The big story of the day, which is saying a lot, is the “shocking” announcement that American troops will be withdrawn from northereastern Syrian on the eve of a planned Turkish incursion into the area.
This directive — which seems to have caught everyone by surprise except Trump himself — leaves the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely made up of Kurdish civilians and Kurdish troops who led the fight against ISIS on the ground in Syria, essentially at the mercy of Turkish forces.
“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,’” the White House said in a statement. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.”
This is no doubt an extraordinary move by President Trump, who apparently made the decision after a phone call with Turkey’s Islamist dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday. Trump says he “consulted everyone,” but it’s not clear how he expected the Pentagon and White House to work together on a plan forward with less than a day’s notice before his announcement to the world, especially since Turkey and the US had been working together incrementally for months on an entirely different plan leading up to now.
The extent of the US pullout from the region and what comes next is murky at best, as officials scramble to prepare for such a move without further details issued. Lawmakers on both sides and even Trump’s own Department of Defense have expressed opposition to a Turkish incursion. which has caused concern that PDT may be losing GOP support at a time when he needs their support more than ever.
To ease fears about the decision, Trump took to Twitter to warn Turkey that if it did anything “off limits” he would destroy its economy, citing his ability to do so in the past. Unfortunately, no one in the administration has been able to outline what exactly constitutes “off limits” behavior, so the red line we currently have is written in invisible ink. Irresponsible and poorly thought out declarations have become a trademark of the Trump presidency, especially in the aftermath of what Trump considers to be friendly phone calls with world leaders.
This wagon-before-the-horse approach could be why today’s announcement looks a bit like a repeat of what happened in December 2018, when Trump abruptly announced he was pulling all troops out of Syria over the objections of the Pentagon, including his then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who ultimately resigned over the decision. In that instance, partially walked back his pronouncement, leaving a troop contingent in the country, in part because of Turkey’s threat to the Kurds across the border.
Now, the White House is saying the president did not endorse or support such an operation by Turkey but that about 50 to 100 special operators in the area of the expected incursion would move to other locations. The word from senior White House officials, at least at this point, is that troops are being relocated and this isn’t a ‘formal’ pullout from Syria.
The inability of the Trump administration to be consistent and decisive regarding decisions of withdrawal has had a negative effect on allies and damaged US credibility. That’s now happening again, with the president offering different messages than those from US lawmakers and, at least at first, his own Department of Defense. Until we’re about to get on the same page and deliver reliably policy, confusion will reign. And as long as that is true, it will be extremely hard to work with others to see the president’s vision, whatever that is.
So what exactly is happening in Syria?
Turkey has long wanted to move across the border into northern Syria, where it sees the Syrian Kurdish forces (specifically the People’s Protection Unit, or YPG, which forms the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces) as tied to to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), separatists that Turkey considers a terrorist group. The PKK has waged an insurgency against Turkey for decades, and it’s allied with the Syrian Kurdish forces across the border — which has long put Turkey on edge, even more so as the Syrian Kurdish forces took Syrian territory under their control.
Erdogan also wants to create a “safe zone” for Syrian refugees, as an economic downturn is increasing domestic pressure on him to resettle 2 million of the 3.6 million people Turkey has taken in.
But the Kurds that Turkey sees as a threat are Washington’s most critical partner on the ground in Syria. Kurdish fighters fought on the front lines against ISIS; they’ve received backing for years, including US technical and intelligence assistance and air support.
This put the US in an awkward position from the start — between a NATO ally in Turkey on the one hand and its most reliable partners in fighting (and detaining) the Islamic State on the other.
Ever since the Kurds routed ISIS from the cities and territory they once controlled in the region, Erdogan has gotten a lot more antsy about the Kurds establishing a de facto state in northeastern Syria. In Erdogan’s eyes, he has enemies gathered at his border; enemies with plenty of time to rest and prepare for their next enemy now that ISIS has been decimated. One way of backing these enemies off, in his eyes, is to extend his “safe zone” about 20 miles into Syria. Many fear that this safe zone expansion will be carried out in part by slaughtering Kurds who refuse to concede the territory, and it’s a reasonable expectation.
In response, the US recently has been working to ease tensions between the two parties. Starting in September, the US and Turkey began running joint patrols and the US helped push back some Syrian Kurdish forces from the Turkish border, including destroying their fortifications, to help create a smaller buffer zone in Syria. Basically, it was establishing a “safe zone” step by step, and without the potential violence that a Turkish invasion would unleash. The Pentagon promoted these efforts as recently as this Saturday.
However, Erdogan had evidently started to get a bit impatient with this approach and, conveniently, found a sympathetic partner in Trump, who has expressed a healthy skepticism of US troop commitments overseas ever since the campaign trail. Ending entanglements abroad was a key platform item of the Trump candidacy and Erdogan has seized on that to great effect.
It’s not hard to understand. Erdogan has wanted to enter Syria for a long time; Trump has wanted to leave Syria for a long time. The ground was always fertile for some type of agreement between our two countries in this realm.
In exchange for the American green light, Turkey agreed to “be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years,” according to the White House. It’s an arrangement that most consider troublesome, to say the least, as it’s not clear how or if Turkey would take on this responsibility, which until now has largely fallen to the Kurdish forces in the SDF.
