For the last eighteen years, the United States has done nothing but lose wars in the Middle East. That’s what made the 2014 – 2019 campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria so exceptional. The Pentagon actually accomplished the mission it set out to accomplish. Mosul and Raqqa were liberated. The terrorists were driven into the desert. The failed-state caliphate no longer exists.
Our tier-one operators and billion-dollar warplanes were not what made the difference. For the most part, the ISIS fighters who died in Kobane, Manbij, Tabqa, Raqqa, and Der Ezzor were shot by the men and women of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led coalition of militias that also has thousands of Arabs in its ranks, as well as an all-female brigade, and people of all races and ethnicities, who adhere to a secular creed. As American personnel in Syria will be the first to tell you, the trustworthy and competent SDF did virtually all the hard work of killing and dying during the many costly battles of the last five years, and not for “massive amounts of money,” as Donald Trump said on Monday. The Syrian Kurds don’t have any money. There aren’t even banks in Rojava, as the Kurdish part of Syria is called.
Nor were they, as Trump also said, “fighting for their own land” during the battles of Raqqa and Der Ezzor. The war between the Kurds and the Islamic State is primarily ideological, and a cause worth supporting. Still, no one can expect a man like Trump to exhibit a sense of reciprocity, gratitude, or fair dealing towards our military allies. To him, the Kurds have outlasted their purpose, so they’re fired. Sorry, losers. Buh-bye.
Even before Trump was elected, the Kurds themselves fully expected to be abandoned by the United States in the end, as has happened several times before, in Iraq. What doesn’t make sense, and what fewer expected, was for Trump to simply surrender the SDF’s hard-won territory in Syria for absolutely nothing in return, giving it to a conniving strongman who is certain to upend the fragile peace. Even if you believe, as I do, that the United States should wind down virtually all its military engagements abroad, and shrink the military to a fraction of its current size, it counts as one of the dumbest moves an American president has ever made in the Middle East.
As of last week, the United States, through the SDF, controlled a quarter to a third of Syria. That’s pretty big bargaining chip, and it could have been used to buy any number of concessions from other parties to the long-running conflict. As the stated American policy goal with respect to Syria is “a negotiated political solution,” control of Raqqa and provinces on the Turkish border could have been used as leverage to force a winding down of the war. Among other options, American withdrawal could have been traded for a reciprocal drawdown by Russia, or an Iranian exit. Or the United States could have withdrawn troops, but maintained a no-fly zone, creating an autonomous Kurdish enclave in Syria like the one in Iraq. That would have made sense, given the Kurds’ demonstrated commitment to secular democracy and human rights, as well as their proven lethality towards terrorists. Considering all that’s been spent since 9/11, it would have been a cheap investment in a force capable to keeping a lid on ISIS, the most toxic byproduct of the war in Iraq.
Instead, last Sunday, four-dimensional chess-master Donald Trump, after a call with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced American forces would simply withdraw unilaterally. He added Turkey would “soon be moving forward with a long-planned operation into northern Syria.” That is, in addition to withdrawing support for the Kurds, he would deliver them into the hands of their worst enemy, who fully intends to kill them in large numbers. It’s as if, in addition to simply stiffing his workers, as he was liable to do as a real estate developer, he had the guys who laid the tile and installed the windows handed over to the mafia.
During the Nixon administration, the CIA armed the Iraqi Kurds and encouraged them to rebel against Saddam Hussein, in order to inconvenience him militarily. However, the Americans didn’t really want the Kurds to gain independence, and abruptly cut off support, leaving them at the mercy of Saddam’s forces. “Promise them anything, give them what they get, and fuck them if they can’t take a joke,” Henry Kissinger said to an aide, explaining his philosophy towards the Kurds. It was a cold-blooded move, but at least it was rational. Delivering the Kurds over to Erdogan is plain nihilism.
I can’t imagine how an otherwise Trump-enthusiastic young marine currently stationed in Syria must feel right now. The JSOC types are probably used to making reptilian decisions towards third-world proxy forces, but many of the soldiers over there are conventional troops, including National Guard. They’re being asked to stand down and passively witness the slaughter of their comrades-in-arms — a hard thing to swallow, especially given the antipathy in the ranks towards Turkey, which has a habit of bombing very near U.S. bases. That’s in addition to other skullduggery and sabotage, including taking potshots at Army Rangers around Manbij.
The last time Trump announced a surprise withdrawal, in a tweet almost exactly a year ago, Jim Mattis resigned in protest. But as it turned out, nothing really happened on the ground. Eventually everyone just sort of forgot about what the titular commander-in-chief had said, and the war against ISIS carried on in Der Ezzor.
This time, however, Turkey took swift advantage of the green light Trump gave them. A wave of airstrikes and shelling took place almost immediately, throwing the SDF into disarray, and sending civilians fleeing in their thousands. After a delay of several days, US forces now appear to be retreating from some of their bases (they have about a dozen, strung between the Tigris and the Euphrates, some that cost billions to build, with relatively luxurious amenities). The Turks have cut the main highway, which will complicate American efforts to evacuate. Sunday night, the Kurds announced that they would have no choice but to align themselves with the Assad regime, and opened the way for the Syrian Arab Army to enter Kobani and Manbij. That places the Americans in the middle of three clashing forces as they try to retreat into northern Iraq.
