President Donald Trump's plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria means that the United States is relying on Turkey to shoulder the burden of countering the Islamic State. This move will provide the terrorist group with an opportunity to revive itself at a critical stage in the fight.
Trump claims exiting Syria has been his plan all along. Still, many U.S. policymakers, including those in Congress, were caught by surprise--especially given the September assertion by Trump's national security advisor, John Bolton, that U.S. troops would remain in Syria until the Iranians left.
When Trump announced his surprising about-face on what had been the closest thing Washington had to a Syria policy--the presence of 2,000 or so U.S. troops and support for Kurdish militia forces--he did so after a conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Shortly after the phone call, Trump tweeted, "Now ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains." He went on to add that the Turkish leader "has very strongly informed me that he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria."
Apart from taking Turkish talking points at face value, there is a fundamental problem with this calculation. Ankara has often demonstrated a reluctance to take on the Islamic State directly, preferring instead to focus its energy and resources on countering the Kurds and Erdogan's opposition. For years, Turkey has been playing a double game. Erdogan's main objective is to prevent Syrian Kurds from consolidating more territory and establishing a corridor parallel to the southern Turkish border. Eradicating the Islamic State's presence in Syria--and its networks within Turkey--is a secondary priority that has often been ignored entirely.
Yet, because the Islamic State has already established a nascent infrastructure in Turkey, the recent policy decision to withdraw from Syria could breathe new life into the group, endangering Turkish soldiers and civilians at home and allowing the group to make a comeback in Syria.
Turkey's borders remain far from impenetrable, and the Islamic State's leaders recognize the importance of a robust logistics capability. Syria is the conflict zone that provides the Islamic State with operational space, but Turkey--with modern communications, transportation, and links to the global economy--is close to an ideal country for a terrorist group to take advantage of, akin to a rear supply base or logistical hub. Its security and intelligence services possess finite resources, which remain primarily geared toward fighting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group Turkey knows well and has been combating for nearly four decades.
One of Erdogan's main arguments, and a point of contention between Ankara and Washington since the beginning of U.S. involvement in Syria, is that the People's Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia and the most effective fighting force in the broader anti-Islamic State coalition, is an extension of the PKK. Since the United States was backing the YPG as the main element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the argument goes, it was essentially sponsoring terrorism. This message resonates with Erdogan's supporters, but because the YPG was the most effective bulwark against the Islamic State, the United States is far less sympathetic to this characterization.
Relying heavily on Erdogan presents a problem regarding both capability and intent across two dimensions: fighting the Islamic State on the battlefield in Syria and stamping out Islamic State networks and small cells of militants already entrenched in Turkey. Following high-profile attacks in Ankara, Istanbul, and Gaziantep over the past several years, the Islamic State has demonstrated its reach and operational capability.
In terms of fighting the Islamic State in Syria, Turkey boasts a formidable military--on paper, at least. But even with the Islamic State cornered in small towns and villages along the central Euphrates River valley, the United States was unable to completely eradicate the remnants of the group. So why does Trump think the Turks will be able to achieve this objective? The U.S. withdrawal comes amid a flurry of reports that the Islamic State is hunkering down for a long fight and preparing to wage a guerilla insurgency in the Sunni heartland of eastern Syria.
It will be especially difficult to fight the Islamic State at a time when the leadership of the Turkish security forces has been gutted. In late 2013, Turkey launched an anti-corruption probe, which was accelerated following a coup attempt in July 2016. The instability has led to command-and-control issues and fissures among pockets of military and intelligence leadership. The Turkish government purged hundreds of thousands of public servants across the country, including police, military officers, prosecutors, and judges. As a result, the state was left with an inexperienced and poorly trained counterterrorism and intelligence staff that is often plagued by serious operational flaws and prone to human right abuses.
Instead of taking a more comprehensive approach, Erdogan's security policy has been one of either/or, with respect to fighting the Kurds and the Islamic State. The political will on the part of the Turkish government to wholeheartedly confront the Islamic State has been conspicuously lacking, which is somewhat vexing given operations launched by the Islamic State on Turkish soil. These include major attacks like the June 2016 Ataturk Airport incident in Istanbul or the assault on the Reina nightclub in January 2017. Ostensibly, Turkey should have a vested interest in uprooting a terrorist group from its territory. But in the Middle East, the enemy of one's enemy is still too often seen as a friend, so the Islamic State was viewed as a source of "strategic depth" against the Kurds, similar to the manner in which Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and military rely on the Taliban, despite attacks that have been directed against Pakistani personnel. This is merely viewed as the cost of doing business in a dangerous region.