After his Oct. 16 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria, resulting in outraged bipartisan disapproval from the House, anger and disbelief from the Kurds and an immediate, aggressive military offensive by Turkey.
Without U.S. presence, the Kurds, though having proven themselves to be impressive fighters in defeating ISIS, have already suffered casualties at the hands of the Syrian National Army. The U.S.-requested removal of protective fortifications built in anticipation of Turkish offenses further complicated the fight and embittered the Kurds against the U.S. It’s unfortunately far harder to imagine that a peaceful solution will be agreed upon than for the Kurds to fight yet another conflict. Regardless of any self-interest that may have motivated their efforts to defeat ISIS, working with the Syrian Democratic Forces cost them 11,000 fighters’ lives, a real sacrifice that should not be forgotten so immediately by the U.S. The Kurds have been battered and forced to move around for years while trying to find a home in the Middle East, and once again find themselves in danger. In volatile regions along the Turkish-Syria border, tensions bubbled up Saturday both in the form of a car bomb that claimed 13 lives and in angry protests against Turkey in Qamishli.
However, the situation is not as simple as just keeping our word and protecting our very recent partner. Turkey, a NATO ally with a blemished relationship with the U.S., has a large population of Kurds living within its borders. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a U.S.-recognized Kurdish terrorist organization, has clashed with the Turkish government for years, resulting in nearly 40,000 dead in that time. Its connection to the growing Syrian Kurdish population raises a national security threat of an internal uprising that has made Turkey extremely uneasy since the U.S. first armed the Syrian Kurds in 2017.
Some have even raised concerns that our departure leaves room for Russia to move in. Russia has already entered territory once held by Americans and has begun to take the U.S.’s place in mediating conflicts between Turkey and Syria. The U.S. needs to either accept its role as a dominant power in the region with all of its responsibilities or commit to an uninvolved and less powerful position.
Israel, an increasingly crucial regional power, is also impacted by the withdrawal. Some claim that a smaller U.S. presence in the region would embolden Iran and alarm Israel, but in an interview with Leor Clark, the outreach and marketing chair of Friends of Israel at Virginia Tech, she held that the recent changes, though not necessarily favorable to Israel, are unlikely to cause any lasting damage to its relationship with the U.S.
“Israel is a self-sufficient country. They have this notion that they can defend themselves, and I believe that is true,” Clark said. “(The U.S. withdrawal) does make the threat from Syria to Israel a little stronger, but that threat was already there to begin with ... I don’t think it affects daily Israeli life; it hasn’t so far. People still go about their days.”
It’s difficult to accurately predict the effects of foreign policy, and as we’ve discovered through our rough history with Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s especially challenging in a tumultuous region like the Middle East. Do we want to prioritize American influence or fewer responsibilities? And will we stand by a powerful and potentially useful NATO ally or protect a loyal partner from brutal retribution? It’s hard to find a clear way forward, but impossible until the U.S. chooses its end goal. As students at Virginia Tech, we are all members of the next generation of global citizens and have a duty to reflect on the U.S.’s evolving role in the world and how we will each contribute meaningfully towards it.