Former US Envoy to the Global Coalition against Daesh, Brett McGurk wrote a lengthy article for the US magazine "Foreign Affairs", in which he spoke about the past four years of his work as special envoy to US Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the war against Daesh and the relationship with Turkey.
In Syria, SDF have eliminated Daesh in the northeast of the country.
In short, McGurk draws attention to the fact that the American campaign against Daesh in is not - and never was - an "endless war" .
Some US officials, especially Pentagon officials, focused on completing the original mission: the permanent defeat of Daesh. In Syria, this meant destroying Daesh and staying for a while to help SDF secure its territory and prevent Dash's return.
No one in the US government has seriously discussed the near-term withdrawal, let alone the idea that Washington can simply declare victory over Daesh and then leave Syria.
"This announcement left the campaign in a state of chaos," McGurk said. US officials, including the author, rushed to explain the sudden change of course to our partners. After four years of helping the coalition leadership, I found it impossible to implement my new instructions effectively, and on December 22, I resigned.
A major priority for American diplomats was to reach a settlement with the only other great power in Syria, Russia, about the ultimate disposition of territory in the U.S. zone of influence. Washington had been holding bilateral talks with Moscow on Syria since the beginning of Russia’s military intervention, in 2015. Initially, the goal was to prevent accidental clashes between U.S. and Russian forces. Over time, these talks became a forum for Washington to draw clear boundaries delineating areas that would be off-limits to Russian and Syrian forces and to militias backed by Iran. This worked because the United States was willing and able to enforce these boundaries: In May 2017, American jets bombed Iranian-backed militias as they approached a U.S. position near al-Tanf; the following month, U.S. jets shot down a Syrian fighter jet as it crossed into the northeastern zone near a U.S. position. And in February 2018, U.S. forces destroyed a group of Russian mercenaries who were attempting to capture an oil field held by SDF and American troops.
By the fall of 2018, the United States was preparing for intensive negotiations with Russia along two sequential tracks. On the first track, Washington would try to encourage the Russians to compel the Syrian regime to cooperate in the UN-backed peace talks known as “the Geneva process.” This process had been in place since 2012, and I had grown skeptical that it would produce results. But for the first time in years, a number of favorable developments—the reduction in violence throughout Syria, the United States’ presence on the ground, and the strengthening of the U.S.-Russian diplomatic channel—had combined to give the process a chance for at least some success.
If the Geneva process did not produce a breakthrough, U.S. diplomats had prepared a second track for negotiating directly with the Russians to broker a deal between the SDF and the Syrian regime. This deal would have provided for the partial return of Syrian state services, such as schools and hospitals, to SDF-controlled areas—an inevitability, unless the United States and its allies were willing to midwife a ministate in northeastern Syria—while granting basic political rights to the region’s population. U.S. officials referred to this outcome as “the return of the state, not the return of the regime.” Any deal would have also allowed the United States access to airspace and small military facilities in this area in order to maintain pressure on ISIS and prevent the group’s resurgence.
The U.S. presence in Syria was also critical for managing relations with Turkey, which had been a problematic partner from the outset of the anti-ISIS campaign. In 2014 and 2015, Obama repeatedly asked Erdogan to control the Turkish border with Syria, through which ISIS fighters and materiel flowed freely. Erdogan took no action. In late 2014, Turkey opposed the anti-ISIS coalition’s effort to save the predominantly Kurdish city of Kobani, in northern Syria, from a massive ISIS assault that threatened to end in a civilian massacre. Six months later, Turkey refused coalition requests to close border crossings in towns that had become logistical hubs for ISIS, such as Tal Abyad—even after U.S. diplomats had told the Turks that if they did not control their border, defeating ISIS would be impossible.
Faced with Turkey’s intransigence, the United States began to partner more closely with the Syrian Kurdish fighters, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), who had defended Kobani. The YPG struck the first blow against ISIS in Syria, and it soon proved adept at recruiting tens of thousands of Arabs into what would later become the SDF.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces, however, removes this deterrent. There is now a risk that Turkey could launch an incursion into northeastern Syria similar to the one it carried out in January 2018 in Afrin, a Kurdish district in northwestern Syria not protected by U.S. troops. There, the Turkish military, working with its Islamist allies in the Syrian opposition, attacked YPG, displaced over 150,000 Kurds (nearly half of Afrin’s population), and repopulated the province with Arabs and Turkmen from elsewhere in Syria. This operation was not a response to any genuine threat but a product of Erdogan’s ambition to extend Turkey’s borders, which he feels were unfairly drawn by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. I have sat in meetings with Erdogan and heard him describe the nearly 400 miles between Aleppo and Mosul as a “Turkish security zone,” and his actions have backed up his words. In 2016, Turkey deployed its military forces north of Mosul without the permission of the Iraqi government or anyone else; further deployments were blocked only by the presence of U.S. marines. Erdogan would now like to repeat his Afrin operation in the northeast. This would involve sending Turkish forces 20 miles into Syria, removing the YPG (and much of the Kurdish civilian population), and establishing a so-called safe zone.
The U.S. military presence bought time for U.S. diplomats to secure a long-term arrangement that might reasonably satisfy Turkey while deterring Erdogan’s grand ambitions and protecting the SDF and its Kurdish fighters. Withdrawing before such an arrangement is in place risks a catastrophe—a Turkish invasion that would lead to massive civilian displacement, fracture the SDF, and create a vacuum in which extremist groups such as ISIS would thrive.
The U.S. deployment in Syria made it possible for the United States to stand toe to toe with Russia, contain Iran, restrain Turkey, hold the Arab states in line, and, most important, prevent a resurgence of ISIS. Trump’s initial order to fully withdraw U.S. troops forfeited all those advantages.
The best thing that Trump could do would be to reverse his withdrawal order. But if he does not, the United States cannot pretend that by leaving a handful of troops in Syria, it can avoid the need to rethink its strategy.
Turkey wants U.S. support for its project to extend its territory 20 miles into northeastern Syria, even as it refuses to do anything about al Qaeda’s entrenchment in northwestern Syria. Washington should have no part of this cynical agenda. It should make clear to Ankara that a Turkish attack on the SDF—even after the U.S. withdrawal—will carry serious consequences for the U.S.-Turkish relationship.
BACK TO REALITY
As the United States leaves, the SDF will need a new benefactor that can help it maintain its ability to hold northeastern Syria and protect it from Iran and Turkey. Unfortunately, the only viable candidate for this role is Russia.
US policymakers will have to accept that US influence in Syria is on the decline and reconsider their goals accordingly.
The best way to salvage the situation is for U.S. leaders to realign their ends, ways, and means with a focus on what really matters to Washington—preventing Syria from becoming a staging ground for attacks against the United States or its allies. This is an important and achievable goal. The main obstacle to its realization is denial.