved a foothold in eastern Syria. At the same time, Washington pursued a third strategy in Geneva that foresaw a diplomatic solution and an end to Assad’s rule.
But Assad gained deeper Iranian and Russian backing, with the arrival of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the early days of the war and Hezbollah fighters in 2012. Russia vastly increased its intervention after 2015. Both Iran and Russia were also fighting the Islamic State in western Syria, particularly around Deir Ezzor and Palmyra.
With the increased backing, Assad’s demoralized forces were able to slowly defeat the rebels. The United States, now led by Donald Trump, ended support for the rebels in 2017, after two years in which the program was perceived as a failure. This catered to Trump’s overall worldview, which was to reduce U.S. spending on foreign wars and get other countries to pay more.
Turkey’s forces in northern Syria created a kind of safety umbrella around what remained of the rebels in Idlib and Jarabulus. Turkey eventually gathered them into the Syrian National Army but primarily under the pretext they would aid Turkey in its fight against the PKK. In this way, the rebels were abandoned by the United States and were eventually reduced to being a Turkish proxy.
In hindsight, it’s clear that Turkey’s agenda was primarily focused on the PKK. “Turkey was less interested in fighting ISIS,” former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter recalled in 2017. The U.S. military was more interested in fighting the Islamic State than opposing Assad. Russia and Iran prioritized supporting Assad.
Understanding this rubric makes it clear that while the United States was focused on defeating Islamic State and backing the SDF, Turkey was focused on fighting the Kurdish PKK; it was only a matter of time until Ankara’s policy ran into Washington’s. Assad could breathe a sigh of relief; the two major powers opposing him had shifted their focus by 2017.
Turkey grew closer to Russia as it settled into northern Syria. Ankara agreed to purchase the S-400 air defense system in December 2017, jeopardizing its role in the U.S. F-35 fighter jet program. It sat with Russia and Iran during what became known as the Astana talks in Kazakhstan’s capital, while the United States did not participate. Beginning in earnest in January 2017, the talks in Astana (which was recently renamed Nur-Sultan) bypassed those in Geneva and cemented Russia, Turkey, and Iran as the guarantors of cease-fire in Syria.
The U.S. government, transitioning from one administration to another, did not attend. By August 2019, 13 rounds of talks had taken place. Eventually, this lack of U.S. engagement with Turkey, Russia, and Iran would lead to U.S. partners on the ground being excluded from the Geneva discussions about a new Syrian constitution.
The writing should have been on the wall once the SDF realized that the U.S. government was not going to support its role in a future Syria. U.S. Syria envoy James Jeffrey, tapped by the Trump administration to work with Turkey on Syria policy, was clear in 2018 that the SDF would have to work with a future Syrian government and that the United States had no “permanent relationships with substate entities.”
For the SDF, which suffered 11,000 casualties fighting alongside U.S. troops to defeat the Islamic State, this was jarring news. It was made more jarring by Erdogan’s threat on Dec. 12, 2018, to invade eastern Syria and return the area to its “true owners.” Days later, after a conversation with Erdogan, the White House said the United States was leaving Syria. A third of Syria was now up for grabs and likely to be plunged into chaos.
Trump hadn’t discussed the abrupt reversal of U.S. policy with senior officials or with U.S. coalition allies. His anti-Islamic State envoy, Brett McGurk, resigned along with Defense Secretary James Mattis. It should have been clear at that time that all was not well in eastern Syria. Instead, Washington muddled along, reducing its limited efforts at reconstruction and focusing only on defeating the remnants of the Islamic State.
Tens of thousands of fighters and their families surrendered in Baghouz on the Euphrates River in March 2019. The male fighters were transported to a dozen detention facilities, while the women and children, more than 40,000 of them, went to al-Hol camp near the Iraqi border. Turkey escalated its rhetoric about invading Syria again and again. Understanding the challenge ahead, some, like former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, suggested staying in Syria until Iran left. Military commanders warned that the Islamic State was on the rebound and that the United States needed to train tens of thousands of SDF members to ensure the extremists didn’t return.
The looming problem in eastern Syria was always one of tragic hope by locals, primarily Kurds, that the United States would stay while officials knew that there was no long-term plan. Unlike Washington’s approach to other long-running disputes, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States never sketched out what it wanted to do in eastern Syria. There was no road map. With a tiny footprint of soldiers, Americans were influencing a key area that stood at the crossroads of its relations with Turkey, Iran, and Russia. It could leverage it the way Turkey was leveraging areas in northern Syria. Leaving was always an option—but leaving is never easy.
The Islamic State was defeated on the ground but never vanquished overall. I flew to northern Iraq in mid-September and drove out to a rural area near Makhmour, about 45 minutes southwest of the de facto Kurdistan Regional Government capital of Erbil. At the top of a mountain called Qara Chokh, which rises like a knife from the surrounding plains, I peered through the binoculars of a local Kurdish Peshmerga commander to view an alleged Islamic State member collecting water near a cave in northern Iraq. The Islamic State fighters were out in the open. This was in northern Iraq, but the Syrian border was just 120 miles away, a few hours by car, and U.S. commanders say Islamic State cells move in small numbers back and forth across the border.
Last weekend’s decision to withdraw from northeastern Syria was taken in haste and motivated by Trump’s view that the conflict was an “endless war,” akin to that in Afghanistan. He argued that Western countries and regional powers need to do more, meaning European countries should step in to replace the U.S. role.
But Western countries aren’t going to do more in Syria; they’ve proved that over and over throughout the Syrian civil war. Nearby countries like Turkey and Iran will do more—and with a clear vision of what they want. Iran wants influence in Syria and uses Syria to supply Hezbollah. Turkey wants to destroy the PKK and any group linked to it and also to resettle refugees into Kurdish areas along the border. This would alter the ethnic balance of the border area by removing Syrian Arab refugees from Turkey while reducing the influence of historic Kurdish communities, a cynical ploy by Ankara.
In northern Iraq, that also raises concerns about U.S. commitments to the country. Amid the recent nationwide protests in Iraq, in which more than 100 people have been killed, the Kurdistan region fears seeing Kurds in Syria harmed and wonders about the domino effect of long-term U.S. support being challenged by countries that sense the United States wants to leave.
Turkey, meanwhile, appears drunk on nationalism amid its ever expanding wars in northern Syria. It, too, is at a crossroads. Working more closely with Russia and Iran means Turkey narrows its options and is in debt to Russia because it has purchased weapons systems from Moscow. Thus Turkey must keep buying weapons from Russia in exchange for Moscow not condemning its occupation or use of airspace in northern Syria.
The Syrian regime wants all of its territory back, meaning Moscow must balance its ally with its trading partner in Ankara. But for Iran, Turkey, and Russia, the short-term goal of removing the United States is an essential first step—one that, thanks to Trump, they seem to have mostly accomplished. Then they can bicker over partitioning spheres of influence in Syria.
On that blissful February day in 2016, when I drove into the refugee camp near Suruc, there were hundreds of families sitting outside the camp among the stones in a nearby field. A young man who spoke English said he was a Kurd from Manbij. He had fled the Islamic State but hoped to return home. He was suspicious of the YPG’s politics, but he disagreed with Turkey’s harsh crackdown on the PKK, preferring the cease-fire that had prevailed before 2015.
Today, with Turkey bombarding areas of eastern Syria, the conflict that the young man hoped would stop has only expanded. The Syrian civil war, which scarred so many parts of the country but left many Kurdish areas relatively unscathed, now looms over those areas—and the Americans who once patrolled with their Kurdish partners are leaving.
This article is adapted from Seth J. Frantzman’s book, After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East.