U.S. exit from Syria leaves civilians and Kurdish fighters at risk
The withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria, announced by President Trump on Sunday evening, gives Turkey a green light to sweep into the region and threatens the U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish forces who helped combat the Islamic State.
Why it matters: The move could open new fronts of conflict and displace hundreds of thousands of civilians across an area already in the grip of a humanitarian crisis. It also risks ceding more territory to the control of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Background: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to create a “safe zone” that pushes the Syrian Kurdish forces — known as the YPG — up to 20 miles away from the border. Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization affiliated with the PKK, the Kurdish militant and political group Turkey has been fighting since 1984.
- The U.S. and Turkey have been working on an incremental approach to a more limited safe zone, which had seen the Syrian Kurdish forces dismantle their defensive positions along the Turkish border. Now Erdogan appears to be opting for a more maximalist approach.
- Erdogan also wants to send up to a million Syrian refugees now in Turkey across the border to the safe zone in Syria — furthering a recent crackdown on Syrians that has sent some back into war-torn Idlib and may see others flee to Europe.
What to watch:
- A Turkish incursion is likely to spark fighting between the Turks and the Syrian Kurds, who have pledged to “defend northeast Syria at all costs.” This would pull the YPG away from the campaign against the Islamic State — amid an ongoing resurgence by the terrorist group. U.S. officials have indicated that American forces will not intervene in fighting between the Turks and the Syrian Kurds.
- Most international relief groups operating in northeast Syria would be forced to pull out, leaving just when humanitarian aid would be most needed to cope with massive civilian displacement.
- Syrian Kurds, betrayed by the U.S., could turn to the Assad regime and the Russians for protection against Turkey — an outcome the U.S. has sought to avoid. The net result could be the return of significant parts of northeast Syria to regime control without Damascus having to fire a shot.
- The announcement has been quickly met with resistance in Washington, including threats from Congress to sanction Turkey or call for its suspension from NATO if Kurdish forces face attack.
Hardin Lang is vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International.