The war in Syria is about to enter an uncertain phase after the White House announced late Sunday that it was withdrawing from northeastern Syria in advance of Turkey’s military operations across the border.
This directive — which apparently blindsided allies and lawmakers and national security officials alike — 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, 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 an extraordinary move by President Donald Trump, who apparently made the decision after a phone call with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday.
The extent of the US pullout from the region and what comes next has gotten a bit confused in the hours after it was first announced. It received serious pushback from bipartisan lawmakers and even Trump’s own Department of Defense, which said it opposed a Turkish incursion.
After Trump defended his decision, he took to Twitter to warn Turkey that if it did anything “off limits” he would destroy its economy. Later, on a call with reporters, a White House senior administration official said the president did not endorse or support such an operation, but that about 50 to 100 special operators in the area of the expected incursion would move to other locations. The senior White House administration official also said the troops were being relocated and this wasn’t a formal pullout from Syria.
Still, Monday’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. Trump, 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.
The whiplash around Trump’s decision rattled allies and badly 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. In doing so, the US is jeopardizing its partners on the ground and unleashing unpredictable consequences for Syria, now in its eighth year of war.
What the heck is happening in Syria is a question a lot of people are asking right now
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 Workers’ 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.
Erdogan also wants to create a “safe zone” for Syrian refugees, which would extend about 20 miles into northeastern Syria. An economic downturn in Turkey is increasing domestic pressure on Erdogan to resettle 2 million of the 3.6 million people the country 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.
As ISIS was routed from the cities and territory it once controlled in the region, Erdogan has gotten a lot more antsy about the Kurds establishing a de facto state in northeastern Syria.
In response, in August, the US and Turkey agreed to a security mechanism designed to ease tensions between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds. In 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.
U.S. and Turkish militaries are executing concrete steps as part of the security mechanism framework to address Turkey’s legitimate security concerns. The Department of Defense will be transparent as each phase of the security mechanism is implemented. #WorkingTogether #Allies pic.twitter.com/6xOHhlpL0f— U.S European Command (@US_EUCOM) October 5, 2019
But Erdogan had evidently started to get a bit impatient with this approach. The Turkish president apparently found a sympathetic partner in Trump, who’s notoriously skeptical of US troop commitments overseas and may have his own domestic political reasons for doubling down on a promise to end America’s entanglements abroad.
Soner Cagaptay, the head of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute, said on a call with reporters Monday that this was a “master stroke” for Erdogan. “Erdogan’s vision to enter Syria aligned with Trump’s vision to leave,” he said.
In exchange, 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’s extremely troublesome, as it’s not clear how or why Turkey would take on this responsibility, which until now has largely fallen to the Kurdish forces in the SDF.
The president defended his decision in a series of tweets on Monday. “The United States was supposed to be in Syria for 30 days, that was many years ago. We stayed and got deeper and deeper into battle with no aim in sight,” Trump wrote, basically saying that Syria wasn’t America’s problem anymore.
“WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN. Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to.......figure the situation out, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their ‘neighborhood’,” the president added on Twitter.
But Trump’s “not our problem” approach quickly seemed to be at odds with his own Department of Defense.
“The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey — as did the President — that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria. The U.S. Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation,” Department of Defense spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said Monday in a statement.
Mark Esper, the secretary of defense, also tweeted Monday — though it’s since been deleted — that the “DOD does not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria” and the US would work with NATO allies and coalition partners to reiterate to Turkey the possible “destabilizing consequences of potential actions.”
DOD does not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria. We will work w/our @NATO allies & Coalition partners to reiterate to Turkey the possible destabilizing consequences of potential actions to Turkey, the region, & beyond. Full statement here: https://t.co/NrP10t3cpW
— Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper (@EsperDoD) October 7, 2019
Some reports suggested that Trump had once again surprised national security officials, including one source who told Politico that the president had “gone rogue” in agreeing to Turkey’s request. And just last Friday, Esper told reporters that the US was continuing to work with Turkey on the security mechanism to establish those buffer zones and conduct joint patrols with Turkey.
But Trump’s own position appeared to shift during the course of Monday. The president later tweeted that “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”
A White House senior official later clarified that Trump did not endorse or support the invasion, but that Turkey “appeared intent on some sort of military operation,” forcing US troops to relocate to other parts of Syria in advance of this Turkish operation.
Though Trump tried to make clear that he would retaliate if Turkey did anything “off limits,” that hasn’t been clearly defined. And even if the White House now says Trump doesn’t support or back a Turkish operation, by removing troops from northeastern Syria, the result is pretty much the same: little is stopping Turkey from launching an invasion, and the Syrian Kurds are largely on their own.
