US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria’s northeast border in October shocked his country’s defence and diplomatic establishments. It also greatly increased Moscow’s influence after Russian troops were invited in by the Kurds to protect them from a Turkish offensive.
Trump had ended 2018 with the surprise announcement that all US troops would be withdrawn from Syria, where they were supporting the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that had been instrumental in destroying the Islamic State as a territorial entity. The operation was a model of the US military’s ‘by-through-with’ strategy of partnering with local forces to sustain a small footprint and minimal casualties. Trump nevertheless stated that the US, having defeated the Islamic State, no longer wanted to be the “policeman of the Middle East, getting nothing but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing.”
As well as increasing the risk of an Islamic State re-emergence, a withdrawal risked leaving the SDF exposed to assaults by both the Syrian government and Turkey, opening the US to accusations that it had betrayed the Syrian Kurds, thereby reducing its future credibility and immediate influence in Syria. General Jim Mattis immediately resigned as secretary of defence and the US military appeared to be implementing the president’s decree as slowly as possible over the following months.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government kept up pressure on the US to ensure the SDF’s Kurdish fighters, who it considers to be terrorists because of their close association with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), withdrew from a ‘safe zone’ or ‘peace corridor’ running along the Syrian side of the Turkish border east of the Euphrates. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan outlined his plans to the UN General Assembly in September, saying a 30 km-deep, 480 km-long zone could be used to resettle two million displaced Syrians in Turkey, or even three million if the zone was extended south to Dayr al-Zawr. This would involve a massive demographic shift of Arabs from elsewhere in Syria to areas dominated by Kurds, who saw Erdoğan’s plan as tantamount to ethnic cleansing.
Under US pressure the Kurds agreed to withdraw their fighters from the border zone in August, with US and Turkish soldiers later carrying out joint border patrols inside Syria. Although US officials said the agreement was working, in a shock announcement on 6 October the White House said Trump and Erdoğan had spoken by telephone and that US troops would withdraw ahead of a Turkish offensive into northeast Syria. The Turkish Armed Forces and allied Syrian rebel groups, rebranded as the Syrian National Army (SNA), began Operation ‘Peace Spring’ three days later. Videos subsequently emerged of SNA fighters shooting a prisoner and mutilating the body of female Kurdish fighter.
Speaking during a Congressional hearing, the US envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, insisted that Trump did not approve Operation ‘Peace Spring’ and said the small number of US troops on the border had to be withdrawn before they were cut off as the Turks and SNA advanced along the east-west M4 highway. “This idea of betrayal and giving a green light, it’s as if our troops in northeast Syria were like our troops along the Korean DMZ [demilitarised zone],” he said. “They were not. There were two outposts, each of 12 people along that whole area of 140 km.”
With US forces leaving, the Kurds predictably turned to Damascus and Moscow for assistance. Syrian government and Russia troops were soon heading into the northeast to take up positions to block the Turkish advance, replacing the US forces that had left a few days earlier. This seemingly forced Erdoğan to negotiate a new agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 22 October.
It was announced that Turkey would control a 100 km-wide zone down to the M4, while Russia would deploy to ensure Syrian Kurdish fighters withdrew from the border areas on either side. Like the US forces before them, Russian soldiers carried out joint border patrols with Turkish counterparts, but their vehicles were seen being stoned by locals. Erdoğan also continued to threaten to go on the offensive if the Russians failed to implement the agreement, much as he had done with the Americans.
Jeffrey’s assessment was that the Turks had gained little. “We told Turkey what exactly would happen: they would not get very far in this offensive and they have not gotten very far,” he said. “It made no sense to scramble the entire situation in northeast Syria to do something they could not attain, which is to put together under their own control a 32 km-deep 440-km wide security zone.”
The real winners were Moscow and Damascus, which gained significant influence over the Kurds and far more ground than they did during the offensive against rebels in Idlib province, Syria, earlier in the year. During that offensive Russia was directly implicated in its Syrian allies’ targeting of medics, part of a wider terror campaign against rebel areas, when The New York Times reported that it had recordings of Russian pilots talking over the radio as they bombed hospitals in Idlib.
Washington belatedly reversed course on Syria, saying that around 600 troops would remain to secure oilfields in Dayr al-Zawr province to ensure they were not retaken by the Islamic State and that it would continue to provide the SDF with funding. This involved around 600 US National Guard personnel deploying as other US and European special forces withdrew from further to the north.
For reasons that are unclear the former were deployed with M2A2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, even although they present a major logistical burden in an area with poor lines of communication. If another hasty withdrawal is to be made the extraction of this armour might be a challenge.