The president has touted complete victory over ISIS, the primary reason behind the U.S.’s troop presence in Syria, and its support for Kurdish militia fighters known as the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
However, Trump’s decision to reduce forces in Afghanistan and Syria were deciding factors behind the resignation of former Defense Secretary James Mattis, and the top U.S. envoy to the global anti-IS coalition Brett McGurk. On Saturday, Navy Rear Admiral Kevin Sweeney stepped down as chief of staff to the Secretary of Defense.
Meanwhile, many military officials, regional analysts and senior U.S. lawmakers insist that IS still remains a capable force, and could regroup if U.S. troops leave. They also warn against abandoning the Kurds, whose forces suffered thousands of casualties fighting alongside.
Credited as the most effective force in driving IS out of Syria, the Kurdish YPG is seen by Turkey’s government as tied to Kurdish insurgents who have carried out acts of terrorism against the Turkish state, and Ankara has repeatedly threatened to attack them in northeastern Syria.
Turkey has already launched previous offensives against the Kurds, taking territory from them in Syria’s northwest. Representatives of the Kurdish forces have described the U.S. withdrawal announcement as a shock and a betrayal of trust.
Trump defended his decision on the conviction that other countries should take on the burden of fighting whatever remains of IS, and has made tentative agreements with Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan to essentially hand over the job to the Turks. Erdogan has promised that his forces, along with their own allied Syrian fighters, will take up the anti-IS fight — a promise viewed with suspicion by critics who think Erdogan could attack the Kurds anew once the U.S. departs.
Fear of a Turkish assault has prompted the Kurds to increase their engagement with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, who they see as potentially providing them protection from the Turks. Security experts also fear that a Turkish offensive would distract the Kurds from their continued battle against ISIS.