The exit of the US leaves Turkey and Russia as the key balancers in Syria

US, Turkey,  Russia, Syria, Islamic State, US troops, Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF Kurdish fighters, Turkish forces

By Rajan Kumar

The only thing constant about Donald Trump is his unpredictability and abruptness in decision-making. Rushing to claim a premature victory, he ordered a sudden withdrawal of US troops from Syria without any prior consultations with strategic experts or his advisers. He pronounced unilaterally that the US had achieved the critical objective of decimating the Islamic State (IS), and it was time to pull out of the "endless war".

The quirky decision of the president Trump amounted to a royal betrayal and a de facto capitulation of Kurdish forces to Turkey. Kurds were the backbone of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting alongside the US in their war against the IS. Their dream to create a new homeland by carving out territories from Iraq, Syria and Turkey evaporated into thin air. They are back to square one- fighting against the Turkish forces and running helter-skelter for their survival.

Turkey launched an offensive codenamed "Operation Peace Spring" in northeast Syria to drive the SDF Kurdish fighters away from its borders. It feared that these forces might infiltrate into Turkish territory and aid the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a separatist organisation involved in secessionist activities. Turkey treats PKK as a terrorist organisation. Ankara always resented US collaboration with the Kurds. Anticipating that the situation in its south-eastern border may run out of its control, Turkey decided to send its troops to create a buffer zone between its border and the dominant Kurdish population in northeast Syria. Turkish offensive triggered a humanitarian crisis and raised the spectre of the revival of IS in the region. Nearly 300,000 Kurdish people fled their homes, and about a hundred people were killed. Kurds fear that Turkish military presence in the region would not only suppress their struggle for self-rule but may also alter the demographic profile with the rehabilitation of Arab Syrian refugees in the region.

Trump's decision to withdraw forces invited widespread criticism from across the globe. Many of the Republican leaders joined Democrats in condemning his policies. Strategic experts characterised this as one of the worst instances of the US betraying an ally since World War II. Even the NATO members were left in the dark. The foreign offices of the UK, France, Germany and the EU in a rare joint statement rejected Trump's decision to abandon Kurds, and they came down heavily on Turkey for invading Syria. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, touted Turkey's aggression as "madness".

After several hours of negotiations Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey reached an agreement at a Black Sea resort of Sochi. This deal not only recognises the legitimate interests of Turkey but also allows it to retain a part of Syrian territory. This is bound to haunt the relationship between Turkey and Syria in the years to come.

According to the agreement, Kurdish forces will withdraw 30 kilometres from the northeastern border of Syria. There will be a joint patrol of Russian and Syrian forces along 10 kilometres of the border. Turkey will retain the sole control of the central border that stretches over 120 kilometres long and 30 kilometres wide that it captured during earlier offensives. Putin seems to have prevailed over hapless Bashar al-Assad in making him agree to the new negotiation, but the conflict is far from over. Bashar branded his counterpart Erdogan a 'thief' for capturing Syria's territory and pledged to restore every inch of land lost to Turkey. This, however, is easier said than done, especially when the enemy is a NATO member enjoying the support of Russia.

Turkey conveyed to Washington its decision to observe the ceasefire as agreed earlier and stop any further offensive. This offered Trump a face-saving device who promptly claimed credit and responded swiftly by lifting all the sanctions on Turkey imposed just a few days ago. Some analysts attributed this decision to Trump's vast business interests in Turkey.

Turkey and Russia have filled up the void created by the withdrawal of the US forces from Syria. US forces were sent to Iraq, and they are likely to remain there for some time. Mark Esper, the US Defence Secretary, also indicated that some US troops would remain in Syria to protect oil fields under Kurds’ control.

Russia has become an indispensable player in the region. It has extended its influence over several countries in the region, including Turkey. Any resolution of regional conflict in West Asia without the approval of Russia seems impossible. On the other hand, it is increasingly becoming evident that the US is unable to take the risk and commit resources needed to tackle the costly conflicts where it gets itself entangled periodically. Tump's leadership has eroded the credibility of the US as a reliable partner. The domestic support for an external war is fading away fast in the US. The US cannot resolve the intractable conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. An honourable exit is the best option for the US lest it gets drowned in the quicksand of West Asia.

Turkey is another beneficiary, but its gain might come at the cost of alienating some of the NATO members. At the NATO defence ministers’ meet in Brussels, Turkey was reprimanded for forging a partnership with Russia and ignoring the interests of the organisation. Mr Esper noted Turkey's growing dependence on Russia as "We see them spinning closer to Russia's orbit than in the Western orbit and I think that is unfortunate." Further, Turkey's ambition to play a leading role in the region is fraught with several risks and challenges.

(The author teaches at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)