The United Nations, the European Union, and the Arab League condemned Turkey’s invasion as illegal under international law. In the United States, Trump appeared to be caught off guard by the vehemence of Republican criticism, although his loudest critic, Lindsey Graham, was re-re-re-revealed as a phony via a prank phone call. (The senator says he thought was the Turkish minister of defense. He wasn’t.)
Compounding Trump’s own blundering, he is now trying to partially walk back his decision by describing the Turkish invasion as a “bad idea,” and saying the US “does not endorse” the operation that he endorsed in writing days before. “We will not stop the military operation against Kurdish militants in northern Syria no matter what anyone says,” was Erdogan’s response. Most likely he moved so swiftly because he knew Trump was liable to reverse himself. He’s been wheedling Trump for this favor since he took office.
Erdogan’s government never fails to state, and needlessly credulous western reports never fail to repeat, that Turkey considers the SDF a terrorist force, as if there could be two sides to the story. Put aside the fact that the SDF just defeated the world’s worst terrorist organization. In the aftermath of World War I, the Kurdish people had their homeland of thousands of years divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran by western powers drawing arbitrary lines on a map. Since then, there have been Kurdish independence movements in all four countries, with substantial overlaps between them. The one in Turkey is active and militant, but has only ever fought the Turkish state, and has never carried out deliberate attacks on civilians, which is the defining feature of terrorism. For their part, they are resisting a century of Turkish efforts to erase Kurdish identity and language within the country’s borders, as the Turks have done to other ethnic minorities in the past. Let’s not forget, the very ground we’re speaking about in northern Syria, down the Euphrates River Valley, is the same location to which survivors of the Armenian genocide fled, having become the first victims of Turkish nationalism.
Besides stamping out Kurdish autonomy wherever it might arise, the Turkish government says its secondary objective is to “cleanse” northern Syria of remaining ISIS fighters. Such statements are intended for the consumption of people who know nothing about the war in Syria. Erdogan’s past enablement of the Islamic State is well documented. He shares certain goals with them, including military defeat of the Kurds, and Assad’s ouster. In any case, there are no ISIS fighters in Syrian Kurdistan, except for the 11,000 or so whom the SDF has locked up in a string of prisons that will now go over to Turkish control.
That is cause for alarm, because to speak of Turkish forces in this context is to refer to an auxiliary militia known as the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, or TFSA. This is a hard-bitten assortment of Sunni survivors of the long jihad against the regime, a rabble of defeated rebels, foreign fighters, mujahedeen from abroad, Nusra Front veterans, and other takfiri mercenaries. No small number of men now fighting under the Turkish flag are former ISIS, who went over to the TFSA after the fall of Raqqa. Erdogan has already used the TFSA to take over the Kurdish enclave known as Afrin, where they were filmed executing civilians, smashing bottles of liquor, forcing women to cover up, and so on. The TFSA is likely to impose the same brand of gangster Sharia on the population the US is abandoning. Here, here, here, here and here you can see videos, all shot in the last few days, of bearded, long-haired TFSA fighters shouting “Allahu akbar,” “death to the atheists,” and “takfir” while unloading on Kurdish positions. In this video, shot just before the Turks attacked the SDF in Ras al-Ayn, the TFSA fighters celebrate by shouting “baqiya,” short for “dawlat al-Islam baqiya,” a slogan that means, “the Islamic State still stands.”
As feared, ISIS prisoners have been seen escaping in advance of the ground invasion. On Sunday, some 700 ISIS family members fled a detention camp after a Turkish airstrike nearby. American forces reportedly failed to evacuate a number of high-priority detainees, and the prospect of a mass prison break is very real. “Protecting the prisons,” said SDF general Mazloum Abdi, “is not a priority for us anymore.”
After many months of dormancy, ISIS sleeper cells set off car bombs in Qamishli and Hasakah, not the first time that a Turkish attack has coincided with a surprise ISIS offensive. Meanwhile, the TFSA has already been filmed carrying out summary executions of unarmed Kurds, including a female politician. The arrival of the Syrian army should bolster the Kurdish defense, but Erdogan surely expected the Kurds to go over to Assad, and the SAA to enter the fray. The Turkish army backing up the TFSA is one of the largest in NATO, setting up the potential for a catastrophic escalation, with massive displacement, upheaval, and human suffering. Incredible to think that little more than a week ago, Rojava was the safest and freest part of Syria. It’s unreal how much damage and death Trump can cause with the drop of a single tweet.
Equally unreal is the apparent capacity of Trump’s base of supporters to absorb shocks like this without losing faith in their leader. Are these not the same people who caterwauled so interminably about Benghazi, the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq, and a dozen other supposed instances of turning tail, betraying our buddies, and surrendering to the enemy? Trump could get on the phone with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and trade Florida to ISIS for dirt on Pete Buttigieg, and the MAGA sheep would still fall down before the Golden Calf of 666 Fifth Avenue.
Trump says it’s about putting a stop to “endless wars,” but just this Friday, he deployed more troops than there are in all of Syria to Saudi Arabia, one of the only countries in the region more terrorism-curious than Turkey. The move is almost certainly attributable to elements in his administration trying to start a war with Iran.