As America withdraws from northeastern Syria and Turkey invades, international actors are rapidly adjusting to a new reality. Though initially neutral toward the Turkish move, a deluge of negative outcomes, including reports of ISIS detainees escaping SDF detention facilities en masse, drove President Trump to announce sanctions on Turkey. These were met with widespread support on Capitol Hill, as both Democrats and Republicans have largely opposed the abandonment of American allies. In the meantime, the SDF has concluded a desperate bargain with Damascus, welcoming Asad’s forces back into the northeast in a bid to fend off the Turkish offensive.
TURKEY INVADES, AMERICA WITHDRAWS, ASSAD EXPANDS
In the last week, both the U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria and the Turkish invasion of SDF-held territory along its border have accelerated. Turkish forces have massed opposite Manbij, and have moved swiftly to occupy much of the border region between Tal Abyad and Tal Tamer, along the strategic M4 highway. According to the Syrian Observatory, some 250 SDF fighters have been killed in the clashes. According to Kurdish sources, nearly 275,000 civilians have been displaced.
As the combat intensifies, US President Trump has opted to withdraw nearly 1,000 American troops from northeastern Syria, with Defense Secretary Mark Esper issuing a statement saying “the risk to U.S. forces in northeast Syria has reached an unacceptable level.” For its part, the Turkish political echelon has shown no signs of relenting. Turkish parliament speaker Mustafa Sentop said, “We as Turkey expect our allies in NATO to stand beside us against terrorist organizations, we are surprised to see that some of our allies are on the side of the terrorist organization.”
The combination of accelerated American withdrawal and intensified Turkish ground operations reached critical mass on Sunday, forcing the SDF leadership to invite Syrian regime forces to deploy throughout the northeast and along the Turkish border. As of Monday, Russian troops began patrolling Manbij, in a bid to separate Turkish-backed forces from the SDF and Syrian government troops, while Assad’s forces deployed in downtown al-Raqqah, where footage has emerged of Syrian troops entering in force for the first time since 2013.
AMERICA, EU SANCTION TURKEY
Through all this, the American response has been deeply conflicted. President Trump appeared to bless both the Turkish invasion and Assad’s entrance into northeastern Syria over the weekend, saying: “Let Syria and Assad protect the Kurds and fight Turkey for their own land,” and adding: “others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them!” Then, a few hours later, he issued a statement condemning the Turkish move for “precipitating a humanitarian crisis and setting conditions for possible war crimes” and announcing his intention to sign an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials.
Within Congress, a clearer picture has emerged. Pro-Kurdish sentiment runs high among both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, with leaders in both parties expressing deep frustration at President Erdogan’s decision to invade. As Senator Graham put it, “What do you tell an American soldier who’s fought with the Kurds [against ISIS], died with Kurds, and say we’re leaving them behind?” This week, he and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen introduced a bill to impose “immediate, far-reaching” sanctions on Turkish government officials and ban the sale of American military equipment to Turkey.
Reception to the Turkish move has been no warmer in Europe, where the EU issued a statement condemning the operation, saying it “seriously undermines the stability and the security of the whole region”, and agreed to impose a ban on arms sales to Ankara.