US President Donald Trump's sudden decision to withdraw troops from Syria has sown a whirlwind of chaos cutting a swath across the Middle East, Europe, NATO and at home in the US.
Conceived in the heat of the impeachment inquiry moving into his inner circle and the heightened confrontation with the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, Trump's abrupt action has far-reaching consequences around the world that he probably had not foreseen as he sought to end the US involvement in the eight-year Syrian civil war. Unfazed, Trump on Wednesday called his move a "brilliant strategy". But Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives said on Wednesday that Trump was having a "meltdown" after she and other Congressional leaders of the Democratic Party walked out of a meeting with him on Syria when he heaped personal insults on them.
With the US troops moving out of the territory in north-eastern Syrian held by Kurds -- Washington's allies in the war against the Islamic State (IS) -- Turkey began an invasion of the area, attacking the Kurds. Turkey is a member of the NATO making it a military ally of the US and several Western European countries, but it has had a difficult relationship with all of them. Loosening its ties to the alliance, Ankara opted to buy the Russian $-400 missile defence system angering Washington, which refused to sell it the advanced F-35 jetfighters. The House adopted a bi-partisan resolution on Wednesday condemning the troop withdrawal and demanding that Turkey end its invasion of the Kurdish-held areas in Syria. Trump's close ally Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is among the many Republican leaders who have criticised him.
As a humanitarian crisis arises with as many as 100,000 Kurds uprooted from their homes and a terrorist threat looms from the breakout by thousands of IS jihadis detained by the Kurdish forces, international concern grows. The Security Council "expressed deep concerns over the risks of the dispersion of terrorists from UN-designated groups, including ISIL, and over the risk of a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation", its President Jerry Matthews Matjila said.
While the Council did not call for a Turkish withdrawal, most members individually or in groups have called for a ceasefire. Trump has dispatched Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a fire-fighting mission to Turkey, where they are expected to meet with Erdogan on Thursday. Trump has threatened to "swiftly destroy" Turkey's economy if it persisted with the invasion and attacks on Kurds and imposed sanctions on some Turkish officials involved in the invasion. But Erdogan is undeterred as he has a powerful weapon to threaten Europe: His country is host to millions of refugees whom it has restricted from going to Europe under a deal with the European Union after over a million of them flooded Europe in 2015. He recently threatened to send 3.6 million refugees into Europe if the European nations acted against him. That threat would give the Europeans pause from joining a Trump mission to "destroy" Turkey's economy.
The main consequence of the Turkish invasion is a redrawing of the geopolitical map of the region, with the Kurds turning to Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies for help and those two moving into areas held by Kurds and abandoned by the US. Russia's United Nations Permanent Representative Vassily Nebenzia told reporters that Turkey had told Moscow that they will respect the territorial integrity of Syria and his country hoped their operations there are "proportionate" to their declared aims. With US seen as abandoning its ally, Russia is looking for a more assertive role in the Middle East and elsehwere.
Turkey wants to project itself as a strong nation ready to lead the Islamic world. A major worry for other countries is that Kurds are abandoning their posts to fight the Turkish incursion allowing the thousands of IS prisoners－many from European countries－they had detained while defeating the IS in the territories that they had captured during the Syrian civil war to escape. Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer warned that they could even pose a threat to New York City.
The US troops had a nominal presence of about 200 to 250 troops in north-eastern Syria lately serving more as peacekeeping force than an active combatant force, primarily protecting and helping the Kurds who were fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organisations while simultaneously keeping at bay the Syrian army of Bashar al-Assad and Turkey. Unable to keep his major election pledge to bring back the 14,000 troops in Afghanistan after the negotiations with the Taliban faltered, Trump symbolically targeted the small deployment. The European and other US allies－or critics of the US pullout－are unwilling to replace the American troops in Syria with their own.
The territory of the Kurds, a distinct ethnic minority, is spread across Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq and seeking an independent homeland they have been at odds with the regimes of those countries. As they fought with US help and defeated the IS, which had taken advantage of the civil war to establish a version of its brutal caliphate in parts of Syria, the Kurds gained control of an independent territory. Over 11,000 Kurds are reported to have died in the fight against IS. Erdogan is using the US withdrawal to settle scores with the Syrian Kurds, whom he has accused of collaborating with their Turkish compatriots fighting Turkey. The problems in Syria started in the "Arab Spring" that began in 2010 when people in several nations rose up in revolt against their dictators. Syrian protests encouraged by the West grew into armed rebellion and eventually a civil war. Some US politicians like Representative Tulsi Gabbard have blamed it for the American penchant for regime change, a historic characteristic of the US that seldom turned out well.
In fact, the roots of the Syrian crisis can be traced to the Iraq War when then-President George W Bush with the support of Democratic Party stalwarts like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton tried a regime change under the pretense of going after weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
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