Explained: Why Turkey stands to gain most from US withdrawal from Syria
Ankara, Dec 26: The sudden announcement of US President Donald Trump to withdraw the country's troops from the war-torn West Asian country of Syria has taken Washington's allies by surprise. However, there are a few nations that stand to gain from this retreat and of them, perhaps the most fortunate is Turkey, a country which has border with Syria to its south.
Turkey and the US and its Nato allies have often found themselves at odds over Syria even though they both were opposed to its dictator Bashar al-Assad. The reason being the US, in its fight against Assad, backed mostly Kurdish forces in Syria, believing they were most capable of defeating the Islamic State (IS).
Turkey, on the other hand, has been fighting the Kurdish separatists located at its southeast and saw the rise of the Kurds along its border with northern Syria as a security threat. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently even threatened a military intervention against the Kurdish forces in Syria despite the US backing them since 2015. The withdrawal of the American forces now would allow Turkey to deal with the Kurdish forces with more liberty even while opposing Assad.
Days before Trump's sudden announcement of withdrawing forces, Erdogan said the former had responded positively to his plan to invade the zone in northeast Syria controleed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that have so far served as the US's boot in the fight against the IS.
'A major diplomatic gain for Turkey'
"There is little doubt that [Erdogan] welcomes it as a major diplomatic gain which clears the way for a third Turkish military advance into northern Syria," Al Jazeera quoted Bulent Aliriza, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Turkey Project in Washington, said. The SDF is mainly comprised of troops from the People's Protection Units (YPG) that are in turn tied to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which has fought against the Turkish state since 1984 which has seen the death of at least 40,000 people.
Over the past two years, Turkey has conducted two military operations west of the Euphrates, the most recent being earlier this year when Turkish forces and allied militias drove out the YPG from Afrin, a Kurdish enclave in the northwest. Turkey, however, has not launched any substantial operations east of the river.
Washington's support and training to the YPG has been one of the key irritants in the relation between the US and Turkey over the last few years. The YPG controls vast tracts of land in northeast Syria from the eastern bank of River Euphrates to the Iraqi border and that include more than 400 kilometres of border with Turkey.
The US's withdrawal is thus seen as a major diplomatic triumph for Ankara and Erdogan.
"There's a narrative that Erdogan convinced Trump to withdraw from Syria. I don't know to what extent that's correct but it's been received very positively in Turkey, especially from the perspective of the YPG angle because it weakens them politically, diplomatically and militarily," Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies and a former Turkish diplomat, told Al Jazeera.
Ulgen also predicts that the US exit could see the YPG allying itself with the Assad government with which the Kurds have not engaged in serious conflict during the last seven-year war.
For Turkey, which might launch a low-scale operation to neutralise its enemies, the US withdrawal could also bring political benefits as local elections are due in a few months' time and the weakening of the anti-nationalist forces could see the political leadership making substantial electoral gains.
For Turkey, the gains are not just confined to the foreign affairs but also its domestic issues and that makes it one of the biggest winners from Trump's call of retreat.