The Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurds could be catastrophic for the whole of the Middle East. Much depends on Turkish aims, the size and extent of the invasion and, most importantly, on Washington's reaction. At stake is not just the future of the war against ISIS but also the future of Syria and the Kurds in general, as well as the US's role as a reliable actor.
The offensive began after a phone call between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr Trump’s green light to Mr Erdogan took everyone by surprise, including most, if not all, of the US foreign policy establishment, including the Department of Defence. The latter had to execute a hasty retreat of its special forces from the Syrian-Turkish border.
For many months, Americans, Turks and Syrian Kurds had been negotiating a modus vivendi that would assuage Turkish security concerns while continuing the fight against ISIS. Ankara had long argued that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, as an affiliate of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the main component of the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes both Kurds and Arabs, constituted a security threat to Turkey. There was no indication that the YPG ever mounted any operation directly against Turkey in Syria, particularly as they had their hands full with the fight against ISIS, which led to the death of about 11,000 of their own fighters. Still, the drumbeat of incessant Turkish rhetoric at home and abroad brought the issue to a boiling point.
The strategic threat to Turkey is not a militia in Syria affiliated with its own Kurds but rather, the potential for a movement to form an autonomous Kurdish entity along its borders, following in the footsteps of Iraqi Kurds, whose regional government, the KRG, engineered an independence referendum in 2017. There are fears in Ankara that Turkish Kurds will be encouraged to seek the same.
Turkey now has what it wants. As little is known about the explicit details of the phone conversation that launched this operation, Ankara's ultimate goals remain somewhat murky. Mr Erdogan said on Friday that Turkey would not stop until the YPG had withdrawn to at least 32 kilometres away from its border. Initial indications suggested that Turkey would only seize the 120km stretch between the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras Al Ain. The Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, however, stated that Turkish troops would advance 30km south of its border to an area with a civilian population of approximately 450,000. On Saturday, Ankara appeared to be following through on that threat, with Turkish-backed troops reaching a strategic road between Manbij and Qamishli in the north-east. The Turks have already stated that they want to move up to three million Syrian refugees from Turkey to a so-called safe zone on their shared border, which can only be accomplished by removing the existing population. Both of these acts are violations of international law.
A greater unknown is what Mr Trump will do with the 1,000 or so remaining American troops in northern Syria, who were collaborating with the Kurds against ISIS. He has consistently pushed for American troops to come home. Were he to decide to remove them, especially because the Kurds have ceased all anti-ISIS operations as they deploy to counter the Turkish offensive, Turkey might then want to push further south, by land and air, to deal a decisive blow against the Syrian Kurds. Mr Trump, in theory, still has the option of putting the brakes on the Turkish offensive but the mixed signals coming from the White House are not helpful in understanding American policy.
The Kurds are unquestionably facing a dire situation. When the UN Security Council met last week to discuss a joint European resolution condemning the Turkish offensive, the 15 members were unable to agree a joint statement. The Kurdish position in Syria in light of the Turkish invasion has been severely weakened; the Russians and the Syrian government have made it clear that there will be a reckoning for their alliance with the US, even if it was against ISIS, everyone’s common enemy.
With their incursion, the Turks have now become an integral actor in Syria. It is hard to see how they will withdraw their troops, especially if they transfer significant numbers of Syrian refugees from Turkey into the new safe zone. The Turkish army has brought along its Arab militia allies to fight the Kurds and provide a veneer of legitimacy. If the latter were to prove incapable of maintaining control of these newly acquired territories – and especially if the YPG, as it is likely to do so, were to start a guerrilla war to reclaim lost territory – the Turkish army will find itself sucked into a morass in Syria. Turkish occupation of Syria, in turn, will engender opposition from the local population, the regime in Damascus and especially its allies in Tehran, who would rather have an unencumbered hegemony from Iran all the way to Lebanon.
Complicating this picture is ISIS. Although the terrorist group has been decimated by American and SDF action, together with the Global Coalition, as with all such groups, it went deep underground and never stopped functioning. In fact, as soon as the Turkish operation started, ISIS forces attacked SDF positions in Raqqa. The YPG has formally quit the fight against ISIS as a result of the Turkish action. The caliphate might not be resurrected and Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi might not reappear, but the mystique lives on and a resurgence would destabilise not just Syria but potentially Iraq as well. A return of ISIS to Iraq bodes poorly for US interests, given how much it invested in that country.
There is also the problem of up to 12,000 battle-hardened ISIS fighters and as many as 60,000 family members held separately, detained by the SDF. Five ISIS militants have already taken advantage of the SDF’s weakened position and escaped their prison in Qamishli as Turkey shelled the area. Meanwhile in the overcrowded Al Hol camp, inmates have been rising up against their security guards, attacking them with stones and setting fire to tents. Who will then be responsible for these ISIS fighters and sympathisers as the SDF and YPG disengage?
Mr Trump's erratic behaviour, his constant refrain on retrenchment and willingness to break with allies without the slightest afterthought has rankled US allies in the Middle East and beyond. Bipartisan anger at Mr Trump has resulted in severe sanctions being threatened by Congress against Ankara. The Trump administration has indicated it might consider sanctioning Turkey, with treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin adding the proviso that the action was contingent on Turkey's next steps, but Congress's concerns will not alter the US president's behaviour.
In the Middle East, the perception of a gradual or even accelerated withdrawal of US troops opens the door for countries such as Turkey and Iran to try to fill the vacuum created by Mr Trump. Mr Erdogan has long sought to build and extend Turkey’s sphere of influence in the region, believing that as the descendant of the Ottomans, it is almost its birthright. Iran, like Turkey, has hegemonic ambitions that it has successfully parlayed, despite American and European pressure.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin is eager to rebuild his country's critical role in the region.
That leaves the Europeans, who, unlike the Americans, do not have the luxury of turning their backs on the region. It is far too close, as both the migrant crisis and ISIS attacks in recent years have demonstrated. However, they lack a unified vision and have shown little capability of acting in concert. An American withdrawal, even if temporary, might persuade the Europeans to finally get their act together.
Henri Barkey is the Cohen professor of international relations at Lehigh University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations