LONDON — The U.S. decision to stand aside and allow Turkey to kick off a military operation in northeast Syria risks further destabilizing the war-torn region, undermining the fight against ISIS and sparking a wider conflict between Turkey and Kurdish fighters, analysts and Kurdish-led forces warned on Monday.
The U.S. military began moving its forces away from the Turkish border with northern Syria on Monday after the White House said Turkey would soon begin an operation there to create a buffer zone to move Syrian refugees to safety.
Syrian Kurds — considered a terrorist threat by Turkey — currently control much of the area close to the border with Turkey, where Ankara hopes to create a so-called safe zone.
The Turkish government has long considered Kurdish fighters in Syria as a threat linked to the PKK, a Kurdish group in Turkey that has waged a decadeslong insurgency against the government and is considered a terrorist group by the United States.
But the U.S. has relied on the Kurdish fighters who lead the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as its most effective partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria.
"A Turkish incursion into northeast Syria would not only open up space for Turkish-Kurdish clashes but also provide ISIS with an opportunity to try to regenerate itself in that area," said Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a think tank in London.
Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, another London-based think tank, said he was not altogether surprised by the U.S. decision and warned it could have far-reaching consequences for the region.
“Ultimately the question was not if the U.S. would withdraw, but when and how,” he said. “More concerning, of course, is how the fight against ISIS is run from this moment on."
“It is difficult to see how this agreement does anything other than give Turkey a carte blanche to socially engineer Kurdish majority areas of northeast Syria," Stephens added.
The Kurdish fighters have been instrumental in fighting against ISIS in the group's former strongholds like Raqqa. They currently hold thousands of ISIS fighters in prison camps, many of them foreigners whom Western powers have refused to take back.
President Donald Trump repeated his assertion Monday morning that ISIS had been defeated. He later tweeted that Turkey will not step out of line during its military campaign.
"As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!)," he tweeted.
But in its most recent quarterly annual report on U.S. operations in Syria, released in August, the Defense Department's inspector general said that "ISIS remains a threat in Iraq and Syria."
Stephens said he expected to see further conflict between Turkey and Kurdish fighters that could spread beyond Syria’s borders.
“It’ll spread across Iraq, Syria and Turkey,” he said.
In the U.S., Republicans and Democrats have warned that allowing a Turkish military operation across the border could lead to a massacre of the Kurds and send a troubling message to American allies across the globe.
"Allowing Turkey to move into Northern Syria is one of the most destabilizing moves we can do in the Middle East. The Kurds will never trust America again," tweeted Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat from Arizona who served in Iraq.
Nikki Haley, Trump's former ambassador to the United Nations, described the move as a big mistake.
"We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back. The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake. #TurkeyIsNotOurFriend," she tweeted Monday.
The SDF accused the U.S. on Monday of betrayal and abandoning them to Turkish “genocide.”
“It seems that the policy of the United States is to betray their friends and allies,” Mustafa Bali, the spokesperson for the SDF said on Monday.
“The Americans promised from their side to stand with us and to protect us from any threat that comes from Turkey,” he said, adding that the Americans were now allowing “the Turks to commit a huge genocide against us.”
The White House said in a statement Monday that Turkey would now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years.
Considering that they are opponents, "it is very difficult to imagine how there would be a smooth handover of prisons holding ISIS fighters that are currently controlled by the SDF to Turkey," said Khatib, of Chatham House.
Ilan Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, tweeted Monday that protests in Iraq and Washington "potentially pulling [the] rug out from Kurds in Syria and opening way for Turkish invasion" were huge opportunities for ISIS.
"Bad news for the region," he tweeted.
Safe zone push
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pushed to create a safe zone in northeast Syria for months and until now the U.S. government has pushed back, as it attempted to balance its commitment to its Kurdish allies and its relationship with Turkey.
U.S. officials in the region and the Pentagon have previously urged the White House not to abandon the SDF. Last December, Trump declared he would pull out all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria adding that ISIS had been defeated. Then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and then-special presidential envoy for the coalition to defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, both resigned.
McGurk, now an NBC News foreign affairs analyst, tweeted Sunday that “tonight is a sad replay but seems even worse as U.S. officials since convinced the SDF that we planned to stay.”
Trump tweeted on Monday that the U.S. was 7,000 miles away from the region and that it was time for Turkey, Europe, Syria and Iran among others to "figure the situation out."
"It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home," he said.
Khatib, of Chatham House, said while Trump had threatened to withdraw troops from Syria in the past, this time he appeared to mean it.
"This is one of Trump's campaign promises when he ran for president last time," she said. "With a new election looming Trump wants to show the electorate that he has abided by his campaign promises."
"That doesn't mean that there will be no U.S. presence whatsoever. The parameters of the withdrawal have not been made clear, but what is clear is that it will be rather extensive," she added.
As for the reality of the safe zone on the ground it was unclear how far the region would stretch.
Khatib pointed out that some ISIS camps controlled by the SDF were significantly farther south than the border region, raising questions about whether the safe zone would stretch to places like al-Hol camp that is currently home to tens of thousands of women and children many of whom are the families of ISIS fighters.
Whatever the scope of the area, Sara Kayyali, a Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch, warned that there was no guarantee that civilians would be protected in the so-called safe zone and that in the past Syria had seen violations of human rights within such buffer zones.
“The track record for safe zones in Syria has been anything but," she said. "We’ve documented civilians being bombed or forcibly displaced in these areas even after they were announced to be safe zones."