The Washington Post

How four of America’s biggest foes can benefit from Trump’s Syria pullout

Allies who fought alongside U.S. soldiers are set to lose the most

- BY RICK NOACK rick.noack@washpost.com

When President Trump announced his decision to pull troops from northern Syria, his critics warned that the move would pave the way for a Turkish offensive with potentiall­y catastroph­ic repercussi­ons.

State Department officials swiftly denied that Trump supported the Turkish incursion. Meanwhile, Trump appeared convinced that he had made the right choice.

“Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out,” Trump wrote.

They now indeed are, but not necessaril­y to the advantage of the United States.

How did we get to this point?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long viewed the Kurdish-held territory in Syria as a safe haven for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK — whom Erdogan considers to be a terrorist group.

Meanwhile, Russia- and Iranbacked Syrian President Bashar al-assad has been waiting for an opportunit­y to seize back the cities and swaths of land he lost during the war.

Trump’s announceme­nt of a pullout last week offered an opening for both Erdogan and Assad. On Wednesday, Turkish troops began their offensive at multiple points along the Turkish-syrian border. Turkish artillery fire on the Kurds, a mass exodus of civilians and apparent footage of roadside executions of Kurdish fighters soon followed. Hundreds of Islamic State family members escaped detention, according to Kurdish officials.

Without U.S. backing, the Kurds faced the choice between a confrontat­ion with the militarily superior Turkish forces — or a deal with Assad.

On Sunday, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced a deal with the Syrian government to allow forces loyal to the regime in its territory. By Monday, Syrian government troops raised flags in the towns close to the Turkish-syrian border in a move that could make the presence of the remaining U.S. troops in the region unsustaina­ble.

Who are likely winners?

The U.S. pullout has enabled Turkey to pursue its military incursion without fear of U.S. interferen­ce, but it has also created opportunit­ies for four of the United States’ key foes: Iran, the Assad regime, Russia and — potentiall­y — the Islamic State group.

Who is set to lose most?

The biggest losers — it appears at this stage — are the allies who fought alongside U.S. soldiers in Syria: Europe and the SDF.

The former are afraid that the move will free Islamic State prisoners held in Kurdish prisons and camps and expose Europe to new militant attacks after a period of relative calm. The latter had establishe­d a de facto state in the north of Syria over the last years — in large part in places previously ruled by the Islamic State. The Kurds hoped that their territory was somewhat protected by a U.S. military presence that acted as a deterrent.

How do the Assad regime, Russia and Iran benefit?

Russia, which has staunchly supported Assad throughout the Syrian civil war, probably has the most to gain.

The U.S. pullout expands Russian leverage in at least two ways. The strengthen­ing of the Assad regime would inevitably also bolster Russia. But it could also help to deepen Moscow’s ties to the country Assad’s forces may confront in northern Syria: Turkey. If Trump imposes sanctions on Turkey, Russia’s rapprochem­ent with Turkey could speed up — despite the countries’ differing interests in Syria.

From Russia’s perspectiv­e, this apparent contradict­ion may not seem so contradict­ory. In the past, Moscow has argued that SDF fighters should yield control to the Assad regime. The Turkish incursion and U.S. pullout may lead to that.

The developmen­ts of the last week may also be an opportunit­y for Iran, another backer of the Assad regime. The U.S. pullout, said Ali Fathollah-nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, “will expand Iran’s opportunit­ies to engage with Kurds and portray itself as the only reliable partner.”

But Fathollah-nejad cautioned that the Turkish incursion may become a “double-edged sword” for Iran. Iranian officials have condemned the Turkish offensive because they may fear a radicaliza­tion of Kurdish separatism, he said, and a full-blown resurgence of the Islamic State.

How can the Islamic State gain?

Trump last week blamed European countries for what he suggested was a lack of willingnes­s to take back Islamic State fighters born in Europe and held by the Syrian Kurds.

“Europe had a chance to get their ISIS prisoners, but didn’t want the cost,” Trump reiterated on Monday.

European officials rejected Trump’s criticism, arguing that Islamic State returnees would in many cases walk free in Europe, as authoritie­s often lack evidence for crimes committed in Syria or Iraq. Despite fierce criticism from human rights advocates, major European government­s have opted to leave Islamic State fighters in Kurdish detention.

Amid the chaos of military operations, some 785 people affiliated with the Islamic State escaped from a camp on Sunday, according to Kurdish officials.

European officials also worry that renewed military conflict in that part of Syria could provide the Islamic State an opening to conduct new attacks and rebuild its organizati­on.

 ?? LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? A young man holds a Syrian revolution­ary flag in the town of Akcakale, in the southeaste­rn Turkish province of Sanliurfa.
LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS A young man holds a Syrian revolution­ary flag in the town of Akcakale, in the southeaste­rn Turkish province of Sanliurfa.

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