When U.S. President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria last month, the international community was shocked.
“The American withdrawal from Syria was expected, but too soon,” said Mendi Safadi, Israeli Communication Minister Ayoob Kara’s former chief of staff and head of the Safadi Center for International Diplomacy, Research, Public Relations and Human Rights (where the author also works). “Trump’s announcement was contrary to the interests of the U.S. and its allies in the region.”
Israelis quickly expressed concerned about the decision, as did the Kurds, Europeans, and many across the Arab world. These fears were soon borne out, as Turkey took steps to fill the power vacuum that would be left by a U.S. withdrawal from Syria.
It is widely believed that Turkey will go after the Kurds rather than Islamic State (ISIS) and Iran. Sherkoh Abbas, president of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, said there was an agreement between Turkey and Iran to cooperate on removing the United States from the region and to go after the Kurds. He said Turkey and Iran also had an agreement to help Iran bypass U.S.-led sanctions.
Indeed, many argue that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would rather have ISIS and Iran as neighbours than the Kurds. The question remains, if Turkey follows through and invades northern Syria, how would it affect Ankara’s foreign relations?
From an Israeli point of view, any distraction from the fight against what remains of ISIS and the struggle against Iran does not serve its strategic interests. This is precisely why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Trump to slow down his withdrawal from Syria, after U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham made a similar plea. Still, the U.S. withdrawal is more problematic for another player.
“While Israel is capable of repelling any threat despite the difficulties, the Kurds are expected to be ethnically cleansed from the area,” said Safadi.
Today, the Kurds are the only thing standing in the way of a Shia crescent stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean. So long as this buffer exists, the Iranian government must remain focused on fighting the Kurds in Syria and Iraq in order to strengthen the Shia crescent. However, once the Kurds are defeated and an uninterrupted Shia crescent becomes an established fact, Iran will be able to focus its efforts on harming Israel.
For this reason, Abbas said the elimination of the Kurdish buffer zone represented “a huge threat to Israel, to North Africa, to Europe and the US. The only deterrence to Iran is the Kurds. The only way to disrupt the Shia crescent is the Kurds. It is essential for the U.S. to stay in the region and to not ruin the last safe haven in Syria. Trump promised to go after Iran. Now, he is making it easy for Iran.”
Despite this, Israeli former diplomat and former deputy mayor of Netanya, Dr. Yitzchak Ben Gad, does not believe that anything will change regarding Turkish-Israeli relations. “Israel is not involved in the war in Syria. We only provided humanitarian assistance to the wounded and the injured. The Kurds are our allies but we won’t go into Syria in order to defend them. It is not our business. We just won’t tolerate the Iranian foothold in Syria. Neither Turkey nor Russia is out to destroy Israel. If Turkey invades Syria, it is a Syrian problem. It is a violation of (Syrian President Bashar) Assad’s sovereignty. If someone has an issue, it will be Assad and the Russians. The only problem from our view is that it harms the Kurds. Since Erdoğan wants to destroy the Kurds, the issue is when the U.S. leaves, he will go after them severely.”
Journalist Rafael Said said Israel had a strong relationship with the ruling party in the autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, but not with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting inside Turkey since 1984, reinforcing the view that Israel would not intervene on behalf of Syrian Kurdish forces that are linked to the PKK.
Still, any Turkish invasion of northern Syria would adversely affect Turkey’s relationship with the Arab world.
“Turkey will be depicted again as a colonialist country because in the memory of the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire is still alive and kicking,” said Middle East scholar Mordechai Kedar. “This reminds too many people about the means which the Turks ruled over the Middle East, by flogging people with a whip, by hanging them on the gallows or by sitting them on the khazouk, where they put you like a chicken on the grill. Occupying parts of Syria will bring all of these memories back and people will talk about this no doubt, especially the Kurds, whose dream to enjoy autonomy in Syria will be shattered.”
Syrian Christian dissident Daad Mamary said: “All of the Syrian people know that Erdoğan is not for us. We made a revolution against the Turkish Empire long ago. We are not going back to that. We need Turkey to respect their border with us and to stay inside their border.”
Kani Xulem, director of the American Kurdish Information Network, agreed: “Turkey has no business invading another country. It only wants to go there because there are Kurds who have self-government. Erdoğan is allergic to the idea of Kurds becoming free. Kurdish freedom for him is an act of provocation. I think the Arabs resent it. No one has extended an invitation to the Turks to come to Syria. There are some mercenary forces fighting with the Turks, but they are Arabs who depend on the Turks. They think that if they have a province under their control, they can negotiate better. But Assad is winning and Turkey has to leave Syria.”
“Turkish-Arab relations would be better if Turkey will try to become more Turkish and not to be more Arab than the Arabs,” said Sadi. “Nobody accepts Erdoğan’s Arab leadership.”
Any Turkish invasion of Northern Syria would also harm Turkey’s relationship with Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already told Erdoğan to act with “restraint and responsibility” following the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, where French forces are expected to stay.
“France has been really hurt by ISIS,” said Xulem. “They feel that what the Kurds have done is wonderful and should be applauded and they should not be abandoned in order to please the Turkish government.”
“The relationship with the EU will be bad if Turkey invades northern Syria because the EU doesn’t like occupations and for a while, the EU countries will criticise Turkey for occupying that part of Syria,” said Kedar, adding that Europe might refrain from action. “The EU did not do much about the Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula. With time, the EU will leave it alone for it won’t be news anymore.”