Donald Trump became president amid speculation that he would shrink America’s world role, especially in terms of its overseas military commitments. His recent decision to endorse Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria should be seen as an attempt to further that goal. The withdrawal was an attempt to extricate the United States from the Syrian quagmire by promoting Turkey to the position of stabilizer-in-chief in the north of the country. But Trump is getting retrenchment all wrong in Syria. Passing the buck to Turkey is already proving to be enormously controversial in domestic politics and will almost certainly worsen America’s reputation abroad. For these reasons, it might even backfire and make sustained military retrenchment harder for the United States to achieve in the long run.
Northeastern Syria is a contested region that fell partly under the control of the Islamic State during the Syrian civil war. Now, that vast expanse of land east of the Euphrates is under the jurisdiction of a coalition of Kurdish groups and armed militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF were indispensable U.S. allies during the fight against the Islamic State. In fact, absent the Kurds’ heroic efforts on the frontlines, it is doubtful whether the Islamic State could have been destroyed as a territorial entity without a costly ground invasion by U.S. forces.
Turkey, however, accuses the SDF of being terrorists themselves—a claim based on the fact that some elements of the SDF coalition have ties with Kurdish groups operating inside Turkey, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This is a problem for Ankara because the PKK has waged an armed insurgency against it since the 1980s. For Turkey, it is imperative that Syria’s Kurds not be allowed to establish lasting control over the border regions between the two countries. To prevent such an outcome, Ankara has demanded that Turkey’s armed forces be allowed to occupy a buffer zone (or what Turkey calls a “safe zone”) inside Kurdish-controlled Syria.