On October 6th, President Trump ordered American troops to pull out of Syria beginning a chain reaction of events that has created yet another vacuum in the Middle East.
Immediately following this decision, the neighboring country of Turkey invaded Syria to essentially dispose of the Kurds, a Middle Eastern ethnic group, who were a part of the American led coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This coalition was made to combat the growth of ISIS in the region.
The Kurds and Turkey share a long and convoluted history together. Immediately following World War I, the Kurdish people desired a state to themselves. Soon after, a group known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) emerged desiring an autonomous state within Turkey. In 1980 the PKK conducted its first attack on Turkey by bombing the Turkish consulate in Strasbourg. Since then thousands have died in the conflict with over 4,000 deaths being recorded from 2015-2019 alone.
“In the 1980s, a violent conflict ensued between the Turkish state and the PKK, killing tens of thousands of people; the PKK still regularly attacks Turkish security forces,” a report by Politico states.
As a result, Turkey, the European Union, and the United States have all declared PKK a terrorist group. However, the PKK has been directly affiliated with a “non-terrorist group” the People’s Protection Units (YPG) an armed Kurdish force in Syria and huge asset to SDF the coalition that helps to fight ISIS in the region. Therefore, Turkey sees the YPG and by extension the SDF to be a threat to its own national security.
Without the American troops, the Kurds were left without backup, and the invasion of Syria by Turkey resulted in the deaths of 250 Kurds and displaced over 300,000 from the region according to Foreign Policy. On top of this, it essentially brought the Northeastern half of Syria into the fold of Turkey while removing the SDF from the area.
The turmoil did not end there as, according to The Guardian, after a meeting with the Russian president in mid-October, Turkey agreed to a ceasefire against Kurdish forces ending direct conflict in the region but giving Russia a firm grip on the Northern half of Syria. The deal reached essentially expels the Kurdish members of the SDF (which is the majority of SDF) from Northern Syria in favor of a joint Russian and Turkish patrol force to keep stability.
However, the expulsion of most of the SDF and the removal of US leadership in Syria has created serious doubts. In its quarterly report, the Pentagon warned that the events in Syria have helped to strengthen ISIS which had previously been losing power in the region.
“The DIA also reported that without counter-terrorism pressure, ISIS will probably be able to more freely build clandestine networks and will attempt to free ISIS members detained in [Syrian Democratic Forces]-run prisons and family members living in internally displaced persons … camps,” the Pentagon’s inspector general said.
While the death of ISIS’s previous leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was a huge success for the US and the world, experts in the region have all stated the unlikeliness of a sufficient effect on ISIS’s ability to regroup, especially in the presence of weak counterterror efforts in the region.
Looking forward, President Trump has changed direction, sending roughly 600 troops back into Syria, but this time on the eastern section, to protect oil fields and conduct counter-terrorism missions against ISIS according to Politico and The New York Times. The northern half of Syria remains firmly in the hands of Russia who, according to The New York Times, has declared themselves the peacemakers of the region and established vigorous patrols along the Turkey-Syria border. The future of Syria remains unclear as the country gets ready to enter almost its 9th full year of civil war with ISIS, the Americans, and the Russians, all vying for regional dominance.