Today marks the next-to-the-last day of a ceasefire brokered by the Trump administration, the Erdogan regime and the Kurdish-led Syria Democratic Forces (sort of).
Since surprising everyone with an overnight change in policy regarding the allowance of Turkish incursions south, roughly 200,000 civilians have fled further south and Kurdish forces have switched allegiances from American-backed anti-Assad forces to the Russian-backed Syrian government they once fought — when they weren’t fighting ISIS, of course. Both Syrian government troops and Russian mercenaries have been welcomed into Kurdish towns as allies, with some making use of abandoned U.S. bases.
The point of the 5-day ceasefire was to allow for Kurdish forces to get the heck outta Dodge while the Turks moved to essentially expand their southern borders by 20 miles, an action that Erdogan argued was necessary to “combat Kurdish terrorists.” While the Kurds were essentially left out of the talks between Turkey and the U.S., they have let their feet do the talking in the form of retreat.
Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on one’s view—not all the Kurds have withdrawn from the area, and there have been skirmishes as a result. Reliable casualty figures are hard to come by, as each side has their narrative to promote, but the best estimates hover around 600 dead, including 300 SDF (Kurds), 200 Turks and 70 civilians. It should be noted that the margin of error for those numbers is substantial, which is why round numbers were given. There have also been reports of ISIS prisoners escaping during the chaos, but the lack of solid intel in that regard indicates the overall number to be low.
The other matter, and perhaps the most important in terms of gauging the future of this situation, is what happens to the oil. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced that the U.S. is keeping some troops near oilfields in northeastern Syria alongside Kurdish-led SDF to ensure ISIS can’t get to it. These oil fields were previously seized by ISIS, who used them to fund their caliphate via black market oil sales. Turkey was one of their best customers, by the way.
Now, as the ceasefire comes to an end, we are faced with a tense moment. Turkey has reiterated that, in accordance with their agreement with the U.S., they will advance with force against anyone still left in their safe zone. That currently includes thousands of Kurds, although the withdrawal of the last several days has greatly decreased their presence.
President Trump has said in the past that if Erdogan acts in a way that he considers to be “off limits,” he will respond forcefully. Neither the type of force he would use nor the actions that would provoke it are completely clear, which amounts to a very fuzzy red line. I give the president the benefit of the doubt that these details have been worked out behind the scenes.
There’s little doubt that everyone involved in this scenario would have benefitted from a proactive as opposed to reactive stance from the U.S. from the onset. That said, the overall agreement has gone about as well as can be expected. The administration has applied pressure on Erdogan since agreeing to step aside during their incursion and it seems to have kept the carnage to a minimum.
The next step will be the true test of the Trump foreign policy, and much of it will revolve around messaging. There is a contingent of Kurds who will not move from their positions within the proposed Turkish safe zone. Turkey has promised to eradicate those who refused to leave and claim that the Trump administration made an agreement with that understanding.
It’s not a matter of if there will be killing, or even when. It’s only a matter of how much and how well it’s captured by the media. Trump’s enemies, especially those within the Military Industrial Complex, will undoubtedly seize on this moment to show as much heartache and tragedy as possible. They want as much blood on Trump’s hands as possible. They want this to be such a disaster that no president ever dare defy their status quo again. For the neocons, this is a make or break moment.
The White House communications department, along with the president himself, must get ahead of this propaganda blitz to make their case to the American people. There is actually a great deal of support for an exit from the Middle East. What the administration must do is connect with that war-weary feeling while giving “big picture” facts about the conflict we’re trying to avoid.
But most of all, reassure the American people that ISIS is under control and will remain that way. The most potent weapon available to the president’s enemies is the perception that the president has allowed ISIS to run wild. This notion needs to be combatted and disproved by the president (especially social media), his cabinet, his press team and campaign surrogates. For the future of our foreign policy and consequently the lives of our youth, we cannot allow them to control the message. And our message must be that ISIS is dead, the troops are coming home and the Middle East is gonna stay screwed up either way.
This is a big moment, Mr. President. You have a great chance to succeed. Knock it out of the park.
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