Three days after President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to pull U.S. soldiers out of northern Syria, Turkey launched a major military offensive targeting the Kurds, who have been crucial U.S. allies in the region. “The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched Operation Peace Spring,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tweeted on Wednesday. “Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area.”
CNN reported that so far, Turkish airstrikes have largely hit military targets, but the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) claimed warplanes were also hitting civilian areas. “There is a huge panic among people of the region,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said. The streets in norther Syria are choked with civilian fleeing the area, unsure of how extensive the Turkish operation will be.
Despite Erdogan’s claim that his goal is “to bring peace” to the region, the assault seems likely to do the exact opposite — even beyond the immediate horrors inflicted on our Kurdish allies.
There was never going to be a good time for a move like this, but Trump and Erdogan may have chosen a particularly bad one. (Not that the decision, which apparently came during a phone call between the two leaders, was made with much geostrategic forethought on Trump’s part.) Everyone from Senator Lindsey Graham to the French government has raised concerns that in abandoning the SDF and leaving them at the mercy of the Turkish military, the U.S. will inadvertently strengthen the remnants of the Islamic State. Critics have also warned that the move could benefit the tyrannical regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian puppet masters.
Fear of an ISIS resurgence has underpinned the continued U.S. presence in Syria after the much-touted victory by U.S.-backed local militias over its ultra-violent, theocratic pseudostate earlier this year. Trump first ordered a withdrawal from Syria last December, claiming that the war was won, but was forced to walk back that decision after his defense secretary resigned over it and the Republican-controlled Senate rebuked him. The defense establishment’s perspective on the fight against ISIS is that destroying the caliphate was the first phase, while the endgame would entail wiping out the extremist group’s residual presence and creating conditions in which it cannot reestablish itself. The general consensus is that U.S. forces still have a role to play in securing the Middle East against such a regrouping.
There is logic to this vigilance. The Pentagon believes there are still approximately 18,000 Islamic State insurgents in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts, who continue to carry out terrorist attacks against military, government, and civilian targets, and the Iraqi military is having a hard time cleaning up these holdouts, who reportedly carried out almost 100 attacks in the first three weeks of September. The group’s globally distributed network of terrorist affiliates continue to plot and carry out large-scale attacks like the Easter Sunday church bombings in Sri Lanka.
Trump’s decision to finally fulfill his campaign promise to get the hell out of Syria has won over some opponents of U.S. intervention in the Middle East. Senator Rand Paul praised it as “fulfill[ing] his promises to stop our endless wars and have a true America First foreign policy” and defended Trump against the “Neocon war caucus” within their party that was roundly criticizing him. While noting the recklessness of the president’s sudden policy shift, The Week’s Damon Linker challenged Trump’s critics to defend the merits of the alternative: an open-ended mission to make sure Syria can’t become a terrorist haven again — not unlike what we’ve been trying and failing to do in Afghanistan for nearly two decades.
For his part, Trump has argued that whatever leftovers of the Islamic State remain in Iraq and Syria, they are thousands of miles away and can be dealt with by the countries more immediately affected by their presence, unless or until they become a threat to the U.S. again. As the president assured Americans on Twitter: “We are 7000 miles away and will crush ISIS again if they come anywhere near us!”
There are some merits to the argument that the U.S. has no business trying to fix these broken countries beyond whatever level of engagement our national security demands. Yet setting aside the big-picture questions of morality and realpolitik in U.S. foreign policy, there are a few specific reasons why a U.S. drawdown in northeastern Syria now, and a Turkish invasion of the region, might improve the chances of ISIS reforming in its home base.
First, the White House withdrawal announcement envisions that Turkey will take responsibility for the thousands of former Islamic State fighters being held prisoner along with tens of thousands of their relatives in camps there — already hotbeds of radicalization and new recruitment for the group. An orderly hand over of the camps from the SDF to Turkey is difficult to imagine; instead, the Kurds may scale back or abandon these detention operations as they divert resources to defending against the Turkish invasion, while there is no guarantee that Turkey will take on these detention obligations or carry them out effectively.
Our Kurdish proxies in Syria did most of the frontline dirty work in the campaign against the Islamic State, in which they say they lost over 10,000 soldiers. Like the Iraqis, they continue to battle ISIS militants, who have carried out hundreds of attacks in northeastern Syria this year. Cut off from U.S. support, the SDF won’t be able to fight Turkey and maintain its counterinsurgency role against ISIS at the same time, giving the militants breathing room. Coupled with prison breaks from the unguarded camps, this could offer the Islamic State its best opportunity yet to regain its strength.
Meanwhile, Erdogan’s plan to resettle Syrian refugees in the border region is guaranteed to contribute to instability there. The Turkish president has presented his demand for a “safe zone” in northern Syria as a humanitarian effort, but his ulterior motive is to stymie nationalist ambitions in the Kurdish-majority parts of Syria by flooding them with mostly non-local Arab refugees: what Nicholas Heras, a specialist on Syria and ISIS at the Center for a New American Security, called “just dressed-up ethnic cleansing.” At the same time, the Turkish incursion into Syria may create tens of thousands of newly displaced people, who would likely flee into Iraqi Kurdistan.
Speaking of which, Iraq is in a particularly bad position to deal with such a crisis on its border right now. For the past week, the country has been experiencing a wave of unrest sparked by the firing of a popular general who played a major role in routing the Islamic State there, but fed by the mounting frustrations of a generation of young Iraqis who have grown up in an atmosphere of violence, corruption, poverty, and inequality. Iraqi security forces have killed over 100 protesters and injured more than 6,000. The internet has been shut down, journalists threatened and media outlets raided.
The Iraqi demonstrators are calling for “the downfall of the regime” of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi — and they might get their wish. The collapse of the government or an escalation in its violent response to the protests could destabilize Iraq in a way that also hinders the hunt for Islamic State remnants and opens up more safe havens and recruiting opportunities for the group. With Turkey destabilizing northern Syria and Iraq reeling from the consequences of poor governance, ISIS could soon be looking at its first real chance for a comeback.