The stars and stripes flags still seen waving above military vehicles in Manbij, in northern Syria, are a fitting image of what foreign policy has become in the time of Donald Trump. After having announced, via tweet, the “immediate withdrawal” of the US forces from the country just 10 days ago, yesterday Trump tweeted out a very different message, telling the world and the Syrians that the withdrawal will not be so immediate after all: the Americans will not leave Syria in 30 days, but in four months, said the most wavering president of all time.
This decision is of crucial importance, as in the meantime, the other players on the field are organizing themselves in view of the departure of the US Marines. While previously the main fear was that of an embarrassing face-off with the Turkish military forces in the western part of the predominantly Kurdish region of Rojava, now Damascus has deployed its armed forces at the request of the Kurds: a possible unfortunate encounter would no longer be merely embarrassing, but might become outright explosive.
Everyone has converged on Manbij: the Marines who aren’t going away yet, the arriving Syrian government troops, the remaining Kurdish defense units, and the Turkish soldiers who have been threatening an invasion. Looks like there won’t be one: Turkish President Erdogan, who has gotten very close to Trump recently, has suspended what looked like an imminent operation against the territories east of the Euphrates and is waiting to see what will happen on the ground. For now, Rojava is left with bated breath, with four more months to organize their resistance to a possible invasion.
The US contingent will have enough time to organize the withdrawal of men and military equipment, and decide what they will transfer to other Middle Eastern fronts and what they will leave to their allies (and, in particular, to which allies—would this include giving arms to the Kurds, who would use them against Turkey? That might be the final breaking point between the two largest armies in NATO).
Thus, the year starts with even more confusion around the Middle East policy of the current White House. Facing strong domestic opposition for having ordered the withdrawal—to the point of the Pentagon chief, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, resigning over it—Trump is trying to weather the storm, changing his triumphalist tune about the Islamic State in the process: it’s “mostly gone,” he wrote Tuesday in a tweet, while just 10 days ago he was saying it was nothing more than a bad memory.
While we wait to get a better picture of the situation, the two elephants in the room, Turkey and Syria, both sources of headaches for Trump, are taking active measures. At the request of the Kurds, the Syrian government army has moved on Manbij, surrounding it on three sides—south, east and west—after anti-government militants with ties to Ankara began to deploy outside the city. Damascus sent in the Republican Guard and two army divisions, after the Syrian Democratic Forces (the multi-ethnic and multi-denominational federation led by the Kurdish units) transferred control over the Tishrin dam, recaptured in December of 2015 during the liberation of Kobanî (Ayn al-Arab) from ISIS occupation, to the government forces.
Turkey, however, has no intention of being relegated to a mere bystander: 2019 began with the visit by the Turkish Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, to the tomb of Süleyman Shah in northern Syria, occupied by the Turkish forces in February 2015. There, Akar reiterated the belief of Erdogan and his Ottoman-like government that the sovereignty over the tomb is rightfully Turkish—and, in the vision of “the Sultan,” this should extend to no less than over all Rojava.