WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan24) - US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke on Sunday as confusion continues over the future of eastern Syria, currently under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by US, French, and British troops.
Their telephone conversation followed a two-day visit by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, South Carolina) to Ankara, in which he held lengthy discussions with senior Turkish officials, including Erdogan.
Generally Trump’s political ally, Graham had strongly disagreed with his decision last month to quickly withdraw US troops from Syria.
Graham left Turkey on Saturday, urging a much slower withdrawal and a focus on the Syrian city of Manbij as a starting point.
Graham also revealed that Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was working on a plan with his Turkish counterpart for a US withdrawal that would be satisfactory to both sides.
There are, perhaps, telling differences about Sunday’s phone conversation between the two presidents, suggesting that basic disagreements continue.
The US summary of the discussion was brief and lacking detail.
“The two leaders agreed to continue to pursue a negotiated solution for northeast Syria that achieves our respective security concerns,” it affirmed, and Trump “underscored the importance of defeating terrorist elements that remain in Syria.”
CNN reported on Sunday that Turkey has some 16,000 troops, along with 10,000 allied militia fighters, on its border with Syria—not quite consistent with the US claim that the two presidents had agreed on a negotiated solution.
On Saturday, while still in Turkey, Graham stressed that a hasty US withdrawal, “without a plan, is chaos,” and it would create a “nightmare for Turkey.”
Turkey’s summary of Sunday’s discussion revealed no such concern, however. It focused on the planned US withdrawal, emphasizing the importance of fully implementing the Manbij agreement, adding that the two presidents “also discussed the idea of forming a terror-free safe zone in the north of Syria.”
Yet, unless the YPG (People’s Protection Units)—which Ankara considers the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a terrorist organization—is brought into the agreement, it might well be quite difficult to establish such a zone and could result in the chaos about which Graham warned.
On Friday, Kurdistan 24 discussed the issue with Hassan Hassan following a seminar at the SETA Foundation in Washington. Hassan, a Senior Fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, is the co-author of the best-selling book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.
Originally from Deir al-Zor, a major city in eastern Syria which was liberated from the Islamic State and is now under SDF control, Hassan is strongly critical of Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
The withdrawal is “abrupt” and “disruptive,” Hassan warned, making “it easier for ISIS to re-emerge and recover.” It could also reignite violence within Syria more broadly.
Hassan suggested that simply changing the forces that control an area, if not properly planned, risks renewed conflict.
He pointed to the deterioration in security following Baghdad’s attack on Kurdish forces in October 2017. “Since the takeover of Kirkuk, ISIS has started to recover in that area,” he said.
This is a “perfect example of what happens” when one force replaces another with no plan, Hassan explained.
“It creates a vacuum,” along with opportunities for a group like the Islamic State. Such organizations can “tap into the local resources” and find sympathizers, “because the newcomers are not the same as the old ones.”
Moreover, it is not clear what will happen in those areas of eastern Syria, south of the security zone that Turkey envisions.
If the US leaves the Arab areas of Syria, local residents may well try to reach an understanding with Russia, Hassan suggested. That would be preferable, in their view, to the Syrian regime or Iranian forces.
The southern city of Dara’a could be something of a model, he explained. In 2017, Russia established a “de-escalation zone” in Dara’a, close to the Jordanian border. Neither Syria nor Iran is present there.
“It’s not greatly successful,” Hassan said, “but it’s a model of working with locals under the supervision of Russia.”
According to the brief account Graham gave on Saturday of the talks between the US and Turkish militaries, a hopeful scenario is possible—one in which the US would enforce a no-fly zone over eastern Syria, while French, British, and a small number of US troops remained, essentially continuing the present situation, along with certain measures to address Turkey’s concerns about the YPG.
However, such an outcome is far from certain, and Turkish statements are bellicose. They appeal to nationalist sentiment, consistently portraying Erdogan as a leader who is protecting the country against an intractable terrorist threat.
Editing by Nadia Riva