Commentary | 18 October 2019

Trump hands Syria an easy win

The Kurds will have to make their peace with Bashar al-Assad. Western governments will worry about ISIS fighters becoming bargaining chips.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

The Kurds will have to make their peace with Bashar al-Assad. Western governments will worry about ISIS fighters becoming bargaining chips.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

In an interview in February 2016, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed that his military would retake the whole country. By the end of that year, with the support of Russian airpower, his forces had recaptured the country’s second largest city, Aleppo. And now, more than three and a half years later, as a result of the United States commander-in-chief’s unilateral decision to precipitously withdraw his forces, Assad’s military has begun to re-establish itself in the country’s north-east.

The conflict in Syria still has some way to run, but Damascus has been handed an opportunity to expand its footprint in the country at a price far less than it had expected to pay.


Much has been said about Washington’s "betrayal" of the Kurds as a result of Donald Trump’s willingness to accede to Turkey’s desire to launch a ground invasion along Syria’s border.

And while the speed with which US forces are withdrawing has caused huge military problems for the Kurds and their US and coalition partners on the ground and reputational damage for Washington, politically it has simply accelerated the Kurds’ compact with Damascus.

Washington was never going to stay in Syria forever and the Kurds have long known this. The Syrian government had always maintained a footprint in north-eastern Syria to force the population to interact with the state’s bureaucracy.

For all the talk of Kurdish autonomy, it is still the Syrian state that issues things such as educational certificates and passports that allow individuals to travel outside the country and enter universities inside it.

Talks between the Kurds and Damascus have been going on for some time. But whereas the ambiguity of the US withdrawal timeframe gave the Kurds some sort of leverage in their negotiations, the spontaneous decision made by Trump also gave Damascus a huge negotiating advantage over the Kurds.

So we now have the situation where Turkey and some of its not-so-savoury Syrian militiamen have invaded Syria, and negotiated a ceasefire through the US that on the face of it solidifies Turkish operational aims.

Meanwhile, Syrian and Russian troops are deploying into positions previously manned by the United States, which in turn has had to destroy one of its ammunition storage facilities, lest it fall into the hands of Turkish-backed forces.

Turkey’s invasion and Trump’s response to it has exacted a toll not only on the people of northern Syria but also on Washington’s reputation as a reliable partner. Democracies are robust entities, however, and the reputational damage won’t be permanent even if the stain will be there for some time.

Western governments are also concerned about two possible by-products of the Turkish ground invasion and the departure of the US and coalition forces. The first is the threat made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to allow 3.6 million Syrian refugees to flood into Europe if the Europeans continue to refer to the Turkish military operation as an invasion. It is debatable whether his threat is real or simply rhetoric, given that he has also said the secondary aim of his intervention into Syria is to return those same refugees to Syria.

The second area of concern is the fate of Islamic State detainees – the male and female members and their children. A limited number of male fighters have escaped already and the fate of thousands of others is still up in the air. The Kurds are still in charge of their security and while they say they are maintaining it for the moment, their ability to do so without US support is a real dilemma.

Where the buck stops

Trump has said the Turks would now be responsible, but given the location of some of the largest camps well outside the self-declared Turkish security zone as well as the logistical, political and legal overheads inherent in taking responsibility, Ankara has refused responsibility for camps located outside this zone.

Whether the Syrian government would look at taking responsibility through the Kurds, or whether the Syrians or Kurds themselves could demand a price from the prisoners’ countries of origins to maintain security, are possibilities that can’t be discounted.

But the luxury of time that Canberra and other Western and regional capitals had in dealing with their nationals detained in these camps is fast disappearing. Third country removals to somewhere like Iraq, whose detainees number in their thousands, could be explored, or the timetable could be expedited for the repatriation of foreign nationals to their country’s legal systems.

And then there’s the question of those former Australian and British citizens whose citizenship has been stripped from them. There will be no easy policy fixes to the problem created by those who joined Islamic State but who in defeat now seek the support of the very country they rejected.