U.S. pulls support for Syrian Kurds: What happens next?

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What’s happening:

On Wednesday, Turkey announced it had begun a military operation into parts of northeastern Syria currently held by the Kurds. The move came a few days after President Trump announced that American troops in the area would be withdrawn to allow the Turkish incursion to move forward. American soldiers had been in the region to support Kurdish forces, who have been a key ally in the fight against Islamic State militants in Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees the Kurds as a threat and has sought to push them back from his country’s southeastern border. He also wants to resettle millions of refugees who crossed into Turkey during Syria’s brutal civil war. The presence of American soldiers had been a factor in maintaining a tenuous peace in the area among the Kurds, Turkey and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Trump’s abrupt decision was met with intense pushback, even from members of his own party. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Trump had “shamelessly abandoned” a key partner in the war on terror. Trump’s former envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS Brett McGurk said the move was a sign that the president is “not a Commander-in-Chief.”

Why there’s debate:

The withdrawal of U.S. troops raised a number of serious concerns among experts of the Syrian conflict. Chief among them is the threat that the Kurds, a critical ally in the fight against terror, might be slaughtered as Turkey’s formidable army moves through their territory. Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, said the U.S. was “leaving them to die.” Others fear that the Kurds may be forced to align themselves with forces working counter to American interests — such as Russia, Iran or the Assad regime — to avoid this fate.

There is also major concern that the move might lead to a resurgence of ISIS. With Kurdish forces preoccupied by potential conflict with Turkey, some experts worry that nascent Islamic State groups that had been beaten back after years of fighting could regain a foothold in territory they’ve lost in recent years. Others fear the humanitarian impact of resettling millions of refugees in an increasingly unstable area of Syria.

There are some — though they’re in the minority — who are in favor of the decision, even if they may disagree with how it was carried out. American soldiers were being put at risk to prop up an unsustainable détente, they argue, and any effort to draw down U.S. activities in the Middle East should be celebrated.

What’s next:

Turkey has faced diplomatic pressure on many fronts to halt its advance or at least avoid open conflict. Trump warned that he would “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if Erdogan’s forces did anything that he deemed to be “off limits,” though he didn’t specify what those limits might be. Officials from Russia, Iran and the European Union have also urged caution.

On Tuesday, ISIS reportedly carried out a series of suicide attacks in Raqqa, a city that once served as the group’s de facto capital in Syria. Whether these attacks were isolated incidents or a sign of an emergent Islamic State remains to be seen.


Trump’s decision undermines the entirety of the U.S. mission in the Middle East

“...the speed of his decision to withdraw US forces from northern Syria threatens to wreck almost every goal the US has in the Middle East just now.” — Nick Paton Walsh, CNN

The departure of American forces creates a power vacuum that could lead to chaos

“If you leave … then we’re going to leave the vacuum for more sectarian conflict, for more instability, for a breeding ground for terrorism. It’s going to be ugly. It’s going to hit Israel the hardest for sure.” — Hagar Chemali, MSNBC

ISIS will reemerge without Kurdish forces to hold it back

“Among the camp detainees are hard-wired ideologues who would be central to an Isis resurgence if given the chance. The spectre of a jihadist juggernaut once again roaming the plains of Iraq and Syria after using captivity to regroup … now hangs heavy over a region still grappling with the seismic regional power shifts that have defined Trump’s three turbulent years in office.” — Martin Chulov, The Guardian

Resettling refugees in Turkey could create a humanitarian crisis

“Despite Turkey framing the move as an effort to mitigate a humanitarian crisis, Mr. Erdogan’s resettlement plan risks creating a far larger one. … These policies create suffering for the people being moved and even greater suffering for the people whose land others are being moved to.” — Ryan Gingeras and Nick Danforth, New York Times

Thousands of dangerous ISIS prisoners might be released from Kurdish prisons

“...because European nations did not want to take back Islamic State detainees — just as the United States did not — the president is risking the release of some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists.” — Max Boot, Washington Post

Concerns about slaughter will be proved to be an overreaction

“Whenever politicians in Washington tell you they know exactly what’s going to happen, be sure not to bet on it. But think more deeply about it for a second. Assad and ISIS and Iran, for that matter, are on different sides of the conflict. So how can an American withdrawal be a win for both sides? That actually doesn’t make any sense at all.” — Tucker Carlson, Fox News

The U.S. will avoid getting dragged into a regional conflict by removing troops

“Overall, occupying the Kurdish area in Syria endangers American security by entangling the United States in a war zone with multiple competing forces representing conflicting powers, all of which have more at stake and thus are prepared to incur greater risks and costs in pursuit of their objectives.” — Doug Bandow, National Interest

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images