By Aaron Stein
Last week, the Wall Street Journal and Reuters reported that the United States military will begin to withdraw troops from northeastern Syria with the end of April as a “soft date” to finish the removal of most (if not all) of the 2,000 troops stationed there. In parallel, Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Special Representative for Syria, is engaged in negotiations with Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Syrian Kurdish-led partner force that has borne the brunt of the U.S.-led ground war against the Islamic State, to try to manage the U.S withdrawal. After President Donald Trump announced in mid-December that the Islamic State had been defeated, the United States military has sought to catch-up with the president’s rhetoric and finish the fight against the small and sparsely populated Islamic State territory in a small sliver of eastern Syria.
The challenge is that the United States military may begin its withdrawal from Syria before it reaches agreement with Turkey and the SDF for a self-described safe zone. The start of the U.S. withdrawal is likely to hasten non-American diplomatic efforts to fill the void the coalition leaves behind. However, it does not appear that American diplomatic goals are being narrowed to secure minimum U.S. interests, risking a messy withdrawal without agreement on key issues with the various stakeholders in Syria’s northeast.
“Zones” of Disagreement
Ankara, the Syrian Kurds, and Washington all agree that some sort of safe zone is preferable to the alternative—a chaotic U.S. withdrawal that gives way to violent clashes between the myriad of different actors seeking to take control of Syria’s northeast. However, each party has radically different ideas about what the safe zone should look like. The Turkish government has resisted seriously negotiating with the United States over the zone, given that Ankara’s starting position is that any zone would need to clear out the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and that the Turkish military should administer and guarantee security in the areas. Turkey holds this position because the YPG is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group active in Turkey since 1984, and which the U.S. and Europe have designated as a terror group. The YPG is also the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The SDF/YPG has argued against any role for Turkey in a safe zone, and has instead offered to disarm along the border (albeit without defining disarm), introduce local forces acceptable to the SDF to secure the area, and for the U.S. to provide security guarantees. The United States, in turn, has sought to split the difference. It has pushed for a plan where French and British troops, now deployed in-country in support of U.S. combat operations, would observe and report about the status of the safe zone, while the United States Air Force would patrol and deny flight and ground access to hostile forces and Turkish forces would patrol in rural areas. Ankara has, quite obviously, resisted this position, arguing that it cannot accept a non-Turkish-controlled zone where the YPG would not be effectively dealt with in a 30km deep zone that stretches out to the border with Iraq. Ankara is prepared to accept a zone where it has a relatively small military footprint, so long as its preferred Arab-majority proxies are empowered to govern, which is the model that Turkey has used in northern Aleppo in the areas it indirectly controls, as part of Operation Euphrates Shield.
The United States and Turkey have continued talks, recently forming a safe zone task force to hasten negotiations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also sought to establish a separate, direct channel with President Trump to break through the diplomatic stalemate and to secure approval for Turkish-backed plans for the northeast. However, given the wide schisms between the two negotiating positions, it would be wise for the United States to plan for diplomatic failure and to game out the potential scenarios that the SDF may soon face.
Who Else Could Turkey and the SDF Turn to?
In contrast to the United States, Ankara has a direct and robust diplomatic and military channel with Russia in Syria. The Turkish government has sought to use Moscow to advance its own interests, which Ankara has narrowed around two core issues: 1) Deny safe haven to the YPG and 2) Return Syrian refugees in Turkey to areas Ankara controls in northern Syria. In northeastern Syria, Turkey would rather reach agreement with United States, as long as the terms are—more or less—in line with the Turkish demand to administer and patrol the entirety of the safe zone. However, because Ankara has such narrow interests now in Syria, Turkey would be willing to tolerate a return of regime forces to the edge of any safe zone.
This position is in contrast to the United States, which argues that the regime/Russia should not move east of the Euphrates River. For Ankara, the regime moving across the river is not all that worrisome if the Turkish military controls the core safe zone and Russia can be counted on to hold the regime in check along the forward line of troops. This arrangement would mimic the situation in Al-Bab, a Turkish held town in northern Aleppo, where the regime and Turk-supported opposition share a relatively stable border just south of the city. It is not clear, either, how a U.S. pledge to defend the safe zone from Russians with U.S. aircraft fits with President Trump’s pledge to remove all U.S. forces from the country, or if Ankara would agree to terms the U.S. proposes that Russia finds anathema to its interests.
