The departure of 2,000 US troops from Syria, where the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have acted as the United States’ boots on the ground in the war on Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), will give Ankara greater scope to drive the Kurdish fighters away from its border.
Two days before the statement, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his US counterpart had responded positively to a his plan to invade the area of northeast Syria controlled by the SDF.
“There is little doubt that [Erdogan] welcomes it as a major diplomatic gain which clears the way for a third Turkish military advance into northern Syria,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Turkey Project in Washington.
The SDF is largely comprised of troops from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which are tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has waged a bloody uprising against Turkey since 1984 that has left at least 40,000 dead.
US support for the YPG, which it has trained and armed, has been one of the central disputes in Ankara-Washington relations for the last few years.
The YPG controls a swath of territory in northeast Syria from the eastern bank of the River Euphrates to the Iraqi border, including a more than 400km border with Turkey. It has an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 fighters in the region.
Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, said the announcement was being portrayed as a diplomatic triumph for Turkey.
“There’s a narrative that Erdogan convinced Trump to withdraw from Syria,” he said.
“I don’t know to what extent that’s correct but it’s been received very positively in Turkey, especially from the perspective of the YPG angle because it weakens them politically, diplomatically and militarily.”
Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat, said there was a “strong likelihood” of a Turkish operation but the scale remains unclear for now.
“It could be a small operation to establish a buffer zone a few kilometres from the border or it could be a larger operation to eliminate the YPG in the whole region,” he said.
In the past, Turkish ambitions to target the YPG, which Ankara views as a primary security threat, have been stymied by the presence of US soldiers, who were deployed in 2015.
However, over the last two years, Turkey has launched two military operations west of the Euphrates, the most recent earlier this year when Turkish forces and allied militias drove the YPG from Afrin, a Kurdish enclave in the northwest.
To date, Turkish troops have not launched any substantial operations east of the river.
Last week, Erdogan declared that Turkey would attack the region within days.
“We will start the operation to clear the east of the Euphrates from separatist terrorists in a few days,” he said at a defence industry event in Ankara, adding: “Now, it’s time to realise our decision to disperse the circles of terror east of the Euphrates. The fact that we have deep differences in perception with the United States is no secret.”
Erdogan described the continued threat from ISIL in Syria as a “fairy tale”.
At the time the Pentagon said any unilateral military operation in the area, known as Rojava, would be “unacceptable” and has repeatedly voiced concerns that Turkish attacks on the Kurds would distract from efforts to wipe out ISIL.
When Turkey invaded Afrin, there was an “operational pause” against ISIL in eastern Syria and last month Turkish cross-border shelling led to another temporary halt. The US has since established observation posts along the frontier to prevent skirmishes.
“Erdogan seems intent on carrying out a similar operation, once again utilising members of the opposition in the Free Syrian Army loyal to Ankara along with the Turkish army,” Aliriza said.
“While the scope and depth of the operation will be seen only after it is launched, it will undoubtedly expand the area of direct Turkish influence while pushing the YPG away from the border and weakening its capabilities.”
The withdrawal announcement contradicts recent comments by US officials including Brett McGurk, special envoy to the anti-ISIL coalition, and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both indicated earlier this month that US troops would remain for the foreseeable future.
According to Ulgen, the US departure could see the YPG ally itself to Bashar al-Assad’s government, with which the Kurds have not engaged in serious confrontation during the seven-year war.
“The more interesting or critical scenario is whether this decision accelerates a rapprochement between the YPG and Damascus,” he said.
“That’s something to watch and the result will be mostly conditional on any change in the relationship between the YPG and the regime. The YPG will be devoid of the US umbrella and may want to find a different patron.”
In another apparent switch in the mood between the US and Turkey, hours before the announcement the State Department said it had approved the sale of Patriot missiles to Turkey, calling into question Ankara’s earlier plan to buy a Russian air defence system.
It was unclear if there was any connection between the two statements.
While the timescale of the US withdrawal is unclear – it has been reported troops could leave within 60 or 100 days – important local elections are due to be held in Turkey at the end of March and a successful incursion into Syria would play well with voters.
“If the US withdrawal happens in 60 days it leaves a window of opportunity before the local elections,” Ulgen said. There’s reason to think the operation could also be linked to Turkey’s domestic politics.”