~ Forward ~
The recent “withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Syria is one of the most complicated issues on might ever attempt to address, since so many groups and dynamics and international concerns are involved. Too many in the political arena and the media conflate our “alliance” with the Kurds and our fight against ISIS with the Kurds long-running war for a free unified Kurdistan. This was a “marriage of convenience”, however, it is a damn shame that the United States didn’t try to implement more measures and safeguards to prevent U.S. actions in the area from being used as a mechanism for giving Erdogan the upper hand in the area.
I saw no real need to be there, although it was a great staging area for our troops to poke a stick in Iran’s eye from time to time and it served a function in aiding Israel’s defense. But, a complete withdrawal doesn’t mean that there isn’t any other effective means of combating the rise of ISIS or defending Israel against Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas from other locations where our troops are still deployed in the Middle East. The only real good reason for the U.S. to maintain a presence in the Middle East is to keep shipping flowing through the Strait of Hormuz, if as is contended we are no longer really dependent on Middle East oil; but I suspect we are not yet quite as energy independent as all the experts seem to contend.
Oh – and if the title of this column offends you – then YOU are a large part of the problem. ~ J.O.S.
President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would be withdrawing from northeast Syria, after a phone call with Turkish President Erdogan and a tweet, created a flurry of condemnation from former military leaders, politicians and the media, who called it a betrayal of the Kurds, “precipitous” and a move that would allow ISIS to renew itself. They act as though our alliance with the Kurds was based on a treaty when it wasn’t, and they ignore the fact that this was a loose alliance of United States and Kurdish interests coinciding on the ISIS terrorism issue; the fact remains that both the United States and the Kurds understood that America wasn’t staying in Syria forever and this withdrawal day was coming one day.
No doubt, President Trump could have handled this situation a bit more adroitly, by intensely planning our disengagement through the Pentagon and the State Department, rather than announcing it on October 7th and starting the withdrawal the next day, something that was strongly opposed by the Pentagon. There should have been a plan in place to be implemented that would have afforded the Kurds a safe position, minimizing the “betrayal”, since they have shed blood and lost 11,000 fighters in the fight against ISIS, at the behest of the U.S.; and, Turkey’s concerns should have been met too, since the PKK communists, a designated terrorist organization, were the operational head of the Kurdish forces in the north even though sixty-five percent of the population in that area is Christian Arabs and Yazidis.
Obviously, the Kurds have been useful partners in the fight against ISIS, but they have also destabilized surrounding governments, to the best of their ability, and Leftist Democrats and “Conservative” Republicans suggesting Trump is betraying consistent allies is essentially a load of bull. The Kurds regularly taunted and attacked Turkey, making the situation in Syria more tumultuous and they constantly used their ISIS prisoners as leverage against the U.S. by constantly threatening to release ISIS prisoners and their families.
Until a few weeks ago, a joint U.S-Turkish effort effected border patrol, demilitarized the Syrian Democratic Forces along the border and the U.S. was attempting to provide Turkey the security guarantees it required. And as of yet, I have not heard why that was not enough for President Erdogan, other than his demand of 6,000 square mile “buffer zone”, within Syria, that Erdogan would control. This shouldn’t be a requirement for repairing Washington’s and Ankara’s relations, but Turkey’s miscalculations in diplomacy with Russia and Iran pushed the issue, since three million Syrian refugees in Turkey have become a political problem; some 115 million more now appear ready to breach the Turkish border under the current Russian-Syrian-Iranian drive to fill the power vacuum that is underway, and this is more than likely why security mechanisms created four months ago were not enough to satisfy Erdogan.
If the U.S. had attempted to construct a KRG model in Syria, we might not be here, but we never attempted to build such a construct. It also greatly angered Erdogan that we inverted our relationship through disjointed policy makers on the ground, who forgot the mission was to simply eradicate ISIS, while they started acting as agents for their PKK proxy — only a splinter group of all Kurdistan — and representing the Kurds’ cause to our Turkish ally as if the PKK was representative of all Kurds and worthy of equal footing with the nation state of Turkey. Essentially, we elevated a small splinter terrorist organization of a minority to equal stature of one of the strongest nations in the entire Middle East and a NATO ally, albeit a flawed allied of late. This was one-hundred percent untenable to the Turks.
The world is witnessing invading Turkish forces moving to secure and control the area, while Russia and Syria move into areas abandoned by the U.S., now aligned with the Kurds who signed an agreement with Syria on October 13th, and whoever is trapped within the current blockade of the area is in a terrible situation; Turkey’s President Erdogan, an Islamist and aspiring caliph, will not discriminate between PKK and the rest of the population, that was supposed to have been given five days to evacuate the area, so Turkey can control a twenty mile deep and three hundred mile long “buffer zone” within Syria, even though some of the five million Kurds in the area have lived there for a century or more.
Fighting was ongoing between various militia’s and the Turks on October 17th despite the “cease fire”, and air and artillery strikes continued to hit the Kurdish fighters, civilian settlements and a hospital in the border town of Ras al-Ayn, in northeastern Syria.
In recent days, Sinam Mohamed, U.S. Representative for the Syrian Democratic Council, offered an impassioned statement and observation: “The Syrian situation is not only with the PKK. What’s going on in Syria is not related to PKK. It’s the Syrian people, Arabs, Kurds. In this region, we have five million people living there. They are not all PKK — they are not [all] Kurds. They are Arabs. Do you think these Arabs are accepting to be a puppet in the Kurds hands? … So who is the alternative here? [The Turkish soldiers] who came to the region killing [civilians] after arresting them as it happened to [the secretary general of Future Syria Party] Hevrin Khalaf? So this is the alternative?”