If the U.S.-Turkish negotiations fail, Turkey could also try to work with Russia to reach agreement for a narrow buffer zone, in line with the terms of the Adana Agreement—a protocol Turkey signed with the Syrian regime in 1998 and was then updated in 2010. The Adana Agreement ended the Syrian regime’s support for the PKK and obliged Damascus to ensure that the group could not use its territory to organize or train militants. In a separate annex, Ankara reserves the right to use military force up to 5 kilometers into Syrian territory, per the right of self-defense in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. In this scenario, the Turkish military could occupy a small sliver of territory, which would include a number of Kurdish-majority towns that the YPG now controls. The Syrian regime would then backfill areas vacated by the United States, clashing directly with the Syrian Kurds. Amidst this chaos, Turkey could try to take advantage of SDF-regime clashes and move on Manbij, a town Ankara has long-coveted because of its location and political significance (the U.S. and Turkey have negotiated over the status of this city since 2015), but has been prevented from entering because of the American military presence.
The SDF could also reach a separate agreement with Damascus, predicated on an overarching Russian guarantee to prevent a Turkish incursion. For this to work, the SDF would probably have to dissolve and then be included in the Syrian armed forces, or, at the very least, include the SDF in the military’s chain of command. This scenario would see Moscow use the Adana Agreement for its own purposes, arguing that the return of regime forces would ensure that the PKK/YPG does not pose a threat to Turkey. This would obviate the Turkish case for intervention, mostly because Russia would not give permission for a cross-border operation.
To date, Russia has sanctioned two Turkish interventions, Operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, but has set clear red-lines on the scope and size of each deployment. In the case of the former, Russia argued against a Turkish incursion in Manbij, and in the case of Afrin, closed airspace for five days (halting Turkish combat operations) after a Russian jet was downed in Idlib. Thus, Russia could use leverage to block Turkey if it made the political decision to do so, but this would also have the effect of undermining burgeoning Russian-Turkish political relations and upsetting Russian efforts to use Ankara to help facilitate an end to the conflict. As is the rule in Syria, there are no easy answers, and any Russian move vis-à-vis Ankara (and vice versa) would have a political cost that would impinge on other areas of the conflict.
Out of Options and Time
With the clock ticking towards April, the United States is running out of time to reach agreement with Turkey and the SDF. Moreover, it will soon become quite apparent that U.S. combat forces are departing. It is difficult to hide large American military convoys driving east towards the Syrian-Iraqi border. The likelihood that the withdrawal will outpace any U.S.-brokered agreement should hasten efforts to clearly identify narrowly defined U.S. interests.
The U.S. military will have an enduring interest in pressuring the Islamic State, a task that will require some sort of contact with the SDF to ensure local eyes and ears continue to feed the Special Operations Task Force hunting for high value, ISIS leadership targets. Further still, in the absence of a broader agreement, the U.S. may lose the freedom to operate in Syria’s northeast. Russia and the regime are certain to try to assert sovereignty, using the denial of flight as a diplomatic tool to signal that Damascus is in control of the entirety of the country. For this reason, it would behoove the United States to make overtures to Russia and to engage in discussions about future counter-terrorism operations. It may be satisfying to try to diplomatically circumvent Moscow, but with the U.S. leaving, and Bashar al-Assad well-positioned to govern for the foreseeable future, some modus vivendi (even a very narrow deconfliction arrangement or protocol for high-value strikes) should be raised in direct, bilateral talks that starts the discussion about the future of the Syrian Kurds and how to come to a common consensus about how to help end the Syria civil war.
As the U.S. exit becomes a reality, the different players in the Syrian context will start to make moves to maximize their self-defined interests. President Trump’s announcement—before consulting with anyone in his government—to withdraw forces had already deprived American diplomats of much needed leverage for these fraught and difficult negotiations. The withdrawal will further erode the American diplomatic position. The most prudent course of action is to focus on what the U.S. can achieve before April—and not be focused on reaching a near impossible arrangement that balances the interests of two hostiles actors, the SDF and Turkey. The U.S. simply does not have the time. At the very least, Moscow should be roped into these talks and engaged around a set of narrow, American core interests centered around how best to target ISIS leadership hiding in the Syrian desert.
This is, quite clearly, not a satisfactory outcome of the U.S. war in Syria. However, father time is undefeated, and it will soon become quite apparent that the United States presence in Syria is ending, no matter what the status of the ongoing and very complicated negotiations.