snapshots

Syria: As the U.S. Withdraws, a Dangerous Race Begins

3 MINS READOct 14, 2019 | 17:20 GMT
The Big Picture

Syria remains a cauldron of conflict where great power interests collide, regional countries actively compete and extremist groups proliferate. What happens next in Syria will shape regional and global dynamics.

Northern Syria is rapidly unraveling now that the United States — the glue that ensured peace in the region — has decided to hurriedly withdraw. The mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its predecessors have controlled the area for years, but their lack of heavy equipment and air support have made them ill-equipped to resist Turkey's rapid offensive over the last week. Making quicker progress than expected, Turkey and its proxies have now decided to push toward cities in the west like Kobani and Manbij. Recognizing its desperate need for reinforcements, the SDF has now turned to the south, cutting a deal with Syrian President Bashar al Assad for the Syrian army's support. But as a vacuum opens in northern Syria, Ankara and Damascus may now be on a collision course as they race to grab territory.

Why It Matters

With the Turks and their proxies, as well as the Russian-backed Syrian government, all advancing toward the same locations in Syria, there is an increased risk of a direct clash between the two sides. Unsurprisingly, such a battle could result in a significant flare-up in the conflict and potentially drive a wedge between Moscow and Ankara in Syria after the two managed to improve their relationship.

But as Turkey fights the SDF and — potentially — the Syrian government, the United States rapidly retreats from its increasingly isolated outposts and France and the United Kingdom consider a pullout of their own, another threat is also emerging: the resurgence of the Islamic State. With no choice but to meet the Turkish invasion, SDF fighters are abandoning their posts at key prison camps. Already, there have been reports of Islamic State fighters breaking out — something that could significantly bolster the militant group's fortunes. And other extremist groups, like the al Qaeda-linked Hurras al-Din, are also set to benefit as the United States pulls out and the focus of Syria's fight shifts away from Idlib province toward northeastern Syria.

From the rising potential of state-on-state clashes to the boost that extremist groups in Syria could enjoy, the aftermath of the Turkish incursion and the frantic U.S. withdrawal is amplifying existing dangers — and creating new ones.

Background 

Ankara has long chafed at the existence of a mostly Kurdish formation on its southern border, especially as it accused the SDF of maintaining links with Turkey's bete noire, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Until now, however, Turkey has failed to make an incursion into northeastern Syria to confront the SDF due to resistance from the United States, which partnered with the SDF to capture what remained of the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate. Last week, however, U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly decided to allow Turkey to enter northern Syria, ostensibly to create a "safe zone" on which it would resettle some Syrian refugees. But now, from the rising potential of state-on-state clashes to the boost that extremist groups in Syria could enjoy, the aftermath of the Turkish incursion and the frantic U.S. withdrawal is amplifying existing dangers — and creating new ones.  

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