Potential for regional upheaval, human rights abuses could increase, say some experts, while others disagree
President Donald Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of northeastern Syria has left domestic and international allies reeling over the possible consequences.
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers – including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), a staunch defender of President Trump – have criticized the action, which has left the Kurds, a key ally of America in the fight against Islamic State, in a precarious position.
Meanwhile leaders around the world, including Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, are questioning whether they can continue to count on the United States.
In a tweet announcing his decision, President Trump wrote: “The Kurds fought with us but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so. They have been fighting Turkey for decades. I held off this fight for… almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT.”
Former US defense secretary James Mattis resigned last December after reports surfaced that the president was considering a withdrawal of troops from Syria. Mattis expressed concern about what this would mean for the Kurds and the battle against ISIS.
Diliman Abdulkader, a Middle East analyst and director of external relations at Allegiance Strategies, a Washington-based lobbying group, told The Media Line that the US withdrawal was “a clear abandonment of the Kurds – there’s no other way to look at it.”
The US joined forces with Syrian Kurdish fighters four years ago when ISIS controlled a sizable portion of Syria, the effort leading to the collapse of its so-called caliphate. Now President Trump has said that Turkey – an avowed enemy of the Kurds that has long oppressed and sought to kill them – will be in charge of dealing with the ISIS threat, a move the Kurds strongly oppose.
Abdulkader said the threat to the Kurds was far greater as a result of the US troop withdrawal.
“The human rights ramifications are endless,” he said. “To this day, the Kurds have not recovered from [the 2018] Turkish invasion of Afrin, Syria… a predominantly Kurdish city. Turkey’s clear intent is to wipe the Kurds out and commit ethnic cleaning.”
Thomas McGee, a scholar in Kurdish studies at the University of Melbourne in Australia, told The Media Line that the situation created by the lack of a US presence in northeastern Syria could be “disastrous.”
“There are direct humanitarian consequences for the approximately 2 million civilians living in the affected area of northeast Syria,” McGee said, adding that the US troop withdrawal could “trigger a huge displacement in a region already struggling with the humanitarian consequences of a protracted civil war.”
McGee added that “this decision sends a clear message to those across the Middle East – that people in the region are merely considered for their instrumental value in policy implementation and neither they nor their human rights are ultimately respected.“
Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University in the US, told The Media Line that the presence of Turkish troops in Syria could have long-term consequences.
“Turkey may never leave Syria,” Landis said. “[Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has expressed ambitions to take and keep large chunks of Syrian territory for Turkey.”
Landis added that “the northeast is a very rich part of Syria, both agriculturally and for its water resources. There is a lot of oil as well, closer to the Euphrates River basin, should the Turks penetrate that far.”
Lawk Ghafuri, a journalist from the Kurdistan region, told The Media Line that the US withdrawal “will create more instability in the Middle East.”
“The US troop withdrawal from Syria will turn the Middle East into a chaotic region,” Ghafuri said. “Clashes between Turks and [the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces] mean less attention to the fight against ISIS, and that will definitely allow ISIS sleeper cells in Syria to unite again and empower themselves.”
But some experts support President Trump’s decision.
Turkish-based political analyst Dr. Ali Bakeer of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut told The Media Line he believes there will be no increase in human rights abuses as a result of the US withdrawal.
“Turkey and its Syrian allies in the national army are very sensitive to the human issue. They don’t want collateral damage or civilian casualties,” he said, noting that the US stood by while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad perpetrated human rights atrocities against his own people.
“The US has abandoned the Syrian people during the last eight years to Assad’s chemical weapons and barrel bombs, to Iranian aggression and Russian assault. Now is the time to fix the situation by working closely with Turkey,” he said.
Maram Susli, a Damascus-born activist and political commentator who now lives in Australia, told The Media Line: “The [US’s] illegal occupation has prevented Syria and its people from having access to the country’s oil and water resources, and has slowed the rebuilding process.”
Susli said President Trump’s conduct of foreign policy has hurt Washington’s standing overseas.
“The US has already lost all credibility in front of its allies because of the way it has been treating its NATO ally Turkey,” she explained. “The US has betrayed Turkey by supporting what Trump recently admitted was the Kurdish PKK terrorist organization inside Turkey.”
Ofer Zalzberg, an Israel-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, told The Media Line that Trump’s decision has sparked debate in Israel on how much it can count on US support.
“The sense is that Israel can continue to rely on the Trump Administration on Palestinian-related issues, primarily the ones that are significant for Christian Evangelical voters and Trump’s advisers who are committed ideologically to the State of Israel,” he explained. “But when it comes to regional questions about Iran and Syria in particular, there is a growing sense that the divergence of interests between the White House and the prime minister’s office is big and that Israel needs to rely mostly on itself.”
He added that Netanyahu’s reluctance to publicly condemn President Trump “shows the limits” imposed by the close relationship between Israel and the US.
“It’s noteworthy that Prime Minister Netanyahu is not criticizing President Trump’s decision, even though he clearly opposes it,” Zalzberg stated. “That tells us quite a bit about the limits to which Israeli decision-makers can publicly challenge US policies that they view as risky from an Israeli-interest point of view.”