By Joe McInerney
While Washington has been engulfed in a bitter impeachment battle, a decision by President Donald Trump to pull U.S. troops out of Northern Syria and allow Turkish forces to invade the area has resulted in a bipartisan uproar against the President.
In the face of mounting pressure, President Trump has indicated that he will approve sanctions on Turkey, but the immediate and long-term consequences of the President’s military decision will prove costly for the United States’ national security and international credibility. For all Mr. Trump has done to degrade America’s standing in the world, no action may prove to be as harmful than his betrayal of Kurdish allies, which has opened the door to war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and the resurgence of the Islamic State.
Who Are The Kurds?
To properly understand the consequences of U.S. troop withdrawal in Syria, some background on the Kurdish ethnic group is needed. The Kurds are an ethnic group made up of between 25 and 35 million indigenous peoples of what is now Southeastern Turkey, Northeastern Syria, Northern Iraq, and Southwestern Armenia. The Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but they have never received their own autonomous state. Following World War I, the Western allies granted the Kurds their own homeland in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres; three years later, however, the Treaty of Lausanne set the boundaries of modern Turkey, notably excluding any provision for a Kurdish state.
Turkey, Syria, and Iraq have long repressed the rights of Kurds in their territories. Within Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been engaged in an armed struggle for Kurdish autonomy against Turkey since 1984, a conflict that has cost the lives of at least 40,000 people. Syria’s Kurds have also faced decades of repression. Since the 1960s, some 300,000 Kurds have been denied Syrian citizenship. In Iraq, ethnic Kurds make up 15 to 20% of the population and played a key role in the U.S.-led 2003 invasion.
The Kurds and the Battle Against the Islamic State
Five years ago, faced with a deteriorating situation on the ground in Syria and an expanding Islamic State (ISIS), the Obama administration chose to partner with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF was initially composed of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group of battle-hardened soldiers led by General Mazloum Abdi.
As described by Gen. Joseph Votel, the former head of U.S. Central Command, in The Atlantic, “the decision to partner with the YPG, beginning with the fight in Kobane, was made across two administrations and had required years of deliberation and planning, especially given the concerns of our NATO ally Turkey, who regards the SDF as an offshoot of the designated terrorist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Eventually, the YPG became the backbone of the fighting force against ISIS in Syria. Without it, President Donald Trump could not have declared the complete defeat of ISIS.”
During the fight against ISIS, the United States provided training, material assistance, and air support for the SDF. During the course of this campaign, the SDF sustained nearly 11,000 casualties, more than the number of troops the United States had in Syria at any point in the campaign. Additionally, the SDF played a vital role in detaining nearly 2,000 foreign fighters, approximately 9,000 Iraqi and Syrian fighters, and tens of thousands of IS family members. A strong mutual trust was fostered on the ground between U.S. military members and the SDF, helping to preserve coalition momentum despite geopolitical hiccups including President Trump’s botched 2018 announcement of troop withdrawal in Syria. Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst based in Washington, described the relationship: “For the last two years, the coordination was pretty deep. The mutual trust was very high, the mutual confidence, because this collaboration brought enormous results… The coalition didn’t have boots on the ground and fighters didn’t have air support, so they needed each other.”
Trump’s October 6 Announcement
In a surprise announcement late Sunday, October 6, the White House announced that it was withdrawing troops from northern Syria in advance of an expected Turkish military invasion of Northern Syria. This shocking decision, following an earlier phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sparked more than a week of confusion and bipartisan uproar.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, former national security officials, and members of the military quickly condemned the Trump administration’s decision. One of the President’s strongest defenders on Capitol Hill, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), tweeted, “If press reports are accurate, this is a disaster in the making.”
Brett McGurk, former special envoy to Syria for President Obama and President Trump, tweeted, “Donald Trump is not a Commander-in-Chief. He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation. He sends military personnel into harm’s way with no backing. He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call.”
Most disheartening of all, Green Berets who fought alongside the Kurds and consider them brothers-in-arms have been left feeling ashamed. In a phone call with the New York Times, one Army officer said, “They trusted us and we broke that trust… It’s a stain on the American conscience.” The official twitter account of the Syrian Democratic Forces also accused the Americans of reneging on their Security Mechanism agreement.
