U.S. President Donald Trump's surprise decision to withdraw from Syria created a new balance of power in the conflict zone. Going forward, all Syria-related business will be conducted in light of that development. At the same time, the U.S. withdrawal gave rise to a range of questions that need answering – including who will fill the power vacuum when American troops return home. Various stakeholders answer that question in different ways.
The so-called Obama leftovers in the U.S. government, who facilitated Washington's controversial partnership with the PKK terrorist organization and its Syrian affiliate, the People's Protection Units (YPG), are opposed to the withdrawal. They have been trying to persuade President Trump to maintain the U.S. footprint in Syria by sabotaging the process. In their view, the PKK/YPG must be trusted to secure the Syrian lands that the U.S. will vacate – if necessary, with help from the Bashar Assad regime. Yet they refuse to explain whether the regime attaining more control over northern Syria will translate into growing regional clout for Iran.
To be clear, the Iranians fully agree with the Obama leftovers. Having kept quiet until now, Tehran believes that the regime must take over all area formerly under U.S. control. That solution, Iran maintains, could strengthen its own influence over Syria. Others note that the issue came up in Trump's July 2018 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where the U.S. president told his counterpart that he was prepared to pullout of Syria if the Iranian influence could be curbed. It isn't difficult to guess how the Russians responded to Trump's proposal.
Judging by the most recent statements by Moscow, the Kremlin, too, wants the regime to be in charge of the areas that the U.S. intends to vacate. Yet Russia's ultimate decision will be determined by Putin's upcoming meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Hence the Russian Foreign Ministry's statement urging respect for the interests of all parties, including Turkey.
Trump, in turn, hopes to accomplish two goals. First, he wants U.S. troops to come home. Trump thinks that Washington wasted a lot of money in Syria and spent taxpayer dollars unnecessarily. That's a point that he has repeatedly made over the years. Moreover, the U.S. president wants to ensure that he doesn't leave behind any remnants of terrorist organizations operating in Syria. Trump cares about finishing off Daesh in the conflict zone and wants to work with the Turks to accomplish that mission. After all, Turkey's growing presence in the area could stop Iranian expansionism. At the same time, the Turks did not just fight terrorists in liberated areas, such as Jarablus and Afrin, but also provided education, health care and social amenities to the local population.
What does Turkey want? Ankara has a comprehensive plan: it wants to drive out all terrorist groups, including Daesh and the PKK/YPG, from the Syrian lands that the U.S. intends to leave, and put local forces in charge after the military operation. The proposed "stabilization force," Turkey says, will include members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as well as Arab fighters currently fighting in the ranks of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and young volunteers who have been forcibly recruited into the PKK's Syrian affiliate yet do not have links to terrorism. In other words, the Turks want all towns and cities to be governed by their own residents – a plan they hope to implement in cooperation with the United States and Russia.
The Turkish plan's success is key to rescuing innocent people from the yoke of terrorist groups and facilitating the voluntary and permanent return of millions of Syrian refugees, who currently live in Turkey and other neighboring countries, to their homes.