The world has experienced much turmoil in 2022. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the continued growth of an aggressive Iranian nuclear program, a provocative China, and the reemergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, the world remains a dangerous place. However, one troubled area that deserves a renewed focus is northeastern Syria.
Northeast Syria served as a hub and spiritual home of the ISIS caliphate for many years. During the horrific reign of ISIS, operations against Western targets were primarily planned in and deployed from Raqqa, Syria. I will never forget the slaughter carried out by ISIS terrorist that occurred in the Paris, France attacks in 2015 or the ISIS-inspired attacks that were carried out in the United States, and the countless other barbaric acts committed by ISIS forces throughout the world.
Thankfully, President Donald Trump destroyed the caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and the world is a much better place because of this action. The Biden administration has acted effectively in continuing the gains made in the region by leaving approximately 900 U.S. forces in Syria, most in the northeast, to work with local fighters forces to ensure ISIS does not reemerge as they once were. But this is complicated, for a very specific reason.
The looming problem in northeastern Syria involves the legitimate national security concerns of our Turkish North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally. The Syrian Democratic Forces, the primary force relied upon to destroy the ISIS caliphate in Syria, along with American support, is predominantly made up of a Kurdish group known as The People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey views the YPG as a threat to their national security given their reported connection with another group known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organization under Turkish and U.S. law.
I identified this problem years ago in Senate committee hearings, where I challenged the Obama administration to work to address Turkey’s concerns. Unfortunately, nothing was done and Turkey moved into northeastern Syria several years ago because of their concerns regarding Kurdish elements launching terrorist acts from northeastern Syria.
The challenge for us moving forward is how do we support those who helped us destroy the ISIS caliphate without undermining Turkish national security? This problem has vexed Republican and Democrat administrations alike, but one thing is certain: it will not be solved by ignoring it. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have worked to find a solution, but chaos throughout the world has put this issue on the backburner.
This matter requires our prompt attention because ISIS is beginning to reemerge in northeast Syria. The al-Hol internally displaced people camp in northeast Syria houses an estimated 57,000 refugees, many of whom are women and children linked to the Islamic State, and serves as a hotbed for ISIS recruitment. It is just a matter of time before this problem explodes, and we have a fight on multiple fronts – not only that of terror threats from ISIS, but potentially between Turkey and Kurdish elements in Syria as well. The biggest beneficiary of additional regional conflict would be ISIS.
I plan to travel to the region soon and look forward to working with the Biden Administration to find a solution to this growing problem. It is imperative that we recognize the legitimate national security concerns of Turkey, create buffer zones between the elements that Turkey views as terrorist groups, support those who helped us destroy the physical caliphate, and ensure that ISIS does not reemerge.
The solution I view as most viable is to address Turkey’s national security interests while simultaneously developing a business relationship between the government of Turkey and the population of northeastern Syria. There are oil fields in northeastern Syria that, with more investment, could produce larger quantities of oil – a benefit to both the world oil market and the economies of northeastern Syria and Turkey. The best way to solve this problem over time is to make it a win-win for the residents of northeastern Syria and our Turkish allies, both on the security and economic front.
While this is a complicated problem to solve, it is imperative that Congress and the Biden administration work together to find a solution before it's too late. When ISIS is thriving in the Middle East, our way of life is threatened here at home. The gains we've made to destroy the caliphate are in jeopardy. The brewing conflict between Turkey, our NATO ally, and forces within northeastern Syria is growing by the day. Now is time to act. The process of solving this problem will be difficult, but working toward a solution is far better than to ignore the problem and have to deal with ISIS all over again.