Trump’s Decision on Syria Could Cause an Adverse Butterfly Effect

Written by: Jadalyn Eagens

“Bottom line: Trump tonight after one call with a foreign leader provided a gift to Russia, Iran, and ISIS,” tweeted former presidential ISIS envoy Brett McGurk, speaking of President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement on Sunday, October 6, to withdraw troops from their posts along Syria’s border with Turkey. Trump’s decision came after a late night phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; his reasoning came in a tweet stating, “it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.” While Mr. Trump’s words echo the sentiments of many Americans, the decision to pull troops out of Syria is a poorly thought out and poorly executed plan that suggests no previous foresight into the possible disastrous repercussions of such action. 

The day after Trump’s surprise announcement, about 150 troops of the 1,000 posted in Eastern Syria withdrew from their observation posts. Of the many possible repercussions of U.S. withdrawal, one of the greatest would be the creation of a power vacuum that would allow countries with opposing interests, such as Russia and Iran, to swoop in and claim power. Russia has been eager to replace America to become the world’s leading superpower, which would pose a threat to the current liberal order. Russian influence in the Middle East could undermine democracy by supporting authoritarianism, contradicting everything that America has worked for ever since the end of World War II. Because of this, many analysts along with members of Congress, including members of the Republican Party, have voiced their disagreement with President Trump’s decision. 

Additionally, the Turkey-Syria border has long been an American protectorate with U.S. troops serving to deter the Turkish government from invading Kurdish controlled Northern Syria. Relations between Turkey and the Kurds have always been contentious. Turkey has long believed that the Syrian Kurdish militia, who controls the region, is part of a terrorist organization known as the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which has fought for decades against the Turkish state. Turkey has grounds to suspect the Syrian Kurdish Militia (YPG) because of its close ties with the PKK. However, a branch of the YPG called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has fought with the support and training of the United States military against the Islamic State (IS). Only a few months ago, The New York Times called the SDF the “biggest winners” in Syria’s war because of their ability to transition from a powerless minority to the strongest military force, and control more than a quarter of Syria. 

America’s departure from the region has led many to make the claim that Trump is giving the “green light” for Erdogan to invade Northern Syria. Turkey has been looking for any possible way to take military action against the Kurds with President Erdogan being able to hide his true intentions for invading the land behind the idea that the YPG are tied to the PKK. However, Turkey’s aim in invading Kurdish controlled land would be to quell the power of the Kurds because it cannot allow for an independent Kurdish state that could stand up to the power of Turkey. Turkey has already shown its eagerness to wipe out the Kurdish people with their campaign in the town of Afrin in 2018. The Turkish forces went into Afrin, massacring civilians and destroying infrastructure. Not only have the U.S. troops been serving as a deterrent against Turkish invasion, but they have also been serving to protect Kurdish civilians from a humanitarian crisis. Thus, the U.S. withdrawal is seen as an abandonment of the Kurdish people and an open invitation for the Turkish to begin a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The Turkish invasion will likely cause an exodus from Syria of Kurdish people, creating a new wave of refugees seeking asylum in Europe. Also, the decision frames the United States as an unreliable ally, which could have unknown, severe impacts in the future. 

To make matters worse, the Pentagon has been urging the YPG to pull back from the border for months in order to pacify Turkey, a NATO ally. As a result, the YPG destroyed some of their outposts and withdrew heavy weapons, which were their greatest means of deterrent against Turkey. Therefore, in order to protect themselves, the YPG would have to turn back from their fight with the IS to defend themselves against the Turkish military incursion, which would allow for the resurgence of the IS. The SDF rightfully expressed in a statement released on Monday that turning away from the fight with the IS could “destroy all that has been achieved in terms of stability over the last five years.” Also, with the loss of the United States as a powerful ally, the YPG could be backed into enough of a corner to turn to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for protection. The interests of the Syrian President have not aligned with American interests ever since it became public knowledge that Assad used chemical weapons against his own citizens. If the YPG turned to Assad for help, then there is the fear that the American trained militia would serve under Assad’s army, similar to the history of America with the Taliban. 

For the 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, America’s withdrawal also comes at a cost. Many Turks believe that the refugees are the cause of the economic downturn and call for them to be deported. Erdogan plans to move 1 million of the refugees back to Syria in what are called “safe zones” or Turkish controlled zones. However, the name seems to be a misnomer for the “safe zones” will be in Northeastern of Syria, the area that the Turkish military is planning to invade. The likely outcome is that the refugees will try to seek asylum in other countries in Europe and come against unforgiving borders. The common theme is that to open the borders to refugees would cause economic downturn and will negatively impact the culture of the country. It seems that the future for Syrian refugees looks bleak. 

And just on Wednesday, October 9, President Erdogan announced that Operation Peace Spring, the Turkish offensive into northeastern Syria, had been launched. Unsurprisingly, President Assad reached out to the Kurdish military to offer protection. The world has yet to see which other predictions regretfully become reality. In what seems to be a pattern with this president, a rash decision could lead to a plethora of unexpected, and even disastrous, consequences.