The Syrian civil war has been the main point of contention in Turkey’s relations with the United States ever since the Obama administration officially outsourced much of the fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in 2015.
The way Obama chose to deal with the ISIL threat in Syria was a source of concern for Turkey for three reasons.
First, the YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terror group which has waged a bloody war in Turkey since the 1980s that has left at least 40,000 dead. By training and arming a group that poses a direct threat to Turkey, Washington conveyed the message that it did not care about a NATO ally’s security concerns.
Second, by backing a terror group like the YPG, the US unwittingly blurred the line between legitimate players, such as the moderate Free Syrian Army, and unlawful combatants in the region.
Finally, the US plan was strategically misguided. At no point could Washington be certain of the YPG’s loyalty, as the group openly subscribes to a far-left, socialist ideology.
This is why President Donald Trump‘s recent decision to withdraw American troops from Syria and end his country’s partnership with the YPG was a welcome development for Turkey.
However, some critics unjustly accused the Trump administration of making a grave mistake and reversing America’s gains in the Syrian theatre.
Three common misconceptions
Most criticism of Trump’s decision to leave Syria rests on three common misconceptions.
First, the false assumption that the YPG has always been the default power-holder in northeastern Syria. In truth, the group seized power by force in the early stages of the Syrian civil war and, thanks to Washington’s extraordinary military support, came to control large chunks of territory.
Second, the mistaken belief that Turkey intends to “slaughter the Kurds” after the US withdrawal. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, many Syrian Kurds view Turkey as a safe haven, where they can be protected from hostile groups active in their country. Turkey welcomed tens of thousands of Kurds, Christians and Yazidis as refugees when ISIL came for them in Syria and Iraq. Today, many of these refugees are still reluctant to return to their villages – at least to the ones that have not been razed already – because they are afraid YPG forces could target them.
Third, many critics of Trump’s plan to withdraw from Syria and hand over the responsibility of preventing ISIL’s resurgence in the region to Turkey mistakenly portray Ankara as “an aggressor”. Quite the contrary, the Turkish plan makes a clear distinction between terrorists, moderate fighters who joined the PKK’s Syrian affiliate under wartime conditions, and local residents.Our only objective in Syria is to address the root causes of radicalisation to deny ISIL an opportunity to regroup, to build the physical and social infrastructure to heal the wounds of war, and, by extension, prevent attacks against Turkish citizens.
Defending past mistakes, not US interests
Beyond these three misconceptions, some former US officials – including the former US envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, Brett McGurk – publicly criticised the Trump administration’s Syria policy not to defend US interests, but their misguided past actions and decisions.
McGurk, who left his post earlier than expected to protest against Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, recently made the case that only the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces “provide stability in the areas that once made up the Islamic State in northeast Syria.” However, the most recent developments in the region proved that the YPG has not been able to thwart the ISIL threat there, despite receiving billions of US taxpayer dollars in assistance.
Last week, four American citizens – two soldiers, one Pentagon civilian and one contractor – perished in a suicide attack claimed by ISIL in Manbij, the northern Syrian town the YPG has refused to vacate despite repeated commitments by US officials, including McGurk.
On Monday, US servicemen narrowly escaped a car bomb in the Hasakah province, a stronghold of the YPG. The sudden increase in the number of attacks on US troops suggests that the YPG is either unable or unwilling to stop ISIL’s operations in northeastern Syria.
There are some steps that the US can take to alleviate the situation in Syria. It must work with Turkey to implement the Manbij roadmap without further delay, coordinate with the Turkish military leadership the imminent withdrawal of US forces, and support Turkey’s efforts to re-stabilise and rebuild terror-stricken areas.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.