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The U.S. Should Work With Turkey to Leave Syria

The other options are abandonment and a perpetual military presence.


Thanassis Cambanis argued that the United States should withdraw from Syria as it acknowledges its real priorities and makes hard tradeoffs. On the other hand, former U.S. Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey believes that the U.S. has multiple missions in Syria and should not withdraw. Both authors have valid points and advocate for different strategic objectives for the U.S. 

To achieve both goals, the U.S. should make a tactical compromise and work with Turkey in Syria. The U.S. partnership with the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was described as temporary, transitional, and tactical by officials. Now is the time to act on this official rhetoric.


Although the viewpoints of Thanassis Cambanis and James Jeffrey may appear to contradict each other, the United States can still withdraw from Syria and accomplish its regional objectives. By collaborating with Turkey, a NATO ally, the U.S. can exit Syria while continuing its efforts to eliminate ISIS, limit Iran's influence, and support the political process in Syria. 

The primary hurdle in reaching a Turkish-American agreement is the fate of the Syrian Kurds. The precise definition of “Syrian Kurds” is crucial in overcoming this obstacle. Generally, in the U.S., the Syrian Kurds are considered synonymous with the YPG-led SDF. In reality, the YPG does not speak for most Syrian Kurds and is mostly controlled by Turkish Kurds.

Many Syria discussions often focus on the SDF without delving into its true nature. As highlighted by former CIA officer Nicholas Spyridon Kass, it is crucial to recognize that the SDF essentially represents the Syrian faction of a well-known, originally Marxist, U.S.-designated terrorist group hailing from Turkey: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). 

Over four decades, the PKK has perpetuated a violent and totalitarian revolutionary agenda centered around its incarcerated leader, Abdullah Ocalan. This organization has been responsible for numerous terrorist attacks and clashes, targeting Turkish security forces, Kurdish civilians, and others, resulting in a reported death toll of approximately 40,000 since its inception in 1984. Notably, the YPG functions as the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, further emphasizing the interconnectedness of these groups.

It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will be able to convince Turkey to accept the YPG-dominated SDF. Any attempts to push for a peace process between the SDF or the PKK with Turkey are doomed to fail. It will not gain any support in Ankara. On the contrary, any such suggestion motivates Turkish decision-makers to search for alternative solutions, including unilateral military operations. The Turkish president recently stated the desire to launch another military incursion into Syria. The failed peace process with the PKK serves as a strong reminder never to attempt it again. 


If the U.S. wishes to promote cooperation with Turkey in Syria, it must support Syrian Kurds who are acceptable to Turkey and who represent the majority of Syrian Kurds. The Syrian Kurdish National Council is a pre-existing organization that meets these criteria and should be favored over the YPG.

The Syrian Kurdish National Council is a political umbrella that includes several Syrian Kurdish political parties. It has a close relationship with the Iraqi Kurdistan region, and both the Iraqi Kurdish regional government and the Syrian Kurdish National Council maintain good relations with Turkey. The Syrian Kurdish National Council has offices in Istanbul and Erbil and is recognized as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition. Turkey has chosen it as the Kurdish representative of the Syrian constitution committee. The Rojava Peshmerga is the armed branch of the Syrian Kurdish National Council. They were expelled from Syria by the YPG and are now based in Iraqi Kurdistan. Since then, they have been trained and restructured by the Iraqi Zarawani Peshmerga and have fought ISIS. They have also been deployed to disrupt PKK logistical lines in northern Iraq.

The United States, after abandoning the YPG, should require Turkey to work with the non-YPG factions of the SDF and the Syrian Kurdish National Council. As part of the agreement between the U.S. and Turkey, some form of local governance should be secured for the Syrian Kurds. These efforts should be further strengthened with the assistance of Iraqi Kurdistan. Erbil should be involved in certain aspects of the agreement related to the future of Syrian Kurds. Erbil, a trusted partner of both the U.S. and Turkey, can support the Syrian Kurdish National Council in establishing the new order.

American-Turkish collaboration offers several potential benefits. The U.S. can find a way to withdraw from Syria while also supporting Syrian Kurds and Arabs who are acceptable to Ankara instead of the YPG. It is important to ensure that this collaboration does not lead to conceding Syria to Iran or abandoning the political process for Syria. Bluntly, the U.S. has three options: abandon its goals in Syria, commit to working with Turkey, or commit to an endless presence in Syria.

The U.S. cannot maintain a presence in Syria indefinitely. However, the U.S. reluctance to cooperate with Turkey in Syria may ultimately benefit Iran. If the U.S. withdraws, the only obstacle to Syria becoming a puppet state of Iran would be Turkey. The SDF, which the YPG dominates, would probably make a deal with Damascus and align with Iran. Given the recent regional escalation due to the Gaza conflict, it is worth considering what this would mean for Israel's security. Additionally, Russia may be too preoccupied with its invasion of Ukraine to counter Iran's growing influence in Syria.