On October 12th 2019, Hevrin Khalaf, the secretary general of Future Syria Party, was murdered by the Turkish backed Ahar al-Sharqiya fighters near the M4 Motorway in northern Syria, during the Turkish military operation against Syrian Democratic Forces and its YPG militia in Rojava, largely led by Kurds.
To be fair, President Trump had been telling his advisors for months to get this withdrawal planned out and prepared for implementation, since he was adamant about keeping his promise to “end forever wars”, and even Erdogan, as evil a man as he is, showed restraint over the past months, as he continuously warned he wouldn’t tolerate a PKK base of operations in northern Syria, that had the capability of being used against Turkey, at a later date, in a continuation of the Kurds century old fight to create a united Kurdistan, of 30 million Kurds, taking regions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
However, modern day Turkey under Erdogan is no longer the secular Turkey that it was, when it joined NATO. Erdogan has facilitated the return of Islamic fundamentalism, even to the point of allowing ISIS to operate from Turkey, when the U.S. fought ISIS in Iraq, and buying black-market oil from ISIS, essentially funding their continued war in the region. He murders his opposition, he has gone around embargoes and sanctions facilitating Iran’s nuclear program, he has purchased the S-400 from Russia, and his security people actually beat opposition protesters during one visit to D.C.
This is not a good ally. This is not a regime the United States should be aiding, and America damned sure shouldn’t be facilitating the extraterritorial aggression of Turkey either in Iraq or Syria.
Americans must always ask the important questions. Why are we in Syria and what’s the benefit and the U.S. interests in Syria? Please recall, the only mandate there was to address ISIS, not to aid the Kurds in their fight against Turkey or create a Kurdish state.
Many in U.S. leadership positions, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are uncomfortable leaving the fate of the area and the continued fight against ISIS in the hands of Russia, Syria and Turkey, since the Kurds have had to shift to focus from the prisons housing thousands of ISIS fighters — with approximately 1000 already having escaped — to defending the entire area against Turkish soldiers who will not hesitate to kill them on the spot, as Erdogan has already made clear, by way of his statement that he would “crush their [PKK] heads”. Through a phone call and a tweet, President Trump essentially set this all in motion and gave Erdogan the green light to invade, so Trump is apparently comfortable leaving the region to America’s enemies, Russia and Syria.
On October 13th 2019, President Trump spoke in a laissez-faire manner, stating: “The Kurds and Turkey have been fighting for many years. Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them!”
The only winners here for the moment are ISIS and Russia with a side benefit for Iran.
President Trump should have at least forced Erdogan to give the U.S. something in return. The U.S. received no concessions. This is what America gets when Her president operates by the seat of his pants on a wing and a prayer.
On a humanitarian level, the world is looking at approximately a third of Syria cast into chaos once more, while nearly half of Syria’s entire population is already internally or externally displaced, with millions having migrated to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere. And yes, some affiliate themselves with pro-Syrian defense forces, even though their ranks cut across all ethnic lines and walks of life, filled with Christians, Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen and tribes that have followed their tribal leaders into so very much a tribal geopolitical fight. These people are being slaughtered, while living under already absolutely horrific circumstances; missing is the up-close and intimate coverage of the substantial numbers of women and children who are literally dying of malnutrition, and with the approach of winter, many thousands will freeze to death; and, in more acts against humanity, the YPG, Turkish proxies, remnants of ISIS, Al Nusra and others still use these civilians, women and children in particular, as shields and political victims for their fight: And this must be stopped regardless of what the United States does.
With that said, there was a lack of any long term strategic purpose and logical policy for keeping U.S. forces in Northern Syria. Surely no one could seriously expect us to keep a thousand soldiers, or more with mission creep, in country for the next fifty or seventy-five years — Could they?
Despite President Trump’s assertion that this was a move to keep his promise to “end forever wars”, a U.S. presence is currently still deployed in eastern Syria along the border with Jordan. Those 700 soldiers being removed from the north are simply being redeployed in western Iraq and joining 2000 more in Saudi Arabia where they will act as a contingent deterrence to Iran’s continued expansion, across the Middle East. So, as everyone can see, this isn’t really a “withdrawal”, as 300 Special Forces troops will remain in the southern Syrian outpost of Al-Tanf, to fight an ISIS resurgence, and America still isn’t ending Her forever wars.
Had this been a true professionally conducted withdrawal, rather than this fiasco, and President Trump not spoken out of both sides of his mouth and spoken frankly to the American people, many might not now be faulting him, even though pulling back for Erdogan’s march into Syria was an unnecessary move that removed one more tool to fight Iran’s aggressive expansion, that now has forced every group and nation that has an implied or an actual treaty guarantee that the U.S. will fight on its behalf to take a second look at its arrangements. The American public no longer has the will to fight the Long War in Syria or anywhere else, at a time when Congress is moving to continue operations in Syria as a firewall against Islamic terrorism, and in the meantime, President Trump will rightly take criticism over his handling of Syria and the shuffling of troops. And at a time he should have been reconciling U.S. national security interests to proper strategies through the constitutionally mandated process, Trump has instead decide to let this fire consume what it will and burn itself out.
October 22, 2019
~ The Author ~
Justin O. Smith has lived in Tennessee off and on most of his adult life, and graduated from Middle Tennessee State University in 1980, with a B.S. and a double major in International Relations and Cultural Geography – minors in Military Science and English, for what its worth. His real education started from that point on. Smith is a frequent contributor to the family of Kettle Moraine Publications.