U.S. Blindsides Syrian Kurds With Approval For Turkish Invasion, Opens Door To Larger Conflict (Updated)

A Turkish intervention could give ISIS much-needed breathing room and offer an opportunity for Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies to make gains.

US Army

Late yesterday, the White House announced a snap decision to abandon a fledgling security protocol that sought to balance Turkish interests with those of U.S.-backed predominantly Kurdish forces in the region, effectively allowing Turkey to launch its own military operation to create what Ankara describes as a buffer zone on the opposite side of its southern border. The Pentagon has since sought to downplay the situation, stating that the U.S. military does not support a Turkish intervention, but the U.S. military has not suggested it will do anything to directly impede Turkey from taking action, as it has done in the past.

The concern remains that America's Kurdish partners, fearing ethnic cleansing, may find themselves pulled away from their fight against ISIS, as well as the task of guarding thousands of prisoners and their families, giving the terrorist group an opportunity to regroup. Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies are sure to try to exploit these new developments, as well. This also comes as mass protests and a violent government crackdown continue to rock neighboring Iraq, which further underscores the potential for an immensely dangerous power vacuum in the region.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham issued a brief statement announcing the massive shift in U.S. policy toward Syria late on Oct. 6, 2019, following a call between President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump subsequently confirmed the plan to withdraw and acquiesce to a long-threatened Turkish intervention in a series of Tweets on Oct. 7, 2019. The President had already stated his intention to eventually pull out all U.S. forces from Syria in December 2018.

At the core of the issue is Turkey's long-standing contention that the American-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the bulk of which are ethnic Kurds who also belong to Syrian Kurdish groups known commonly as the People's Protection Units, or by the Kurdish acronym YPG, are functionally indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Both the United States and Turkey have designated the PKK, which has operated in Turkey, northern Syria, and northern Iraq, as a terrorist group. However, the U.S. government insists that they are two distinct entities and that the SDF is itself separate from the YPG. The actual extent of the direct coordination and cooperation between the YPG and PKK is unclear, but it seems indisputable that the two groups are, at least, in regular contact.

DOD

A map of Syria showing a number of important locations in the context of the current geopolitical situation in the country. The SDF, as well as other U.S-backed "Vetted Syrian Opposition" (VSO) groups, effectively controls the entirety of the country east of the Euphrates River. SDF control also extends in the north to the edge of the city of Manbij.

Erdogan has repeatedly called on the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS, of which it is technically a part, to abandon the SDF and instead back the predominantly Arab and Turkmen Turkish Free Syrian Army, or TFSA. The Turkish leader has also regularly threatened to launch an invasion of northeastern Syria to root out "terrorists," even if that might mean fighting American forces in the process. In January 2018, Turkish forces and the TFSA launched a similar operation in northwestern Syria that ostensibly targeted non-SDF-aligned YPG fighters in and around the city of Afrin.

In August 2019, the U.S. and Turkey had agreed to a shared security framework that saw the SDF demolish fixed fortifications in a portion of the border and then withdraw from those positions entirely. Combined U.S.-Turkish military patrols on the ground and in the air would then began to monitor activities in this zone. This follows a similar deal for the SDF to pull out from the hotly contested city of Manbij, which is a highly strategic point in the center of northern Syria, which you can read more about in this past War Zone piece.

Trump has now said that he has cast aside this plan in favor of the completion of the full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria that he announced nearly a year ago and allowing Turkey to proceed with establishing an approximately 75-mile long and 20-mile deep buffer zone in northeastern Syria. Erdogan had recently promoted this plan during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September.

The full White House statement is as follows:

Today, President Donald J. Trump spoke with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey by telephone. Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. 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.

The United States Government has pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured ISIS fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused. The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer. 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 SDF says it presently holds 12,000 of the terrorists, including foreign fighters from countries in Europe and elsewhere, in a number of prison facilities.  The SDF also manages camps that house approximately 70,000 family members, some of whom may actually have been active participants in the terrorist group's activities. How to manage and potentially repatriate these individuals to their countries of origin has been a contentious and complicated debate for more than a year now.

It's certainly true that the SDF received not-insignificant U.S. assistance, as well as aid from other coalition partners, together with on-the-ground support from special operations and conventional forces, who notably provided essential air and artillery strikes and vital intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, during the campaign against ISIS. At the same time, the SDF was absolutely instrumental in rolling back the terrorists and bringing an end to their self-declared caliphate. Some 11,000 U.S.-backed fighters have died in these operations since 2011, according to the SDF.

Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Jonathan Hoffman subsequently issued a statement on behalf of the Pentagon, which warned of "possible destabilizing consequences" from any unilateral Turkish operation, but did not openly contradict Trump's earlier statements. The full press release is as follows:

"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.

"In conversations between the Department and the Turkish military we have consistently stressed that coordination and cooperation were the best path toward security in the area. Secretary Esper and Chairman Milley reiterated to their respective Turkish counterparts that unilateral action creates risks for Turkey.  As the President has stated, Turkey would be responsible, along with European nations and others, for thousands of ISIS fighters who had been captured and defeated in the campaign lead by the United States. 

