US withdrawal from Syria: What next?

US withdrawal from Syria: What next?

Changes in US foreign policy in the Middle East took another turn when President Donald Trump announced that US troops were to withdraw from Syria. In the following days, Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring to fight YPG and ISIS in the region. As the most reliable ally to the US in the fight against ISIS, the YPG is feeling betrayed and abandoned. 

On October 7, The White House announced US troops are withdrawing from Syria and other conflict zones, where there are no national interests anymore. US President Donald Trump tweeted that the US troops “defeated 100% of the ISIS Caliphate” and now it is time for Turkey, Russia, Iran, Iraq, and the Kurds to “figure the situation out”.

However, the Pentagon disagrees with the President’s decision. Chief Pentagon spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, argues the best path towards stability in the region is establishing a safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. This has been Turkey’s goal for a while too. Ankara considers the safe area as space where refugees can return. It further finds it a buffer zone for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), US-allies that helped eliminate ISIS in the area, pushing them away from the Turkish border. Turkey considers YPG the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the US. In January 2019, several high-level Turkish officials mentioned their intentions of wiping out YPG and the continuous pressure for Turkish control of the safe zone.

Responses following US withdrawal

Trump’s decision faced backlash from both Washington and US-allied Kurdish fighters, who think the US is abandoning them in northern Syria. Several allies of the President were also outraged by the decision pointing out that leaving the Syrian Kurds will have tremendous consequences for US national security interests. A general from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is a YPG dominated militia, also mentioned the potential threat of Turks targeting Kurds in the area, committing heinous acts such as ethnic cleansing. The SDF also said the US move is “a stab in the back.”

Responding to the remarks, President claimed if Turkey did anything “off-limits,” the US will take economic action, presumably through sanctions as done before, against them. He also mentioned that if a viable security threat from ISIS re-emerges in the area, the US “can always go back” and tackle them. Turkey, however, continues its operations in northern Syria. As of 8 October, Turkey’s National Defence Ministry made a statement that a recent Euphrates Shield operation was successful in capturing Dabiq in northern Syria, which holds symbolic value to ISIS. Turkish Armed Forces began military incursion into Syria – Operation Peace Spring, alongside the Syrian National Army. President Erdogan said the operation was “against PKK/YPG and Daesh terrorists in northern Syria”, and mentioned it would pave the way to establish a secure zone for Syrians to return to their homes. 

Operation Peace Spring: Responses and reasons 

Turkey’s Peace Spring Operation is condemned by the EU and several regional powers such as Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The EU previously mentioned that the so-called safe zone would not be a solution because the area would not be safe for refugees to return. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is ready to support Kurds with humanitarian aid, warning about “ethnic cleansing” while Iran suggested “an immediate halt to the assault.” Responding to the condemnations, President Erdogan threatened the EU with ‘opening the gates’ and sending 3.6 million refugees to Europe. The Foreign Minister of Turkey rebuked the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for criticising Turkey’s operation while they were causing a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. 

In the third day of the operation, October 11, National Defence Ministry of Turkey mentioned that 342 Kurdish fighters had been neutralised. It was also reported that almost 70,000 civilians were being displaced from northeast Syria due to the heavy fighting. SDF announced two towns, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, were hit by fighter jets and SDF spokesman warned Turkey with a possibility of “total war on the entire border to protect ourselves and our people.” One of Turkey’s aim – relocating 2 million Syrian refugees to the territory along the border – will also change the demographics in the area since many Kurdish civilians have fled their respective areas as soon as Turkish forces invaded. 

Both public opinion and opposition in Turkey seem to be in favour of the operation, except the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), where officials have clearly expressed their disapproval. Therefore, the operation also has implications for domestic Turkish politics.


Turkey’s military operation will most likely cause more negative consequences about its foreign policy, and tensions will undoubtedly escalate as long as the action continues. Ankara is concerned about the negative international opinion and has tried to justify the operation by mentioning border security as well as the battle against terrorism, about the Kurdish-led forces. Undoubtedly, US’ abandonment of northern Syria will affect its Kurdish allies, YPG and SDF, not to mention the Kurdish population in the area and other ethnic minority groups residing there, such as the Assyrians, Armenians, Yazidi Kurds, and Christians.

As the White House indicated the agreement, Turkey now has to deal with the ISIS prisoners that were captured over the past two years. This is a crucial issue as there have been no clear statements from Turkey on how they can overcome this responsibility. SDF forces protect the facilities where ISIS detainees are currently being held. Hence, it creates another major problem when SDF fighters are being relocated to the front lines to fight with the Turkish military as it might lead to mass prison breaks and the resurrection of ISIS. If a possible ISIS threat does strike again, the US might fail to find a strong ally such as YPG.

US withdrawal and Turkey’s operation in northern Syria are likely to change the existing alliances in the area, especially Kurdish-led forces which are expected to seek another ally after the US’ abandonment. As their actions in the region harshly criticise both Turkey and US, the risks and shifts of partnerships would probably further complicate the situation in northeast Syria, and the humanitarian consequences might be more severe than expected.

About Author

Zeynep Yalciner

Zeynep is a graduate from the MA Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London. She also holds a BA in Political Science and International Relations at Yeditepe University. She previously worked as an intern at Bahçeşehir University and International Crisis Group. Her research interests include migration and security, displacement, and gender analysis. She currently resides in Athens, Greece working in Action for Education’s Halycon Days Project.