How will US troop withdrawal from northern Syria affect Iraq?

The US troop withdrawal from northeastern Syria could lead to catastrophic consequences for Syrian Kurds while strengthening the Islamic State and destabilizing Iraq.

al-monitor Kurds protest the Turkish offensive against Syria during a demonstration in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, Oct. 10, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Ako Rasheed.

Oct 10, 2019

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — Following a phone call between US President Donald Trump and Turkish President  Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Oct. 6, Trump decided to withdraw US forces in Rojava (northeastern Syria), paving the way for Turkey to start its military operation to invade what has been a relatively stable region.     

Erdogan announced Oct. 9 the start of Turkey's military operation “Peace Spring.” Meanwhile, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) issued a general mobilization call the same day for defending their territory against the Turkish invasion.

Kurds feel that they have been betrayed by the United States, and the Turkish incursion has already led to dozens of civilian casualties and displaced thousands; this could eventually lead to the massacre of thousands of innocent civilians and give a golden opportunity for militants from the Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS) to regroup and destabilize not only large parts of Syria, but also Iraq and the Iraqi Kurdistan region. 

“The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial 'Caliphate,' will no longer be in the immediate area,” The White House said in an Oct. 6 statement

Trump’s decision to withdraw the US forces and abandon its former ally, the SDF, which fought alongside US forces against IS militants, led to shocked reactions and concern from the international community. US officials say Ankara's main aim in northeastern Syria is to secure Turkey's borders and take responsibility of thousands of IS fighters captured after the fall of its so-called Islamic caliphate in 2017.

Brett McGurk, a former US presidential envoy for the war against IS, tweeted Oct. 9 that the White House statement is “a bright green light for a Turkish invasion. It also makes no sense. It says Turkey is 'now responsible' for ISIS prisoners. But those prisoners are in an SDF-guarded camp 230km [143 miles] away from the Turkish attack zone.”

The SDF, a multi-ethnic force composed of Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians and equipped by the United States, sacrificed more than 11,000 soldiers in defeating the IS insurgency, The SDF's General Command announced Oct. 9 that the Turkish attack will lead to a “humanitarian disaster,” calling on the members of the international coalition against IS to carry out their responsibilities. 

Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Tahsin al-Khafaji told Al-Monitor, “The US decision definitely will impact our security and Iraqi-Syrian border security. But we have taken all necessary measures into consideration, and we are consciously working with the SDF, the international coalition, the Syrian government, The Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] and even Turkey for joint coordination and action and for not letting any terrorist groups find safe hideouts for resuming terrorist deeds against our people.”

He emphasized that safeguarding Iraqi borders is within the scope of Iraq’s “national security” and that Iraqi officials are seriously and meticulously watching the situation.

Iraqi President Barham Salih as well as the KRG and its former president, Massoud Barzani, who heads the region's ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, all expressed concern about the Turkish military operation and called for dealing with the issue peacefully.

The KRG said in a statement, “The Kurdistan Region paid a huge sacrifice in the campaign to defeat ISIS and currently hosts 1.1 million displaced people, many of whom fled that conflict. It is the responsibility of the international community to prevent this happening again.”

KRG spokesman Jutyar Adil told Al-Monitor that border gates with Rojava have not been blocked so that international relief organizations can deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians in need. Adil said that due to the KRG’s financial burdens, it cannot host any more Syrian refugees.

Hours after Turkey bombarded civilian targets in northeastern Syria, Kurds in the KRG capital of Erbil, in Sulaimaniyah and in many EU cities took to the streets to protest against the Turkish invasion.

Jabar Yawar, secretary of the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga, told Al-Monitor, “Tens of thousands of IS former militants, as well as IS families and children are now imprisoned by the SDF. If the SDF cannot keep control of its areas or if IS captives escape, this would pose a threat in the region. Currently, no measures in this regard have been identified for us by the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga.” 

Al-Monitor tried to contact Col. Myles B. Caggins III, the military spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, and SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali, but they were not immediately available for comment.

Diliman Abdulkader, the director of external relations for the Washington-based public affairs consulting firm Allegiance Strategies, told Al-Monitor, “The US withdrawal greatly impacts not only the stability of Rojava but will also burden the KRG. The civilian population will certainly flee to Turkey, worsening the situation there. However, many Kurds will likely seek refuge in the KRG because they feel much safer among other Kurds, especially after Erdogan’s threats.” Abdulkader added, “The KRG has still not recovered from the refugee crisis of recent years; another influx of refugees would require greater international assistance. But this is an unnecessary and preventable crisis; all President Trump has to do is reverse his decision, and lives will be saved.”

Abdulkader said that if the SDF found itself in a position where it felt it had to release IS fighters in order to defend against the Turkish incursion, this could run the risk of a renewal of the IS caliphate. He cautioned that the SDF would be IS' first target. “But out of necessity and frustration, it makes sense for SDF to prioritize fighting Turkey first than Daesh,” Abdulkader said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

History may be repeating itself and what happened in 2014, when IS took over large areas of Iraq, could happen again. IS fighters are not only in SDF prisons but also biding their time in Iraqi areas, waiting for the right moment to regroup and attack. The stability the SDF has implemented will likely be lost, and KRG could be drawn into another regional conflict. All this can be prevented by pressure from international community on Trump to reverse his hasty decision.

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