Trump’s Troop Pullback in Syria Is Part of a Consistent Policy
On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally has made his move and ordered Turkey’s military to establish a “safe zone” in Northeast Syria.
U.S. President Donald Trump endorsed Erdoğan’s move and ordered U.S. troops to vacate positions "in the immediate area" of the operation.
The safe zone will allow Turkey to suppress the Marxist Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), forces it claims are allied with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and to start repatriating Syrian refugees.
Trump’s move has been called an “abrupt shift” that would “abandon” the Syrian Kurds who make up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). For an abrupt shift, it has been a long time coming: Trump’s Syria troop cut in December 2018 was a preview of his intent, which he reiterated this week: "I campaigned on the fact that I was going to bring our soldiers home."
As to abandoning the Syrian Kurds, the U.S. intention for the region’s Kurds was plain in 2017 when Washington advised the Iraqi Kurds to cancel an independence referendum but stay in Iraq's federal system. Likewise, the Syrian Kurds were encouraged to open negotiations with the Assad regime to secure limited local autonomy, and it sure must be working as the SDF sells the Assad regime oil and natural gas, violating the sanctions on Syria in the process, but getting $378 million a year in oil revenue alone. And these are the “good guys”…
Erdogan is also not a good guy, but Turkey is a NATO ally with more invested in the Syria fight than the U.S., and Turkey’s desire to secure its border and remove the 3.5 million Syrian refugees is totally reasonable as far as Trump is concerned. Erdogan won’t be running Turkey forever, but any successor will be no less equable about U.S. reluctance to endorse its operations against the PKK and to secure its border.
What Trump likely wants to do is clear the decks to focus on his highest priorities, the Democrats’ impeachment plans, and his re-election. To that end, he tweeted, “Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out”.
The “situation” includes the Al-Hol refugee camp of 70,000 displaced people, about 30,000 of whom are Islamic State family members; and the SDF camps that hold about 10,000 fighters, many of them foreigners. To underline the President’s tweet, the White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham noted, “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial 'Caliphate' by the United States."
“The defeat of the territorial 'Caliphate' was why U.S. troops engaged the Islamic State. Now that the caliphate is no more, the presence of the remaining ISIS sympathizers and family members is properly the concern of the local forces, augmented by U.S. aviation assets if needed.
Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia, and the Kurds will have to sort as they fight, and the battlefield will be more than the usual chaos with several armies, Russian mercenaries, Iranian-sponsored militias, refugees, and displaced persons moving in every direction amid ruined infrastructure. All in all, it’s a scene Trump thinks the U.S. is wise to avoid.
The SDF decried Trump’s decision as a “stab in the back”. The Russian response was more muted: a call for the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity and that all foreign military forces 'with illegal presence' should leave Syria, Moscow is aware that unfortunately its wish was granted: U.S. troops are no longer around.
The battlefield will be busy but there will be a lot of standing around: the Russians will wait for an opportunity to grab the oil fields to pay for their mercenaries; the Syrians will let the Turks kill Kurdish and SDF fighters to save them the trouble of doing it later; and the Iranians, as always, will fight to the last Arab.
And Erdogan will be under the gun: he will meet Trump in Washington, D.C. in November and will have to show results to avoid consequences like Senator Lindsey Graham’s suggestion that Turkey be sanctioned and suspended from NATO.
The NatSec guys and the media freaked out over the pullback, calling it things like "a significant shift in U.S. policy", but it's Trump’s original policy: don't get drawn into someone else’s fights in a region that spawns nothing but grief. In December 2018, the policy took the shape of a troop pullout. This time it was taking advantage of an opportunity not to be the human shields for the SDF and the YPG.
And many commentators have neglected to make the distinction between an ally, Turkey, and clients, the SDF and the Kurdish militias: with allies, you have obligations, with clients you have transactions.
So, while the U.S. may no longer be able to act as an interlocutor between the Kurds and whomever, untoward events, and they will occur, won’t be America’s problem. Trump won ugly in 2016, and he sometimes gets in his own way, but, as Ted Rall observes, though Democrats and legacy Republican leaders attack his foreign policy, voters “mostly approve of his moves to de-escalate tensions overseas and reduce foreign entanglements”.
This isn’t about the Erdogan, the Islamic State, or the refugees, it’s about a president trying to prioritize and to harness with Damon Linker calls America’s “control freak tendencies”. Let's hope that he succeeds.
James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.