The decision of the U.S. to cooperate with Turkey would help in achieving strategic objectives such as eliminating ISIS, limiting Iran, and adopting an effective approach towards both goals. This decision could have geostrategic importance in addition to accelerating the new momentum in Turkish-American relations, even beyond Syria. It is particularly important in light of the invasion of Ukraine, as resolving the biggest dispute between the two largest armies in NATO would be useful.

If the U.S. decides to withdraw from Syria without coordinating with Turkey and instead withdraws after making a deal with Damascus or continues to stay in Syria, Turkish-American relations will suffer. As I explained elsewhere, Syria—which has a 565-mile border with Turkey—is a major concern that could negatively impact the new momentum in Turkish-American ties.

Given the current systemic situation in Syria, I foresaw that the U.S. would have no other option but to either give up Syria to Iran or collaborate with Turkey. Thus, I drafted a comprehensive plan that outlines how both NATO allies could work together in Syria. The proposed roadmap involves a transitional period where the Turkish and American spheres of influence in Syria are combined. The Turkish army will move into regions where the U.S. has a presence in Syria. The Arab non-YPG elements, the Rojava Peshmerga, and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army will form a decentralized unity in Syria. 

After the military transition period, elections will be held across this united territory, where locals will elect their local councils. Following this, a bi-chamber parliament, consisting of local council representatives and the legitimate political Syrian opposition, will elect the Syrian Interim Government (SIG). The SIG will be restructured and function as the primary interlocutor of the U.S. and Turkey in Syria.

With this, the Syrian conflict will transform a three-axis conflict into a two-axis conflict. This development opens the path towards implementing UN Security Council resolution 2254. The SIG areas would benefit from trade with and via Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, oil revenues, and international investments. To pressure the Assad regime and its backers, Iran and Russia, the sanctions against Damascus will be upheld. With each day passing, the negotiating power of Damascus will diminish. This will incentivize Russia and Iran to convince the regime to engage in the political process.

After the end of the transition period, the responsibility of fighting ISIS in Syria will be handed over to Turkey and the SIG. Additionally, the presence of Turkish military forces will prevent Iran from extending its influence over Syria and taking control of the oil fields. The longstanding Middle Eastern principle of Turkey and Iran never being present in the same area would apply, as evidenced by the Turkish–Iranian border being the oldest in the region.

Looking ahead, the Iranian land bridge connecting Tehran and Beirut runs through the important town of Abu Kamal. The PKK leaders depend on Iran to escape Turkish airstrikes, fleeing from the Iraqi parts to the Iranian parts of the Qandil Mountains. Because of this, the YPG-dominated SDF have been hesitant to attack Abu Kamal. This new situation would present policy options that could potentially cut off the Iranian land bridge from Syria to Iraq completely.

After withdrawing troops from Syria, the United States could maintain its air superiority in the region by using NATO assets stationed in Turkey, airfields in Kuwait, and bases in Jordan. With no American troops on the ground in Syria, Iran-backed Shia militias’ ability to target U.S. military personnel would be reduced. The U.S. air dominance would also assist U.S. allies in Syria.

This new approach to combating ISIS would represent a significant shift in perspective. While the current strategy centers on battling ISIS, it falls short of eradicating the group. The YPG-dominated SDF may indeed engage in anti-ISIS efforts, yet they also benefit from the continued existence of ISIS as it bolsters their legitimacy. Without the ISIS threat, they risk losing crucial support from the U.S. and their main source of legitimacy.

The current strategy aimed at defeating ISIS is unlikely to eliminate ISIS due to this legitimacy paradox. To address this issue, a new approach will be taken in the new period where Arabs and the reformed SIG will lead the fight. ISIS is no longer capable of launching assaults like it did in 2014. Now, the root causes of their existence must be tackled with political representation, legitimacy, popular support, and the region’s economic revival. 

The strategy to fight ISIS in 2014–2019 had to transform after the de-territorialization of ISIS, but it didn’t. That strategy facilitated a minority rule over the Arab majority, alienating the local Arab tribes who had already revolted. In the new period, once the initial transition is complete, the new fighting force will likely be more capable and more locally embedded than the current SDF with the support of the U.S. and Turkey. As a result of the tradeoff, Turkey will be responsible for ensuring that the strategy against ISIS is working.

In this new phase, the reformed SIG and local councils must address the ISIS threat. As local governance grows, social tensions are expected to diminish, reducing the pool for extremist recruitment. This strategy aims to tackle the root causes of ISIS in Syria. ISIS members and their families will face prosecution according to Syrian law in the courts of the SIG. Unlike the approach of the YPG-dominated SDF, the SIG adheres to Syrian legal standards for prosecuting crimes.

For the U.S. to honor its commitments to not only the Syrian Kurds but to all Syrians who still hope for a political solution, it must change tactics while maintaining strategic objectives. If the U.S. doesn’t work with Turkey, it will hand over control of Syria and the YPG-dominated SDF to Iran, either soon or at a later date.


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