After last week’s bombing in Manbij and today’s terror attack on a US convoy in the north-east of the country, it is now abundantly clear that terrorist elements in northern Syria are doing everything they can to prevent a US withdrawal. While it may seem counter-intuitive for any non-state terrorist group to want a powerful state’s armed forces to remain in the territory effectively claimed by the terrorists in question, when one realises that a post-US withdrawal Turkish anti-terror operation and/or establishment of a safe zone on the Turkey-Syria border could change the status quo in the region, such a dynamic begins to make more sense. As Turkey’s President Erdoğan vowed to make sure that any such safe-zone would not become a swamp of terror but would instead be a genuine de-escalation zone that would be cleansed of terror groups, the reasons for such terrorists to panic became all the more easy to ascertain.
The apparent motive behind recent terror attacks on US officials and convoys in northern Syria appears to be part of a plan to convince a deeply divided Washington that its role in fighting terror with “boots on the ground” should not draw down. The subtext of the phenomenon of terrorists attempting to thwart the US withdrawal indicates a wider fear that the local terror groups have of an expanded anti-terror drive by Turkey, a state that unlike the US has a direct desire to protect its southern border from terror originating on Syrian soil. With this in mind, Turkey and the US should aim to understand and achieve the following in order to prevent terrorists from meddling in an orderly US withdrawal and a subsequent Turkish effort to stabilise the region.
1. Recognise the trap and don’t fall into it
It is blatantly obvious that as is the case whenever a state’s armed forces announce a withdraw from a conflict zone, latent terrorist elements tend to ramp up their game for one of two reasons:
a. To remain relevant to their own terrorist followers
b. To try and alter the region’s geopolitical dynamics by ruining the plans of legitimate governments
This was true in respect of the Obama era semi-withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and a smaller version of the same phenomenon is clearly at play in northern Syria.
Therefore, because Donald Trump clearly realised that a regional based anti-terror operation and accompanying peace process was preferable to one orchestrated from far outside the region, he agreed to withdraw US forces from northern Syria while he publicly stated that Turkey will play a vital role in bringing stability to northern Syria after the US withdrawal commences and eventually is completed.
In this sense, the remaining terrorists in northern Syria realise that by prolonging the US presence in the country, one will be preventing the Astana Group’s peace process from taking shape. By contrast, as Turkey is a member of the Astana Group, Turkey’s presence will not only actively regionalise the conflict, but will make the eventual implementation of a peace process inevitable.
As terrorists are allergic to peace and a US withdrawal will pave the way for Turkey to prepare the region for such a peace process, it is clear why the terrorist elements are doing what they have recently done.
The US should discuss this with Turkey and work around the situation rather than allow the terrorists to take control of the situation.
2. Don’t forget that the YPG/PKK released Daesh terrorists
While the YPG/PKK terror group is theoretically a rival to the Daesh terror group, the reality is that the YPG/PKK have a history of freeing Daesh prisoners for a variety of reasons ranging from cash bribes to an inability to operate prison facilities effectively. Furthermore, whilst the US has worked with the YPG/PKK in the region, Turkey correctly views the YPG/PKK and Daesh threat as being equally important to remove in order for peace to be established. Furthermore, as Turkey continues to host millions of Syrian refugees, a post-terror northern Syria will allow these Syrian refugees (including Syrian Kurds who have fled the YPG/PKK) to return home.
Because of this, it cannot be discounted that the YPG/PKK have freed more Daesh prisoners under the condition that they stage terrorist provocations against remaining American forces in the region. While it is true that the recent attacks on US men and assets in Syria have been staged in close range to YPG/PKK terrorists, when one considers that the YPG/PKK have a history of using child soldiers and violently turning on their own, it cannot be discounted that for the YPG/PKK, causing collateral damage to their own fighters may be a price worth paying if this means delaying a Turkish anti-terror operation that could end the YPG/PKK’s reign of terror.
3. Recognising a vicious cycle
According to the present status quo, northern Syria is little short of a marry-go-round of death where one day the YPG/PKK are fighting Daesh in order to receive US funds, whilst the next day the YPG/PKK free Daesh prisoners for personal material gain and now, likely also for an attempt at re-gaining a strategic upper hand.
This cycle could potentially go on for months to come unless the US and Turkey speak frankly about this vicious cycle and realise that staying the course in respect of a phased US withdrawal coordinated with Turkey will ultimately be the only way to break the cycle of violence.
4. The US fundamentally has little choice
One of the reasons that the US war on Iraq became so unpopular was due to the large numbers of US casualties at the hands of terrorists. If the US does not work with Turkey to coordinate a phased withdrawal, the situation in northern Syria could become something that approaches the disaster that the US faced in Iraq.
Beyond this, if the US is so concerned about maintaining an equilibrium in Syria wherein Damascus or Tehran do not expand their influence into north-eastern Syrian regions, the only logical option for the US would be to effectively hand over control to Turkey, a fellow NATO member but one which also has good relations with Russia and Iran. This ‘best of all world’s scenarios’ will maintain the existing balance between pro-Damascus and anti-Damascus forces whilst helping to foster more harmony among the peace making parties because unlike the US, Turkey is able to speak in a friendly way with the Russia and Iran, whils Turkeys’ partners Russia and Iran are able to speak in a friendly way with Damascus.
In many ways, properly executing a withdrawal from Syria is the biggest test of Donald Trump’s presidency in respect of foreign policy. He cannot make the same mistakes as George W. Bush and Barack Obama by refusing to allow a responsible regionalised solution to take hold. The recent terrorist attacks prove that what little remains of Daesh as well as the YPG/PKK are frightened. One does not approach a frightened bully by responding with equal hysteria. One responds by maintaining one’s plan and moderating the action steps necessary in order to make sure the plan can withstand the stones thrown by terrorist groups who will do anything in their power to prevent peace from taking hold.