Syria: The Kurdish Conundrum Complicates a U.S. Withdrawal Plan

3 MINS READJan 8, 2019 | 21:33 GMT
The Big Picture

Syria in 2019 remains a space for competing powers like Russia, the United States, Israel, Iran and Turkey to battle for influence. Both Turkey and the United States oppose the government of Bashar al Assad, but they disagree over where to direct their attention. The United States is prioritizing the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, while Turkey, concerned about its own domestic security, is focused on combating the mostly Kurdish YPG.

What Happened

U.S. President Donald Trump stated Jan. 7 that his initial plan to withdraw military forces from Syria has not changed, despite comments from national security adviser John Bolton, who stated that U.S. forces would need to meet certain conditions, including ensuring the safety of Syrian Kurdish fighters in the People's Protection Units (YPG), before a withdrawal could occur. In his latest statement, Trump did stress that the U.S. withdrawal would need to proceed prudently to guarantee the continued fight against the Islamic State.

On Jan. 8, Bolton concluded a visit to Turkey, which included a lengthy meeting with Turkish presidential adviser Ibrahim Kalin, alongside U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford and U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly turned down a meeting request from Bolton before telling the country's parliament on Jan. 8 that the senior White House official's comments on the YPG were "unacceptable."

Some Background

Even though Turkey and the United States are both hostile to Bashar al Assad's government, they are hitting familiar stumbling blocks in their negotiations over how to manage the next phase of the Syrian conflict — especially when it comes to the future of the YPG, the United States' close partner in the battle against the Islamic State.

Washington's objectives in Syria have shifted since the start of the conflict but are now primarily centered on fighting the Islamic State and impeding Iranian proxies. Trump's withdrawal announcement immediately prompted concern among U.S. allies and officials within the current U.S. administration about how to best continue military efforts against the militant group.

Turkey's primary goal, meanwhile, is to ensure its own domestic security by preventing the YPG, which Ankara views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) — an insurgent group that it recognizes as a terrorist group — from emerging as a major power in Syria.

What Next?

While the United States and Turkey are probing how to cooperate in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria in some form, the ongoing U.S. attempts to protect its Kurdish allies will hamper more integrated collaboration.

Despite Bolton's statement, the U.S. government seems intent on fully withdrawing troops from Syria, as Trump said in his surprise December 2018 announcement. But the date of the departure remains unknown. The United States is currently trying to establish a better negotiating position with local actors on the ground, as all involved governments and organizations re-evaluate their roles in the Syrian conflict.

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