The Turkish government recently said it would launch military operations in the area east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria to purge the Turkish-Syrian border of Kurdish armed forces and establish a “safe zone” within Syria. In response, during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the night of Oct. 6, President Donald Trump stated that the U.S. Army would not support or participate in the operation, and that it would withdraw from related areas.
What does this decision by the U.S. mean, and how will it influence the situation in Syria? In my view, the decision seems to accomplish the following.
First, it gives Turkey a blank check. The concept of a safe zone was put forth by the Trump administration early this year, with the intention of protecting its Kurdish allies from an attack by Turkey. However, the U.S. and Turkey did not see eye to eye on various issues, such as the size and jurisdiction of the safe zone, as well as whether the Kurdish military forces would completely vacate the area; therefore, the two countries have not been able to reach an agreement. Syria is opposed to the creation of a safe zone, believing that it infringes on Syrian territory and sovereignty.
After the U.S. withdrawal, Turkey will have free rein to construct the safe zone. Judging by current circumstances, Turkey is set on building a roughly 32-mile deep safe zone on the Syrian side of the border. Turkey will garrison troops in the area, clear out Syrian Kurdish forces, and construct buildings to house Arabic refugees who have fled from Syria into Turkey.
Turkey has three motives for installing this safe zone. The first is to use it as a “refugee return zone,” returning 1 million Syrian refugees who have been detained in Turkey, in order to reduce the pressure that these refugees have put on the Turkish government and economy. The second is to make it into a “separation zone,” using it as a safety screen to separate Turkey from the Kurdish military forces. Turkey believes the Syrian Kurdish military force is a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and a terrorist organization that threatens Turkey’s safety. With the safe zone, Turkey can remove this malignant tumor from its border. Turkey’s third aim is to redistribute the Syrian population. With its plans for the safe zone, Turkey will alter the traditional homelands of different Syrian ethnic groups, drive the Kurds from the region and implement large-scale relocation. This could recreate the tragedy of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Second, the United States’ decision drives a knife into the backs of the Kurds. It fully disregards the Kurdish forces, which means that the U.S. has betrayed those it fought side-by-side with against the Islamic State. The Kurds made heroic contributions to the fight, suffering huge casualties to defeat the Islamic State group. The United States is tossing the Kurds aside when they no longer serve any use. This betrayal is a disappointment for its allies. What’s more ruthless is that once the U.S. leaves the area, the Kurdish forces will be fully exposed to the Turkish army’s offensive.
Third, the decision is a big gift for Syria and Russia. Before joining the U.S.-led international coalition to counter the Islamic State group, the Kurdish forces maintained a fairly distant relationship with Damascus. Now, the United States’ decision will bring the two closer. In addition, the Syrian government has long hoped to reoccupy the Kurdish-controlled Deir ez-Zor, a strategically important passage in eastern Syria. Because the Kurds have lost the air cover provided by the U.S., Damascus and Moscow can easily strike a political deal with them or use tremendous military pressure to force the Kurds into submission, all without shedding a drop of Syrian or Russian blood.
Fourth, the decision acts as a lifesaving injection for the dying Islamic State group. The safety vacuum left when the U.S. army withdraws could allow the Islamic State group to rise from the ashes. The United States and Turkey have both stated that once the U.S. army withdraws from the region, Turkey will be responsible for handling the Islamic State group fighters who have been imprisoned for the past two years in the region. However, how will they be handled? It’s easier said than done. The Kurds are currently detaining more than 10,000 Islamic State group fighters. According to reports, a few days ago Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called for extremists to do everything they can to liberate these imprisoned fighters from prisons and concentration camps. In order to respond to Turkish attacks, it is possible that Kurdish military forces will abandon their watch over Islamic State group fighters. Like releasing tigers back into the mountains, this would further strengthen Islamic State group forces, and possibly allow them to stage a comeback.
Finally, the United States’ decision sends a special message to the people of the world. It shows that as Trump faces an impeachment investigation, he will honor his election promise to withdraw troops from hot spots like Syria and treat this promise with the highest priority. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis will serve as an example for any member of his cabinet who opposes him.
In brief, the United States’ decision means that the unrest in Syria will grow more intense, and that the process to resolve the problems in Syria politically will become more complex.
The author is a former foreign ambassador, and a special-commission commentator for Huanqiu.
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