The most pressing immediate consequences of American withdrawal are the potential for an ISIS resurgence and the potential ethnic cleansing of Kurds in the region. Turkey began its military offensive last week, entering Northern Syria with the stated goal of establishing a “buffer zone” to relocate Syrian refugees and push back against Kurdish positions along the Turkey-Syrian border.
Allegations of war crimes committed by Turkish authorities have already been lodged. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “It appears to be, if true, that [Turkish actions] would be war crimes.” Esper also confirmed that any remaining U.S. troops would be withdrawn from the region. The accelerated withdrawal of U.S. forces comes days after reports of a Turkish artillery strike that landed about 300 meters from a U.S. commando outpost.
In his initial announcement, President Trump falsely claimed that thousands of ISIS prisoners were being held in Syrian prisons at great cost to the American taxpayer, when in fact most of the ISIS prisoners are being held by SDF forces. Now that the Americans have pulled their assistance, the Kurds have already reported escaped ISIS detainees and their family members. The security vacuum in Northern Syria provides a gift to ISIS, potentially allowing sleeper cells and escaped militants to reorganize. On October 14th, the Washington Post reported that “security has generally deteriorated around a constellation of camps housing families that fled battles against the Islamic State — among the relatives of militants.” President Trump defended his initial statement by saying the Kurds didn’t help us in the Second World War, particularly in the invasion of Normandy. If only President Trump knew where the Germans, one of our closest allies today, were on D-Day.
Without backing from American forces, the Kurds were forced to make a dramatic alliance with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his forces in order to protect themselves from the Turkish invasion. Already, as of October 14, Syrian troops have retaken territory long held by U.S. allies. This strategic shift allows Assad the opportunity to consolidate power domestically in Syria.
Lost amongst the discussion of geopolitical consequences is the immediate impact of withdrawal on the ground for the Kurdish people. Already, more than 130,000 people have been displaced from the areas being attacked by Turkish forces. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that up to 400,000 civilians may require aid and protection in the coming months. Men and women who have fought loyally alongside our own troops are now being abandoned by the United States. The importance of these forces in the U.S. military campaign in the region cannot be overstated, and yet this doesn’t seem to worry President Trump.
Beyond the betrayal of Kurdish forces in Syria, President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops is a gift to some of America’s adversaries. The Kurds’ decision to align themselves with the Assad regime in Damascus essentially wipes out any gains made by U.S. and SDF forces in the early days of the Syrian Civil War.
Beyond Damascus, the power vacuum left in Syria could also help deepen Moscow’s ties to the region. Putin will surely seize the opportunity to expand Russian influence in the region. Additionally, as Brookings research Fathollah-Nejad remarked, the U.S. pullout “will expand Iran’s opportunities to engage with Kurds and portray itself as the only reliable partner.”
Undoubtedly, Mr. Trump’s decision will greatly damage U.S. credibility throughout the world for decades to come. It will be harder to foster foreign alliances, crucial to protecting American national security, after potential allies see the way in which the U.S. treated their Kurdish allies. American foreign policy experts recognize this, resulting in the nearly universal condemnation of the Trump administration’s withdrawal. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done.
The Big Picture
The U.S. abandonment of Kurdish forces is a shameful moment in American foreign policy history. It is hard to believe that the President of the United States has neglected nearly all of his advisors, siding instead with the authoritarian regime in Ankara, and emboldened America’s most ferocious adversaries, but that seems to be par for the course for the Trump administration.
While Washington is currently consumed with debate over the appropriateness of President Trump asking a foreign leader to investigate a domestic political rival, the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from Syria has far more concrete and long-lasting impacts on America’s national security and our geopolitical standing in the world. Furthermore, while many of Trump’s most controversial domestic policies could be overturned quickly through executive order by the next president, the consequences in Syria will reverberate for decades to come.
For now, hundreds of thousands of Kurds are stuck in an impossible position with an even bleaker outlook for the future. On the outskirts of Raqqa, in Tabqua, and Ain Issa, battles rage, and Kurdish forces are stuck between two sides that appear hellbent on destroying them.
Meanwhile, 650 miles to the north, wealthy patrons mill around the luxury shops and residential towers at the Trump Towers Istanbul.
Photo Courtesy of a.anis (Flickr).