Report - International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence

Will ‘We Won’ Become ‘Mission Accomplished’? A US Withdrawal and The Scramble for Northeastern Syria

| Dec. 16, 2019

About this Report

  • Northeastern Syria is a battleground once again. The crisis began when President Donald Trump made the surprise announcement of the imminent withdrawal of the approximately 2,000 US forces from Syria in December 2018. Nevertheless, some 1,000 US soldiers remained there by the time President Trump decided to withdraw US troops from much of the Syrian‑Turkish border on 6 October 2019, paving the way for the launch of Operation Peace Spring by Turkish‑backed forces three days later. This latest Turkish‑led offensive, the re‑entry of the Assad regime into the region and the uncertain nature of future US involvement in the country triggered a scramble for northeastern Syria.
  • This report charts some of the major developments in northeastern Syria from the December 2018 withdrawal announcement up until the start of Operation Peace Spring on 9 October 2019. It describes and notes the significance of the bitter dispute between Ankara and Washington over a proposed 'safe zone', analyses how the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have sought to navigate the crisis and gauges the strength of the so‑called Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Providing this context enables this report to selectively incorporate more limited analysis on the latest and most pertinent developments in northeastern Syria at the time of this writing.
  • The report closes with an evaluation of the current situation, weighs the possibility that history will remember President Trump's 'We Have Won' speech similarly to President Bush's 'Mission Accomplished' one and offers some recommendations for US policymakers.

A Safe Zone or an Invasion? — Turkish Ambitions in Northern Syria

  • Turkish proposals for a Turkish‑administered 'safe zone' claimed that it would simultaneously prevent IS from re‑emerging and provide a safe haven to which millions of Syrian refugees could return. It was in actuality an idea principally geared to fatally weaken the SDF, led by People's Protection Units (YPG), thus critically endangering the US‑led coalition's efforts against IS.
  • Up until recently, Washington sought to manage Ankara's demands by establishing a far more limited 'security mechanism' with joint US and Turkish patrols. Senior US officials repeatedly threatened Turkey not to target the Kurds. Turkey was not satisfied by these half‑measures. Ankara's continued maximalist demands on Washington to stand down and allow broader Turkish involvement in northern Syria have largely been met with appeasement by President Trump.
  • Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from much of northern Syria in October 2019 incentivised the latest Turkish‑led offensive. Despite the allegedly agreed upon 'permanent ceasefire', clashes continue between the SDF and Turkish‑backed forces in northeastern Syria.

Caught in the Lurch — The Syrian Democratic Forces

  • A full US withdrawal from Syria in the future would risk losing the SDF's and US‑led coalition's military achievements against IS at the hands of Ankara and Damascus. As the SDF and their political partners had to make a deal with Assad in a desperate bid for protection from their Turkish adversaries, prospects that the SDF can cement many of their diplomatic and military gains are bleak. Neither state is willing or ready to reach a palatable political compromise with the Syrian Kurds.
  • The SDF have already faced huge challenges beyond the existential threat of Turkish aggression. One of the most pressing has been the thousands of IS fighters and their families under their watch in prisons and camps. Another is that the SDF's attempts to win the popular backing of the Sunni Arab population under their control appear to have come up short, making their cross sectarian forces acutely vulnerable to defection.
  • In this period of great uncertainty, the SDF's very internal cohesion is being put to the test. Lacking greater military and political backing by the US‑led coalition, the SDF will be hard pressed to resist their adversaries in Ankara and Damascus throughout the rest of northeastern Syria as the conflict continues.

The 'War of Attrition' — IS's Clandestine Insurgency

  • While the territorial 'Caliphate' has been shattered, IS remains a potent underground insurgency. Tens of thousands of its fighters are unaccounted for and activities ranging from targeted assassinations and suicide bombings to arson continue in areas supposedly recaptured from the organisation.
  • This coincides with Abu Bakr al‑Baghdadi's call for a 'War of Attrition' stage in IS's campaign. Despite his recent death, one can expect that this virulent insurgency will remain a regional threat and will continue to be able to direct or inspire terrorist attacks abroad.
  • This recent period of destabilisation in Syria will likely be exploited by IS to its advantage. Their future could plausibly mirror how IS made a comeback following its predecessors' defeat during the Iraq War before recovering in civil‑war‑torn Syria and subsequently in Iraq in the absence of US forces.

Conclusion — War is Still Upon Us

  • There is a very significant chance that President Trump's 'We Have Won' announcement of December 2018 will be remembered similarly to President Bush's 'Mission Accomplished' speech in March 2003. If the administration does not want to mimic the mistakes of the past, it must seriously reassess its policy options in Syria.
  • Turkish national security interests fundamentally conflict with America's for the foreseeable future. The USA should seek to ameliorate Turkish security concerns where possible while at the same time exerting the utmost effort to rehabilitate their relationship with the SDF. The US government should apply further economic and diplomatic sanctions on Turkey in order to better constrain their behaviour in northern Syria going forward. Encouraging renewed peace talks between Ankara and the PKK may help alleviate tensions between Turkey and the SDF.
  • The SDF risks being irreparably dismantled due to Turkish aggression. They have called for Damascus's aid only out of necessity. While they are not the perfect partner, it is in the interests of the US administration to maintain this relationship. Leaving up to 600 troops in Deir ez‑Zor governorate to fight alongside the SDF against IS for the indeterminate future is not sufficient. To further abandon these vital partners forfeits most of the leverage the US‑led coalition has in the Syrian Civil War, exacerbates a deepening humanitarian crisis and damages America's national security interests.
  • IS could exploit this new instability in northeastern Syria to potentially reemerge on the world stage in the coming years. US forces should remain in Syria for the foreseeable future and try to resuscitate their relationship where possible with the SDF in order to minimise the threat this largely underground yet still potent insurgency poses to US allies in the region and around the globe.
For more information on this publication: Please contact International Security
For Academic Citation:

Holland-McCowan, John. Will 'We Won' Become 'Mission Accomplished'? A US Withdrawal and The Scramble for Northeastern Syria. International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, December 16, 2019.