Which is why bipartisan lawmakers on Capitol Hill objected to Trump’s decision, with some, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) urging him to “reassess” and suggested that Congress would impose sanctions on Turkey — and call for its suspension in NATO — if it attacked the Kurds in Syria. Others, including former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Brett McGurk, the former presidential envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS who quit in protest of Trump’s troop withdrawal last year, condemned Trump’s move.
By abandoning the Kurds we have sent the most dangerous signal possible – America is an unreliable ally and it’s just a matter of time before China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea act out in dangerous ways.— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) October 7, 2019
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called on Trump “to exercise American leadership to keep together our multinational coalition to defeat ISIS and prevent significant conflict between our NATO ally Turkey and our local Syrian counterterrorism partners.”
A new conflict, shifting alliances, and a possible ISIS resurgence are among the fears about Trump moving from Syria
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, a grave humanitarian crisis, and a big win for ISIS.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, made up largely of Kurds, has been America’s most reliable and effective partner in the fight against ISIS. And now, with Trump’s move, it looks very much as though the US is abandoning them.
Trump argued that “the Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so.”
This is not quite right. US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces did most of the fighting on the ground against ISIS, including retaking the one-time capital of the ISIS caliphate in Raqqa. The Syrian Democratic Forces say that, in five years, they’ve lost 11,000 troops battling ISIS. The US has never even had close to that many troops in the country, period.
What’s more, the Syrian Democratic Forces cooperated with the US as it tried to implement its “security mechanism” — the US’s attempts to create that incremental “safe zone” buffer near the Turkey-Syria border — this summer and fall, removing their military fortifications and withdrawing combat forces, which made the SDF more vulnerable to a Turkish offensive.
“But Erdogan’s threats are aimed to change the security mechanism into a mechanism of death, displace our people & change the stable & secure region into a zone of conflict and permanent war,” the SDF said in a statement Monday.
In other words, the Kurds cooperated with the US and, in return, that left them even more exposed to Turkish threats. The SDF called Washington’s decision “a stab in the back.”
And it’s not just troops who are at risk if Turkey invades, it’s also Kurdish civilians who could be massacred in any assault. About 1.7 million Kurds live in the northeastern region of Syria, though that area is larger than Erdogan’s planned 18-20 mile “safe zone.” Still, the United Nations has already warned of the possibility of mass displacement and mass slaughter in the wake of such an operation by Turkey. Kurdish forces have established relative peace and security in their region of northeastern Syria after years of fighting ISIS; Turkey’s encroachment threatens to upend it all.
The Kurdish forces have also vowed that, if Turkey invades, it will do what is necessary to protect its people and its troops.
That opens up the possibility that Syrian Kurds will look elsewhere for protection, and that likely ally is Bashar al-Assad, the ruthless Syrian dictator, who with help from Russia and Iran is trying to retake all of Syria. The Kurds, who control a swath of land in northeastern Syria, have not ruled out making a deal with Assad if the US abandons them, which could potentially return a huge chunk of Syria back to the government’s control.
And then there’s ISIS, whose leadership is likely thrilled by Trump’s decision and sensing a possible opportunity. Trump has repeatedly bragged that, under his leadership, the US defeated ISIS’s caliphate.
“The U.S. has done far more than anyone could have ever expected, including the capture of 100% of the ISIS Caliphate,” Trump declared on Twitter Monday. “It is time now for others in the region, some of great wealth, to protect their own territory. THE USA IS GREAT!”
But that’s the problem. Yes, ISIS no longer controls a lot of territory, but it’s morphed into an insurgency movement and remains a serious threat to the stability of both Iraq and Syria. The Department of Defense warned in August that a US drawdown of troops risked an ISIS resurgence.
The White House has said that Turkey will be responsible for all ISIS fighters captured in the territory in the past two years, but it’s not clear if that will include major prisons, as most are outside the area where Turkey plans to invade. And even if it does, it’s not clear Turkey itself has the capacity — or desire — to take on this responsibility, or how that transfer would even work.
That’s because, right now, the Syrian Kurdish forces are guarding approximately 11,000 detained ISIS terrorists, including about 2,000 foreign fighters. That does not include the nearly 70,000 people living in the al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria, which contains ISIS families and where the Pentagon says ISIS is actively recruiting new members.
The Department of Defense has previously warned that the SDF has limited capacity to guard these ISIS fighters indefinitely. US officials have also sounded the alarm that ISIS is planning mass prison breaks; a Turkish invasion and the chaos it could bring might give ISIS fighters the cover and ability to do so.
And dealing with these potential crises may get a lot harder after a day of mixed messages from the Trump administration, with the Pentagon saying it’s opposed to a Turkish incursion and Trump saying he’ll punish Turkey if it goes too far, without saying where exactly he’ll draw the lines.
The confusion over Trump’s Syria policy on Monday also damages the US’s credibility, revealing it to be an unreliable and disorganized international partner. That will have consequences beyond Syria. Although, for now, the fallout from this decision is about to be keenly felt there.
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