U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria sent shockwaves throughout the world. Clearly, Turkey's commitment to launch a military operation into northeastern Syria changed Washington's calculus. The announcement drew mixed responses from different stakeholders: Russia agreed that Daesh had been defeated, but noted that there was no concrete sign of U.S. withdrawal from the conflict zone.
In contrast, France claimed that the fight against Daesh was not over and pledged to keep its military personnel on the ground. Meanwhile, the U.S. media has been busy disagreeing with the White House. Senators – Democrats and Republicans alike – make the case that leaving Syria would be a grave mistake, no less significant than the Obama administration's misguided decision to withdraw troops from Iraq.
Critics argue that Russia, Iran, the Assad regime and Daesh will fill the power vacuum that Washington will leave behind. At the same time, it remains unclear when, how and where the troop withdrawal will begin. Likewise, we do not know who will guard 28 percent of Syrian territories and what will happen to the PKK-affiliated People's Protection Units (YPG).
Nor could anyone reasonably ignore the possibility that the U.S. will abort the troop withdrawal. The establishment could put up a fight and prevent the administration from implementing its new policy. For example, the Pentagon could find a hundred ways to water down President Trump's new plan and any future Daesh attack would encourage such resistance. Another possibility would involve the White House bowing to mounting public pressure and seek a compromise. It should go without saying that the Syria policy the current administration inherited from President Barack Obama is unsustainable. As a matter of fact, President Trump had raised the withdrawal from Syria, a key campaign promise, as early as April. At the time, however, he identified a political solution and Iran's containment, along with the defeat of Daesh, as preconditions of troop withdrawal. Finally, Washington's continued support for the terrorist YPG was threatening to inflict irreparable damage to Turkey-U.S. relations.
Last week's phone call between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Trump took place against that backdrop and resulted in Washington's withdrawal from the conflict zone. Turkey's determination to address the PKK/YPG threat next door compels the U.S. to close the Syria file. One thing is increasingly clear: Washington's current military footprint in Syria is not enough to accomplish its self-described mission. President Trump had to choose between a surge and withdrawal. He opted for the latter because his administration does not want the U.S. to be the region's policeman. It remains to be seen how that decision will be implemented.
The pending withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Syria within the next 60 to 100 days will create a new balance of power. This is much bigger than U.S. troops leaving the conflict zone. The withdrawal is so significant that it will affect Washington's broader presence in the Middle East and its dealings with regional allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. A quick withdrawal will clearly play into the hands of Russia, which the administration considers a rival, and make it more difficult to contain Iran, which it sees as an enemy; hence the Washington establishment's complaints about the resurgence of Daesh. Critics argue that withdrawing troops from Syria will exclude the U.S. from the negotiation table and ultimately undermine Washington's regional influence.
President Trump's view that Washington's Syria policy is unsustainable reflects an accurate analysis of the facts. He is right about the perils of a speedy withdrawal, such as strategic losses and a power vacuum. By working more closely with Turkey, however, the U.S. can fill the vacuum that its withdrawal will generate. That's why the Trump administration should accept President Erdoğan's recommendations. He must instruct his administration's policymakers to prepare a comprehensive road map with Turkey, which could facilitate the representation of Sunni Arabs in post-conflict Syria and keep Daesh down permanently.
At the same time, Turkey and the U.S. could transform the Syrian territories under YPG control to gradually eliminate the PKK's Syrian affiliate. Empowering non-PKK Kurds and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) could be part of that arrangement and facilitate the participation of moderate opposition and Syrian Kurds in the political transition process.
If Trump really wants to leave Syria, his administration's only choice is to coordinate its actions in the country with Turkey.