President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria appears to be to Turkey’s advantage at first glance.
The assumption is that there is no obstacle left for the Turkish military to mount the operation against Kurdish YPG fighters east of the Euphrates River that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been promising.
Turkey’s operation may not be as smooth as Ankara expects, though, for a number of reasons.
Paris has jumped in immediately to reassure the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that France will not follow Washington’s lead, and will remain as part of the international coalition in northern Syria where it is already allied to the YPG.
This shows that there is still an international dimension to Turkey’s problem concerning the YPG which could pose further difficulties for Ankara in Europe.
In response to Erdogan’s threats the EU, in line with the U.S., has already characterized “unilateral interventions” in the region as being unacceptable.
There is also the possibility that the U.S. pullout will encourage radical Islamic fighters to regroup and start new operations against the YPG, while creating chaos in the region that Turkey will not be able to cope with on its own.
Such considerations are not expected to deter Erdogan though. He was ready to go over the head of the U.S. to mount a new operation into northern Syria. It is unlikely that he will take France seriously.
If anything, he has been emboldened further by Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria because it appears that this is the result of pressure from Turkey.
Whether that is true or not the outcome is politically beneficial for Erdogan at a time when the country is preparing for critical local elections.
Meanwhile Paris can expect plenty of flack from Erdogan in the coming days and weeks after France’s decision to remain in northern Syria alongside the YPG.
A further complication for Ankara is that can not tell with any certainty how Russia will react to a new operation by Turkey in northern Syria, especially now that Washington has decided to pull out.
Until the U.S. started using the YPG to gain a foothold east of the Euphrates Moscow had good relations with the YPG.
Now that the U.S. is out of the way – although this has yet to materialize – there is no reason for Moscow not to form new bridges with the YPG and to force it to come to an agreement with Damascus about the shape of the future Syria.
In the meantime Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has not only said that Turkey should hand over areas it captured from the YPG and the Islamic State to the Syrian regime, but also that the Syrian Kurds have to have their voice heard in any settlement effort.
Then there is the Bashar al Assad factor. He is undoubtedly happy about Trump’s decision, although how this is to be implemented is not fully apparent yet. But how likely is Damascus prepared to let Turkey enter northern Syria without hindrance.
In addition to this what if the Kurds under the YPG banner come to an agreement with Damascus under Russian pressure, which also gives them nominal self-rule in their regions within a federated Syria?
It has to be remembered that Damascus and the YPG both consider Turkey to be an enemy country, and this could speed up a rapprochement between them.
It is very likely that Ankara will refuse to accept any autonomous or semi-autonomous entity in Syria. While it has declared the YPG as a terrorist organization which has to be eliminated, Turkey is still faced with having to address the Kurdish reality in Syria.
To put it briefly, Turkey’s job in northern Syria remains difficult, and the prospect that it could face more trouble there after the U.S. departure continues to be real.
If, however, Trump should decide, under domestic and international pressure, to revoke his decision to quit Syria, it will be back to square one for Ankara.