Caught up in a conflict between long-standing NATO ally Turkey and a recently engaged Kurdish tactical partner in Syria, the Trump administration has accommodated the legitimate security interests of Turkey by staging a partial pullback of U.S. special operations forces in northeastern Syria.
It did so to get out of the way of a Turkish intervention launched Wednesday.
Although critics of the Trump administration have rushed to denounce the decision as a “sellout” of the Syrian Kurds, that’s not true. Washington received no payoff from Ankara for stepping aside, and is not “abandoning the Kurds,” as many critics contend.
Washington’s ad hoc partnership with Syrian Kurds never included a commitment to help them fight Turkey, only to fight the Islamic State, the terrorist army also known as ISIS.
The United States still supports Syrian Kurds against ISIS, just as it supports Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi government against ISIS. But Washington has remained neutral with regard to Turkey’s complaints about the threats Syrian Kurds pose to Turkey.
To be more specific, the Pentagon continues to support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS. It has declined, however, to work with the largest Kurdish armed faction within the those forces, the People’s Protection Units (YPG in its Kurdish acronym) to resist the Turkish intervention.
In geopolitical terms, that’s a logical and necessary decision.
Trump Warns Turkey’s President
Turkey is a long-term strategic ally that exercises major influence in the Middle East. The YPG is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK in its Kurdish acronym), a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has waged war against Turkey off and on since 1984 in a bloody separatist insurrection that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.
Although the Obama and Trump administrations accepted the YPG as a newfound tactical ally in the war against ISIS, neither administration embraced the YPG/PKK agenda regarding Turkey.
Both administrations stressed U.S. cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces, an ad hoc anti-ISIS coalition in which the YPG influence was diluted by the participation of Arab factions opposed to ISIS.
President Donald Trump on Oct. 7 warned Turkey against going “off limits” in Syria, and has threatened to apply economic sanctions if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ignores the warning.
The president doubled down on the sanctions threat Friday by authorizing the Treasury Department to prepare “significant sanctions” against Turkey, if necessary.
That’s a far cry from giving Ankara a “green light,” as some critics contend.
Washington also stands ready to act as an intermediary between its Syrian Kurdish partners and Ankara. After Turkey has secured its border, a possibility exists that the United States can broker an understanding that could mitigate friction between the two.
Nor is the Trump administration removing all U.S. troops from Syria at this time. The Pentagon has pulled back about 50 special operations troops from the Turkish-Syrian border, and up to 230 U.S. troops—out of the roughly 1,000 deployed in Syria—have been redeployed to the south, but remain in eastern Syria.
Disagreements Over Buffer Zone
The United States had been negotiating with Turkey on creating a buffer zone in northeastern Syria, in part to avert a unilateral Turkish intervention, which Ankara long had threatened.
But Erdogan, apparently frustrated over the failure of Washington to accede to his demand for a zone 20 miles deep and 300 miles long along Turkey’s border, pulled the plug on the negotiations.
Things came to a head Oct. 6, when Erdogan told Trump in a phone call that Turkey was determined to cross the border. After Erdogan stated that he would unilaterally establish the zone by force, Trump acquiesced and pulled U.S. troops out of harm’s way.
If that order had not been given, there was a significant risk that U.S. troops would have been caught up in the fighting or even drawn into a military clash with Turkey.
Although there has been much handwringing over the administration’s failure to support the Kurds against Turkey, it’s difficult to see how battling a NATO ally would have preserved American credibility as an ally.
Pentagon officials on Tuesday denied breathless press reports that defense officials had been blindsided by the president’s action, revealing that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, actually had participated in the president’s phone call with Erdogan.
What some U.S. officials may have been surprised by was Trump’s tweet about a total U.S. withdrawal from Syria to end what he called “endless wars.” They know that the enemy gets a vote in ending any war, and ISIS by no means has given up fighting.
Holding ISIS at Bay
U.S. vigilance will be necessary to block the terror group’s comeback. Trump must listen to his national security team and avoid declaring a premature end to war against ISIS.
ISIS has returned to its underground roots, but remains a potent threat to regional security and a long-term threat to U.S. security if it can regroup. The Islamist extremist forces that morphed into ISIS already made a disastrous comeback in Iraq in 2014 and could do so again in Syria.
The underlying political conditions that facilitated the rise of ISIS remain in Syria—anarchy, dysfunctional government, and the systematic repression meted out by the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. Washington must be careful not to contribute to a power vacuum that would make an ISIS resurgence easier.
The inspector general for the coalition to defeat ISIS warned in a report in August that ISIS has established “resurgent cells” in Syria and launched bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and suicide attacks in areas liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Turkey is not in a position to guarantee that ISIS will not return. It would have to fight its way through the Kurds to get at ISIS.
Erdogan, who has turned a blind eye to the infiltration of foreign Islamist extremists into Syria through Turkey, always has viewed the Kurds as a bigger threat to Turkey than ISIS.
For better or worse, the Syrian Democratic Forces are a necessary partner in the struggle against ISIS. Not only does it have skilled and motivated fighters on the ground, but it controls more than 20 prisons and camps that hold about 12,000 ISIS fighters and 58,000 of their family members and supporters.
Bottom Line: Diplomacy Needed
The United States will have to withdraw from Syria eventually. The real issue is whether Washington has made arrangements to adequately protect U.S. interests; namely, preventing an ISIS resurgence, blocking expansion of Iranian influence, and reaching a political settlement in Syria that eases the humanitarian situation and allows the return of refugees.
The Turkish intervention complicates efforts to attain those goals, but does not make them impossible to achieve.
It’s not too late to salvage an acceptable situation in eastern Syria if the administration can tamp down the fighting between Turkey and the People’s Protection Units and maintain counterterrorism ties with the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Washington should push for a cease-fire in northeastern Syria and reach a clear understanding with Ankara about the size and purpose of Turkey’s new buffer zone.
The long-term goal should be to broker a sustainable understanding between Ankara and the Syrian Kurds, similar to the understanding that it brokered between Ankara and Iraqi Kurds.
Without such an understanding, Turkey’s intervention will push the Syrian Kurds into the arms of Russia and the Assad regime. Such an outcome would undermine U.S. national security interests in the region, while promoting those of Iran and ISIS.
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