Last weekend, President Trump announced that he would retract one thousand troops from north-eastern Syria, where the U.S. military fought ISIL with the Kurdish-run Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for five years. The retraction welcomes Ankara’s long-planned offensive to set up a thirty-two-kilometre “safe-zone” past Turkey’s shared border with north-eastern Syria, a region with Kurdish, Syrian and Turkish territorial claims. Airstrikes by Turkey have killed several civilians and caused around 100 000 people in the region to flee their homes. Allegedly, one thousand ISIL supporters have escaped from prisons in the proposed “safe zone” since Washington retracted its forces.
In a press conference on 16 October, Trump explained that removing the forces from Syria is part of his plan to bring troops home and to stop the U.S. from fighting “endless wars”. Trump remarked that “they (Assad, the Kurds and Turkey) will work it out”, and if this fails, he would “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey”, as said in his tweet on Monday. Former Presidential Envoy and foreign affairs analyst Brett McGurk critiqued Trump for his “impulsive decisions” that put at risk the minorities living within the “safe zone”. Similarly, SDF spokesman, Mustafa Bali, says that Trump’s decision has allowed the region to “turn into a war zone”. Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, justified the “safe-zone” by saying that it “ensure(s) survivability and security of Turkey by clearing the region from terrorists”, referring to the militant group, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who wish to establish Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.
Trump repeatedly contradicted himself in the press conference, which reflects the impulsive and superficial nature of his decision. At first, Trump said that the retraction of soldiers exemplifies his stand against the military-industrial complex (MIC), which refers to the reliance of decision-makers and the economy on the defence industry. However, immediately after, Trump bragged about how he has increased the defence budget and left the U.S. military more weaponised than ever, which inevitably deepens the MIC. Trump barely addressed the question of whether Erdoğan can maintain the prisons that hold around 12 000 ISIL fighters in the “safe zone”, with growing U.S. and E.U. sanctions and tariffs on Turkey. The release of ISIL fighters could lead to a resurgence of the organization, which has implications not only regionally but also internationally. As Turkey has the second-largest military in NATO, Trump’s withdrawal forces the SDF to seek support from Assad and Russia, which leaves the U.S. with even fewer close allies in the Middle East. One commentator suggested that the retraction may be an effort to distract from Trump’s impeachment enquiry.
Turkey’s invasion of Syria is inconsistent with international law, breaching article 2 paragraph four of the United Nations Charter, which condemns the use of force for territorial expansion. Past “safe zone” operations like in Srebrenica illustrate how the term is used to ignore this law, with devastating humanitarian consequences. Considering that last year Turkey captured Afrin, a city in north-eastern Syria, Erdoğan’s use of the term “safe zone” is undoubtedly to defend Ankara’s intentions of territorial conquest. Protection of the region is essential to the ethnically and linguistically distinct Kurdish population, who became stateless after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. On Thursday, Erdoğan promised Vice President Mike Pence that he would pause military operations for five days, although this understanding was broken on Friday by the Turkish military and supporting forces. Trump seemed confident in the press conference that he could negotiate with Erdoğan, but clearly, he has underestimated Erdoğan’s will for territorial expansion.
The SDF has said they will not retreat, and Turkey is ready for combat. If the U.S. remained in Syria, Turkey would be forced to negotiate because of the U.S.’s superior military strength. Trump’s erratic behaviour has severe consequences for both the SDF and the War on Terror. Trump is not creating a non-combative solution but is abandoning a conflict without offering or pushing for a tangible peace-building solution.