Turkey’s Syria Strategy in Doubt After US Policy Shift

The US announcement that it will focus on fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) remnants in Syria rather than guarding oil fields in the region could force Turkey to rethink its strategy in the war-wracked country, analysts believe.

In a break from the Trump-era policy, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday that about 900 US military personnel and contractors had been “disengaged” from Syrian oil fields since last August.

The move follows a deal between a US firm, Delta Crescent Energy, and the US-allied Syrian Kurds to develop and export the vast crude oil reserves in northeast Syria.

US forces in the region “are not authorized to provide assistance to any other private company seeking to develop oil resources in Syria,” said Kirby, adding that the responsibility for the protection of civilians justifies the presence of US forces around the oil fields.

With Washington’s focus now on defeating ISIS, the main question is whether this policy shift under the Biden administration will push Turkey to redesign its Syria policy.

Navvar Saban, a military analyst from the Istanbul-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies, believes the US move will have wide-ranging implications.

“The US is now there to secure the area against ISIS by supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). US support is limited to military backup for the SDF,” he told Arab News.

In its latest quarterly report, released on Wednesday, the Pentagon said that clashes between Turkey and the SDF near Ayn Issa have undermined the force’s fight against ISIS.

“Coalition forces continued to advise the SDF on its independent operations against ISIS. However, the SDF, which has no air assets, relied on coalition air support, including for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and partnered with coalition forces during most of its operations,” it said.

However, Ankara is critical of Washington’s cooperation with the SDF, which it considers a terrorist organization. Turkey also fears that further support may encourage the Syrian Kurds to seek greater autonomy and also inspire their supporters in Turkey.

According to Saban, strengthening the SDF will lead to Turkey’s line of control being redrawn, and will eliminate joint patrols between the Russians and Turks in the east.

“There have been a lot of statements from Turkey about their advance into the area because of the terror threat. Now, after the Pentagon statement, it is crystal clear that such an advance will no longer happen,” he said.

According to Caroline Rose, senior analyst at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, the switch in US policy away from guarding Syrian oil fields is a sign that the Pentagon is adopting “a new phase of force projection,” narrowing its focus on combating ISIS enclaves in the northeast and cooperating with local forces such as the SDF.

“This development is taking place parallel to the US draw-down in Iraq, where the Pentagon has withdrawn from eight bases and reduced its force to 2,500 personnel,” she told Arab News.

While increased cooperation between the US and the SDF will be viewed unfavorably in Ankara, Rose believes it is unlikely Turkey will be compelled to launch a military campaign against SDF elements similar to Operation Peace Spring in 2019 or Operation Olive Branch in 2018.

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