Will the Kurds turn over their ISIS prisoners to Turkish officials? Will the Turkish officials actually take responsibility for them? There are many questions to be answered here, and no one has a very good crystal ball as to what expect.
The president defended his decision in a series of tweets today:
While I could never top the big picture coming from the horse’s mouth, I’ll do my best to expand our view.
As usual, there are competing narratives at play here. And as usual, the competing narrators hail from the Oval Office and the Swamp, respectively.
The Swamp/Media/Military Industrial Complex are pushing a narrative of American-backed Kurdish fighters left for slaughter by the very country they went to bat for against ISIS over the past several years. While this narrative tugs at the heart strings and invokes feelings of moral duty, it’s woefully inadequate to explain the situation on the ground and in the region.
Let’s make one thing clear here: the Kurds were not the only recipient of American weapons. Many of our weapons ended up in the hands of the very ISIS fighters we sought to eradicate in Syria and elsewhere. Many of those weapons went through a CIA black site in Libya you may know as Benghazi. As we’ve done repeatedly through our history, the CIA has happily dumped weapons into the hands of very bad people for the sake of fighting a mutual enemy. We did it in Afghanistan with Bin Laden’s Mujahideen fighters against the Russians. We armed the anti-communist contras in Central America who funded themselves by shipping cocaine to our borders (thanks to weapon sales with Iran, Go Reagan). And now, in order to fight Assad and, more importantly, his Russian puppeteers, we’ve taken to arming “democratic forces” in Syria who have been infiltrated by jihadists at all levels.
To be completely fair, there are genuine democratic forces in Syria. Unfortunately, as noted, they have been infiltrated, and even those with good intentions have handed over American arms and equipment to ISIS on the battlefield as a means of surrender. The battlefield in Syria is not the simple proposition that the anti-Trump forces in DC would have you believe. It’s not simply a matter of protecting good guys from bad guys. Half the bad guys on the ground are fighting with American weapons. The Kurds are fighting ISIS, who in turn have infiltrated the SDF, who are fighting Assad. It’s a circular firing squad in many respects.
Above all, the conflict in Syria is about influence. The very notion of abandoning the country so that Russia can further assert its dominance there is sacrilegious to the foreign policy establishment. Never mind that the occupation of the Middle East has only fueled our own bankruptcy, ruin and distrust of our government among the population. The intelligentsia who have run our foreign policy over the last 18 years are convinced that the power vacuum left by our absence will irreparably alter the world order in a way that will leave America toothless. Meanwhile, no one has bothered to ask why a growing Russian occupation in the Middle East will work out any better for them than it has for us.
So while I do take issue with President Trump’s disorganized and chaotic methods, I believe strongly that his base instincts are correct. And while he may do well to learn the protocols of broad DoD directives and how they effect the chain all the way down to the boots on the ground, the truth is there will never be a peaceful way of doing what needs to be done, namely bucking the foreign policy establishment and changing course in the Middle East. We have a fortune invested in the region and the defense contractors who stand to lose boatloads of money with a non-interventionist policy are not going to go quietly into that good night.
Trump is doing something that has needed to be done for a long time, and a lot of eggs are going to be broken in the making of this anti-establishment omelette. That’s not to say we should dismiss any and all concerns about some of those eggs. The fallout of Trump’s decision won’t be clear immediately, but it risks war between a NATO ally and the US-backed partner in Syria and a grave humanitarian crisis could be on the horizon. We have to be clear-eyed to the prospect of Turkish forces taking actions against the Kurds they’ve been eyeing for a long time.
The Kurds have lost approximately 11,000 fighters on the battlefield vs ISIS, more than the number of troops we even have there. If Erdogan thumbs his nose at Trump and slaughters those fighters, it will be a mark on the Trump legacy that will not soon wash off, at least not by election time. A turn for the worse here threatens to define Trump’s foreign policy legacy, which would be a shame considering it’s been a bright spot of his tenure. What’s worse, the Kurds had been voluntarily removing their military fortifications near the Turkish border at our request so that we may work with Turkey to incrementally expand their refugee safe zone. Not only do we risk leaving fighters for slaughter, but we risk doing it under the banner of fixing something that wasn’t broken, all by request of an Islamist tyrant who just finished shredding his country’s secular constitution.
Thus, this will all hinge on Erdogan’s respect for Trump. Does he take our president seriously? Or will he laugh at the presidential twitter feed, then give his men carte blanche to expand their border by any means necessary?
There is no doubt in my mind that President Trump has the correct idea of where our country should go in terms of the Syrian occupation. The question is whether he has done it in a way that serves the larger mission.
While this issue is convoluted, the stakes are clear. If we’re able to leave Syria to Putin and Erdogan without giving rise to a massacre, Trump will have the ultimate success story on which to further his doctrine of non-interventionism. If this plan is carried out haphazardly, however, mass graves will be filled and the neocons will have all the propaganda they’ll ever need to push around presidents well into the future.
This is far too important not to get right. You have the support of a war-weary nation, Mr. President, at least among those who don’t profit from body bags. Please make Mr. Erdogan understand that aggression in northeastern Syria is tantamount to a death sentence, or the hopes of millions of peace-loving Americans could be the greatest casualty of this conflict.
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