Soon after the US president announced his withdrawal plan from Syria, contradictions emerged from within the country's foreign policy apparatus.
On December 19, US President Donald Trump announced a full withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria, a highly contested region where Washington has aligned with the PKK's Syrian affiliate YPG to fight against Daesh.
On January 2, Trump again spoke about the withdrawal plan, but this time he sounded different. “We’re getting out,” he said. “We asked them (YPG) not to sell oil to Iran. We’re not thrilled about that."
The following day Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave more details, saying that the US was in conversation with Turkey to ensure Ankara's planned military operation against the YPG wouldn’t lead to a humanitarian crisis.
The latest string of statements coming from Washington have raised doubts in Turkey whether Trump's initial plan stands firm or if he's being compelled to change his mind.
“There is a huge pressure on President Trump to reverse the decision of pulling out the US troops from Syria. Secretary of defence is behind this issue,” Atlantic Council Senior Fellow and former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza told TRT World.
According to newspaper reports, Trump decided to withdraw during a phone conversation with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in mid-December, in which Erdogan explained Turkey's long-standing concerns over Washington's support to the YPG. But it wasn’t clear if Trump’s decision meant the US government's support to the YPG would continue and weapons given to the group would be taken back.
Prior to the Trump-Erdogan phone call, Turkey had also announced a military operation against the YPG east of the Euphrates river in northern Syria.
The PKK is a designated terror group in Turkey and the US. Since the YPG is considered the PKK's Syrian branch, Turkey sees it as a security threat.
Judging from Trump's new statements on northern Syria, Bryza said, the president might be trying to find a balance between the idea of "abandoning the Kurds" and convincing the US military and foreign policy establishment that "the YPG is not the greatest ally to the US – they’re doing things that are against the US national interest.”
The US Congress’ disagreement with Trump’s withdrawal decision became clear when the US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who was concerned about leaving the YPG alone in the country, resigned from his post in protest of the decision.
The US envoy for anti-Daesh coalition Brett Mc Gurk’s resignation followed Jim Mattis’ a few days later.
Meanwhile, speaking to CNN, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham urged Trump to reconsider the withdrawal, postpone it or make it condition based, saying that the US shouldn't abandon the YPG.
“In the US, the Mattis resignation has upset everybody. But I don't think he [Trump] will reverse the decision,” Bryza says.
“He has now changed it to not withdrawing the US troops immediately but wants to stretch [the] time. He's trying to show he's not going to abandon Syria and risk the chance that ISIS [Daesh] would come back.”
Bryza says there's a strong perception in Washington that the US should not abandon the Kurds, as “people in Washington are thinking that is the same thing as the YPG.”
“They’re accusing Turkey of wanting to attack the ‘Kurds’,” he says. “But Turkey wants to attack the YPG – a terrorist organisation,” he says.
The PKK has waged a terror campaign against the Turkish state since 1984 and has been responsible for killing over 40,000 civilians and security personnel, including Kurdish people.
When Trump first announced the decision to pull out from Syria, it hinted a division in the US’ Syria policy, as the Pentagon has said recently that the US military would stay in the country until Iran-backed militias are pushed out of Syria. According to several media reports, the Pentagon tried to convince Trump to change his mind even if they confirmed the decision.
The US has been supporting the YPG, the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), since Daesh spread across Syria from Iraq in 2014. Turkey – which supported the Syrian opposition forces, the Free Syrian Army, in the fight against Daesh in the country – strongly objected the decision. In 2015, the US founded the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to fight against Daesh. As a defeated Daesh has been pushed into deserted areas in the country, the YPG has taken control of the recaptured cities.
The US’ decision caused a delay in plans by Turkey, which has been complaining about Washington’s long support to the YPG. Both parties agreed on the coordination of the US’ withdrawal in order to prevent a power vacuum. Turkey, however, stated that Turkey’s operational plans in the east of the Euphrates river have not been cancelled.
Before the US decision to remove US forces from Syria, Erdogan said that Turkey would also “walk into” Manbij if the US didn’t remove the YPG from northern Syria. Manbij currently lies in a mainly Arab territory west of the Euphrates. After defeating Daesh, SDF forces remained in the city, causing tensions between Washington and Ankara.
In order to address Turkey’s concerns, Washington agreed to a roadmap with Ankara in June, and Turkish and American troops began conducting joint patrols in the northern city of Manbij on November 1. However, citing security concerns at its borders, Turkey has been complaining about US delays in the implementation of the roadmap.
For Bryza, mollifying senators is possible. It can happen, he says, “if Trump, the senators, the experts in the US understand the difference” between Kurdish people and the YPG.