Trump Has Achieved a ‘Sloppy’ Success in Syria—For Now

Whatever the agreement was, it left the status quo in place, at least for the time being.

A convoy of U.S. military vehicles travels down a road in Iraq.
A convoy of U.S. vehicles is seen in Iraq after withdrawing from northern Syria. (Azad Lashkari / Reuters)

Was it a cease-fire, a pause, or something else? Whatever the agreement was between the United States and Turkey—each described it differently, and the Syrian Kurdish leadership said they only recognized the American version—it expired yesterday and, for the time being, left the status quo in place.

The five-day period of the agreement did include clashes, which U.S. officials downplayed, but it also stanched a chaotic period following President Donald Trump’s announcement that he was pulling American forces out of Syria, in which scores were killed and thousands were displaced.

So maybe it didn’t matter what you called it—it more or less worked.

That is, in the very narrow sense of stopping the worst of the Turkish onslaught against the Syrian Kurds for a time. Now there’s a different kind of order in place of the fighting: Syrian Kurdish forces have withdrawn from a chunk of territory near Syria’s border with Turkey; Russia has vowed to help Turkey push them from an area twice as large. The new status quo, as Trump’s Syria envoy testified, “has scrambled the entire northeast, undercut our efforts against [the Islamic State], and brought in the Russians and the Syrian-regime forces in a way that is really tragic for everybody involved.”

The U.S.-brokered semi-reprieve from the fighting was fundamentally a bargain between Turkey and the United States, in which the U.S. message was: Stop attacking the Syrian Kurds, who helped us beat ISIS; they’ll get away from a piece of your border; and we won’t come after your economy.

Yet in the days since, it’s only become clearer that each of the key players—the U.S., Turkey, and the Syrian Kurdish leadership—all believe they agreed to different things. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to “crush the heads of the terrorists” if they didn’t withdraw from an unspecified safe zone within the cease-fire period. Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, told the Associated Press that the SDF had agreed only to the American agreement, not the Turkish one.

Besides, there was no geographic limit to the “safe zone” spelled out in the U.S.-Turkey deal; if the Kurds withdrew from the 75-mile strip between the towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad, where the Turks had concentrated their assault in mid-October, Erdoğan could still claim there were terrorists who needed crushing elsewhere on his border; he has previously said he wanted the Kurds out of a 260-mile stretch of that frontier, more than three times the length the Americans had in mind.

“We never used a map,” said James Jeffrey, the Trump administration’s Syria and counter-ISIS envoy, in congressional testimony yesterday. “This sounds like a sloppy way to do things; it actually worked.” The Turks hadn’t launched a new offensive; the commander of the SDF wrote to Vice President Mike Pence to say that his forces had left “the relevant area of operations.”

Meanwhile, the Kurds and the Turks were also maneuvering for support from their international backers. Despite accusations that the United States had abandoned the Kurds, they seemed to have no intention of abandoning the United States. “We want peace … And we will stick to the United States forever,” the Syrian Kurdish leader Ilham Ahmed, a co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council, told reporters through a translator on Capitol Hill this week. She had come on an emergency visit to push for support for the Syrian Kurds, as a bipartisan group of lawmakers readied sanctions against Turkey and Senator Lindsey Graham hinted that policy changes might be coming from the White House. Graham, who is close to Trump, had condemned his Syria pullout; Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters there was a chance some troops could stay in the country to protect oil fields.

The Turkish government, for its part, was courting Russia, having been roundly condemned by American and European officials whom Erdoğan duly dismissed as backing terrorists. The end of the cease-fire coincided almost exactly with a planned meeting between Erdoğan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose forces are already patrolling some areas in northern Syria that the Americans have left. (A video posted by a Russian journalist purportedly showed him entering a recently vacated American base.)

That’s what Erdoğan tried to get from Putin, who committed to joint patrols along the border with the Turks “to facilitate the removal of” Kurdish militias. There was no immediate reaction from Kurdish representatives. Once again, they were not party to the agreement.

Erdoğan may have received enough guarantees, from enough international backers, to maintain the cease-fire—or whatever it is—for now. He has managed to pull both Russia and the United States into effectively guaranteeing Turkish security along its border with Syria. He has, through three separate incursions into northern Syria since 2016, chopped up a stretch of contiguous Kurdish-held territory they had hoped to keep autonomous.

That autonomy may ultimately have been the real threat to Erdoğan, argues Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert and the Cohen Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University. The Syrian Kurdish militias, despite their ties to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey, had never attacked Turkey themselves before the launch of the Turkish offensive more than a week ago. But their U.S.-backed statelet—the second the U.S. had helped bring about in the region, after Iraqi Kurdistan—could have been seen as a model by Turkey’s own Kurds.

“It’s a political threat, not a military threat,” Barkey said of the now-disintegrating Kurdish zone in northern Syria. “But [Turkey] couldn’t say that, so they sold it as a military threat.”