The knee-jerk reaction to the killing of US military personnel in Syria has been that the US might reverse their planned withdrawal. To the contrary, it might solidify the decision to leave, and also lead to increased Turkey-US cooperation.
On January 16, US military personnel were conducting a “routine patrol” in the SDF-controlled, Arab-majority town of Manbij in northern Syria. They were meeting with coalition partners belonging to the local Manbij Military Council in a restaurant when a terrorist from the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) stormed in and set off an explosives-laden vest. The attack killed two US soldiers, one Pentagon civilian, one Department of Defense contractor, plus several local civilians.
Daesh quickly went online to claim responsibility for the explosion, stating that one of its Syrian members carried it out to kill Americans. Some observers question the credibility of the Daesh claim, including certain voices who suggest that the Syrian regime or the YPG, the Syrian affiliate of the PKK terrorist organisation, were likelier than Daesh to be behind the blast.
The strategy of Daesh in Manbij
Assuming that Daesh did carry out the attack, the deadly incident raises many questions about the group’s strategic planning. If the group’s long-term interest is in seeing American/Western forces exit and filling a subsequent power vacuum, wouldn’t such an attack against US forces risk prompting President Donald Trump to further delay the withdrawal?
Washington officials at odds with Trump’s calls for a US military exit from northern Syria are pointing to this latest attack in Manbij in their efforts to persuade Trump that the fight against Daesh is not yet over and therefore US forces must remain in Syria.
Yet the attackers’ strategic thinking could have instead been based on the calculation that the bloodshed would strongly convince Trump to trust his instincts, ignore the US national security establishment, and execute a timely pull-out of American forces from northern Syria.
Those who favour Trump making good on his promise to quickly bring US troops home argue that the killing of US forces inevitably comes with maintaining such a presence in Syria - thus it is best for American forces to pull out sooner rather than later.
The explanation for the attack and its timing is possibly far simpler. Daesh is perhaps predicting that US forces will soon exit northern Syria, so there is limited time to target them and this month’s deadly act of terror was about the group seizing an opportunity before it expires without thinking about the blast’s possible ramifications for Washington’s overall Syria policy.
While most Daesh victims have been locals (and mainly Muslims), the killing of American forces plays a unique role in the group’s propaganda strategies, and therefore the attack was possibly conducted in such context without much consideration of geopolitical risks.
Regardless of how Trump reacts to the Manbij blast, it is increasingly clear that his tweet last month about Daesh being “defeated” is entirely out of touch with reality. As of last month, roughly 30,000 Daesh fighters remained on the ground in Syria. Daesh is adapting and now operating with sleeper cells while its militants blend in with local populations. Although Daesh has lost its de facto state apparatus in Syria and control of cities, the spirit of the group and support for its extremist ideology remain alive in the country.
Turkey’s Vantage Point
Naturally, as Syria’s neighbour to the north, Turkey has deep, vested interests in contributing to a long-term political solution in Syria that can solve the crises that gave birth to Daesh and other extremist forces. From Turkey’s perspective, the lack of security in Manbij that enabled Daesh to carry out this latest attack is a result of poor implementation of the June 2018 agreement between Washington and Ankara for the withdrawal of YPG militants from Manbij. Nonetheless, Turkey is preparing for new scenarios that could unfold in Manbij either before or after US forces leave.
Ankara understands that there is no simple solution to truly defeating the Daesh threat in Syria, let alone one that relies solely on military use. Without addressing root causes of the Syrian crisis—including the regime’s neo-liberal economic policies in rural areas, poverty, corruption, authoritarianism, cronyism, nepotism, climate change-induced water shortages, etc.—Syria’s future conditions may provide fertile ground for the ascendancy of groups like Daesh in the future.
In his January 7 New York Times opinion piece, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made his case for why Turkey should be trusted to play an important role in Syria’s future, especially when it comes to the rebuilding of the country and struggle to eliminate conditions that extremists easily exploit.
The Turkish leader pointed to Al Bab, which was previously ruled by Daesh until Turkish and Turkish-backed forces liberated the Syrian city. “Our approach left the city’s core infrastructure largely intact and made it possible for life to return to normal within days. Today, children are back at school, a Turkish-funded hospital treats the sick, and new business projects create jobs and bolster the local economy. This stable environment is the only cure for terrorism.”
Dealing with Trump’s Foreign Policy
It appears that out of all the myriad challenges that Turkey faces vis-a-vis Syria, this White House’s unpredictability is merely another. Given how Trump is unhinged and all over the map when it comes to his remarks and tweets about Syria, Turkish leadership will constantly worry about how to work with this American president.
Trump’s flip-flopping and threat to “devastate” the Turkish economy as a response to possible Turkish military action against the YPG served to reverse much of the progress in Washington-Ankara relations that quickly followed Trump’s tweet last month about pulling US forces out of northern Syria and resulted in Trump receiving an invitation to visit Ankara in 2019.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House national security advisor John Bolton’s constant use of the term “the Kurds” to refer to the YPG also served to fuel much tension in Turkey-US relations in late 2018 and early 2019.
But the latest phone conversation between Trump and Erdogan, held on January 14, was fruitful and seems to have set the alliance between Washington and Ankara back in a positive direction. In Erdogan’s words, the conversation marked "a historic understanding”. The two presidents discussed boosting bilateral economic ties, addressed the threats posed by remnants of Daesh, and talked about “security zones” that Turkey plans to set up in northern Syria.
Of course, how the blast that shook Manbij impacts Washington and Ankara’s efforts to coordinate in Syria remains to be seen. Yet if Trump sees the attack that killed US military personnel and civilians as more reason to quickly exit northern Syria and approve of Turkish military operations in the area, Ankara may find the US administration to be far more understanding Turkey’s priorities and needs across its southern border, which would bode well for the Turkey-US rapprochement.
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