Explained: The Situation in Syria

In early October, President Trump announced on Twitter that he would be removing U.S. military forces from northern Syria to make way for Turkish forces to manage the U.S. role in the Syrian Civil War.

Reports from White House officials suggest that Trump spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who convinced Trump to make the controversial decision.

But why is this such a big deal? What roles are the U.S., Turkey and other forces in the region playing in the Syrian Civil War?

What’s the situation in Syria?

During the Arab Spring, a series of pro-democracy uprisings that overthrew several dictators, ISIS took advantage of the chaos of the Syrian Civil War to take over land in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015.

Several groups are fighting against each other: Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is allied with Russia and Iran.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, Kurds, U.S. and Turkey are fighting Assad, and both Assad and the Syrian Democratic Forces are fighting ISIS.

The incredible complexity of the war there has created millions of refugees and casualties. 

How will this affect us?

The militant Islamist group known as ISIS was mostly defeated in the region over the last few years, losing most of the land they had gained during their peak.

An ethnic group living in northern Syria, Iraq and eastern Turkey called the Kurds have been the strongest allies of the U.S. in the fight against ISIS in that region.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes thousands of Kurds, have shouldered the brunt of the fight against ISIS--10,000 Kurdish soldiers have died over the last five or so years.

They have proven to be strong U.S. allies and trained alongside U.S. soldiers. So when President Trump announced that U.S. military personnel would be “coming home,” although in fact they are moving to U.S. bases in Iraq and other locations in Syria, it shocked diplomats and politicians alike.

The abandonment of such a faithful U.S. ally is an abnormal, even detrimental decision to U.S. interests and sends a message to our other allies that we are unreliable. 

How will this affect our Kurdish allies?

The other major problem with this decision is what will happen to the Kurds now that the U.S. is removing its forces.

Turkish president Erdogan views the Kurds as related to a Turkish-Kurdish terrorist group that has been fighting for an independent Kurdistan for many decades.

Erdogan fears losing a portion of Turkish land to an independent Kurdish state and has fought these separatist groups violently.

Almost immediately after Trump made this decision, the Turkish military began a bombing campaign against Kurds in northern Syria.

Kurdish soldiers left their homes in order to head to the front lines and defend themselves, incidentally having to abandon their guard of prisons full of ISIS fighters in the process.

Reports have surfaced that hundreds of those ISIS prisoners escaped. They may attempt to enter Europe through Turkey or try to regroup land in Iraq and Syria. 

Just in the past two weeks, over 100,000 Kurdish civilians have been displaced.

Turkey has announced that four military personnel and nine civilians have been killed in the fighting, while the death toll among the Kurds is in the hundreds.

However, given the strength of the Turkish military and the lack of any protection from the U.S., the death toll will continue to increase.

U.S. forces were also close to harm’s way, as Turkish artillery fire landed close to them, in a possibly intentional attack.

A five-day cease-fire commenced on Oct. 17 that would allow Kurds to escape to a safe zone.

Why did President Trump do this?

This is the million-dollar question. Turkey is a U.S. and NATO (international military alliance) ally.

However, President Erdogan has begun consolidating power and undoing Turkey’s democratic system to become an authoritarian dictator.

Trump himself said it was to put an end to “endless war,” which is the idea that U.S. military forces have been in the Middle East far too long.

However, since the troops are not actually coming home, many have cast doubt on this reasoning. Some theories have been put forth about President Trump’s motivations here: 

  1. Trump has spoken publicly about building projects in Istanbul, Turkey’s major city. Some have suggested that perhaps these business interests made Trump interested in doing what Erdogan wants so he can get special access to more building projects in the Turkish market.

  2. Trump’s strange relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin could be underpinning this decision. Russia is on the opposite side of the Syrian Civil War as the U.S. and Turkey and has long wanted U.S. forces out of the region so they can gain greater access to land and oil in the Middle East. Trump has had many shady dealings in Russia exposed in recent years, so perhaps his business and political interests in Russia encouraged him to allow more Russian incursion into Syria.

  3. Most expert policymakers have resigned from the Trump administration in recent years, leaving the president without foremost Middle East experts. A combination of a poor understanding of the situation, the assumption that bringing troops home would be a political win for Trump and a convincing show by Erdogan may have been the catalyst for the decision.

This decision has proved to be politically damaging for President Trump: Republicans and Democrats alike have railed against the abandonment of a faithful U.S. ally to be slaughtered by an authoritarian regime.

The motivation will prove important in our later understanding of why and how the decision to move U.S. troops out of northern Syria was made.

It will also undoubtedly damage our relationship with current U.S. allies, who feel they can’t be sure the U.S. will honor its word.

The next administration will have its work cut out for it in proving the U.S. to be a stable and honest ally as well as a bulwark against authoritarianism around the world.