US president Donald Trump announced by tweet on December 19 his intention to withdraw US troops from Syria. This followed a phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had often stated his intention to invade north-eastern Syria.
Trump’s announcement was widely seen as giving a green light for the planned Turkish invasion. Trump’s decision caused dissension within the US government. Defence secretary James Mattis resigned, as did some other prominent officials.
Later Trump backtracked. There have been contradictory statements by Trump and his advisors. It is now unclear if, and when, the withdrawal will occur.
US troops were sent to Syria to help the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
In 2014, ISIS had taken over a large part of Iraq, including Mosul, its second largest city. This alarmed the US government, which had been trying, with only limited success, to establish a stable pro-US government in Iraq following the 2003 invasion.
Meanwhile, ISIS also made gains in Syria, but was meeting strong resistance from the Kurdish-led Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and Womens Protection Units (YPJ). These were the defence forces of Rojava, the collective name given to three predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Syria.
The US, desperate for allies against ISIS, began to cooperate with the YPG/YPJ, despite fundamental political differences. Later the YPG/YPJ combined with other groups fighting ISIS, including predominantly Arab groups, to form the SDF.
With US support, the SDF drove ISIS back, liberating northeastern Syria, starting with the Kurdish areas and then moving into some non-Kurdish areas such as Manbij and Raqqa.
Rojava became part of a broader political system called the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), which has recently been renamed the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. The SDF acts as the armed forces of the DFNS.
Turkey has always been hostile to Rojava and the Autonomous Administration. This reflects both the anti-Kurdish racism of the Turkish government and its hostility to the democratic revolution in northeast Syria.
A popular uprising in July 2012 overthrew Syrian government rule in Rojava and began to build a democratic system, based on women’s liberation and the participation of different ethnic and religious groups.
With the formation of the DFNS, the revolution began to spread beyond Rojava.
Turkey quickly began attacking the Rojava revolution, allying with some reactionary Syrian rebel groups.
Since 2011, Turkey had been supporting Syrian rebels fighting against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. But Turkish aid went mainly to groups hostile to the Rojava revolution. Increasingly, Turkey has abandoned the goal of overthrowing Assad and focused solely on attacking the Autonomous Administration.
Turkey supported ISIS in its attempted invasion of Rojava. When the SDF went on the offensive and captured the city of Manbij from ISIS in 2016, Turkey sent troops into northern Syria to block further SDF advances.
In January 2018, Turkey invaded Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish area that was part the DFNS. The reactionary armed groups that accompanied the Turkish army carried out crimes including murder, looting, kidnapping for ransom, persecution of religious minorities and ethnic cleansing.
Elsewhere in northern Syria, the Turkish army and allied reactionary groups have carried out ongoing harassment of the people through actions such as bombardment of villages near the borders between Turkish-controlled and SDF-controlled areas.
The US did nothing to discourage the Turkish invasion of Afrin. But the presence of US troops in northeast Syria has up to now provided a deterrent to further large-scale Turkish attacks.
The US had stationed some troops near the Turkish border to deter a new invasion, which would have caused the SDF to divert its fighters away from the battle against ISIS.
Trump’s December 19 announcement implied that, because ISIS had supposedly been defeated, the US no longer had any need for the SDF — and had no objection to a Turkish invasion of northeast Syria.
After Trump announced the proposed withdrawal, the Autonomous Administration called on the Assad regime and Russia to take action to deter the planned Turkish invasion.
Neither Assad nor Russia is a friend of the Autonomous Administration. Russia, which controls the airspace over Afrin, gave permission for Turkey to invade last year, as part of a deal in which Turkey pressured the rebel groups it supports to withdraw from other parts of Syria.
But Assad also does not want Turkey permanently occupying a large part of northern Syria. Hence he seems willing — for the time being — to cooperate with the Autonomous Administration in deterring further expansion of the Turkish-controlled area.
Some troops from Assad’s army, along with some Russian troops, have moved into the small town of Arima, with the agreement of the SDF, to deter a possible Turkish attack on nearby Manbij.
Assad is not a reliable ally for the Autonomous Administration. He rejects the idea of autonomy for any part of Syria. If given an opportunity, he wants to reimpose total control over the whole of Syria.
If more Assadist troops move into northeastern Syria to deter a Turkish invasion, there is a danger that they might try to take control of the area and impose a repressive regime. It is also possible that Assad may once again do a deal with Turkey.
But for the time being the Russian and Assadist troops are helping to deter a Turkish invasion.
However the Autonomous Administration does not want to be dependent only on Russia and Assad for support. It has called on the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone to prevent Turkish planes from bombing northeastern Syria.