We will work with our other NATO allies and Coalition partners to reiterate to Turkey the possible destabilizing consequences of potential actions to Turkey, the region, and beyond."

Regardless, Trump's decision clearly came as a shock to the SDF, especially given the assurances they were publicly given for agreeing to the U.S.-Turkish security mechanism. It appears to have been equally surprising to U.S. military commanders, who had been insisting that its local partners enjoyed their full support and warning against a unilateral Turkish intervention just days ago.

"There were assurances from the United States of America that it would not allow any Turkish military operations against the region," SDF spokesperson Kino Gabriel said in an interview with Al Hadath television on Oct. 7, 2019. "The (U.S.) statement today was a surprise and we can say that it is a stab in the back for the SDF."

There are also reports that the SDF feels as if it was set up from the start by the requirement in the U.S.-Turkish security framework that it physically destroy various fortifications. This has left its fighters more vulnerable and unable to rapidly reoccupy positions in order to try to check any Turkish or TFSA advances.

"We are not expecting the US to protect NE [northeast] Syria," Mustafa Bali, another SDF spokesperson, wrote on Twitter. "But people here are owed an explanation regarding security mechanism deal, destruction of fortifications and failure of US to fulfill their commitments."

It's unclear what Trump's decision may mean in the immediate future. It has been difficult to assess the state of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, which American officials have also insisted has remained the overarching plan since the President announced it last year, since the Pentagon has declined to give any information on how many American troops are in the country or their general distribution, to begin with.

Pictures and video footage have already begun to emerge of what appears to be U.S. forces hastily departing outposts in northeastern Syria. Again, however, it is unclear whether or not the U.S. military had planned any of these particular movements in advance as part of the U.S.-Turkish security cooperation framework. 

On Sept. 5, 2019, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) had notably issued an amendment to a contracting notice regarding fuel shipments to support American operations at various sites in Iraq and Syria. DLA deleted, without explanation, requirements for deliveries of multiple types of fuel to a location known as T2 near Hasakah, the H3 firebase near Ash Shaddadi, and an airstrip known as H4, or the Northern Landing Zone (NLZ), all in northeastern Syria. The NLZ, situated outside of Hasakah, is one of two large airbases that American forces have been maintaining in Syria since at least 2016, the other being the Kobani Landing Zone (KLZ) near the city of the same name. The change in the proposed contract also eliminated a line regarding deliveries to Ar-Rutbah in Western Iraq. 

Curtailing the regular delivery of fuel to these locations suggests that the U.S. military was already moving ahead with shutting down various operating locations in Syria in line with President Trump's order to withdraw last year and in light of its security agreement with Turkey in August. Still, at the time of writing, the prospective deal did include fuel shipments to four other major U.S. military operating locations in Syria, including the KLZ. There is also no word on how the U.S. decision may impact the activities of other coalition partners, including the United Kingdom and France, who had recently agreed to deploy additional personnel to Syria to backfill the withdrawal of American forces.

It's also unclear how quickly Turkey might be able to mobilize its own troops, or significant elements of the TFSA, for a major operation. There have been reports of Turkish forces massing near the border in recent months, though. 

The concern is what will happen to the campaign against ISIS, and to the ISIS prisoners and their families, if the United States effectively cuts off support for the SDF and steps aside as Turkish and Turkish-backed forces flood into the border area. The YPG components of the SDF, as well as other ethnic and religious minority groups, such as Armenians and Arab Christians, may feel that defending their hard-won gains against Turkey is a more pressing concern, giving various terrorist groups, who are very much not defeated, much-needed breathing room to regroup. 

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A map showing ISIS' approximate zones of influence as of April 2019.

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A map showing the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps that the SDF oversees, some of which contain ISIS family members.

Reports that Turkish forces and their TFSA partners have been waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the northwestern Syrian region of Afrin, where Turkey ejected the YPG in 2018, can only reinforce these fears. Turkey's reported interest in resettling Arab Syrian refugees in the buffer zone only compounds these issues. Further internal displacement of civilians in any direction risks create new and potentially serious humanitarian crises in areas that are still in a state of civil strife and have had, at best, limited opportunities to reestablish even basic infrastructure.

"In FY [Fiscal Year] 2020, the primary focus will be continued equipping of the Internal Security Forces (InSF) that are responsive to civilian authorities and protect the rights of religious minorities.  These forces, together with wide-area security and other VSO [Vetted Syrian Opposition] elements, will focus on back-clearing and holding areas that were liberated from ISIS," the Pentagon said in its most recent budget request for funds to continue supporting local forces in Syria, using the term VSO, which applies to the SDF, as well as numerous smaller American-backed, predominantly Arab groups. "Setting the conditions to prevent an ISIS resurgence and deny safe haven post-U.S. withdrawal from Syria will be heavily reliant on ongoing U.S. support of the VSO."

The other near-term issue is that any shift in the SDF's attention may allow Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, together with his primary allies Russia and Iran, to reassert control over the eastern portion of his country. This would be a major victory for Assad and his benefators, especially Iran, which could use the situation to establish a more secure overland route to send military aid and other support straight from its own territory to its proxies further west, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The YPG has already reached out to Assad and his allies in the past and the withdrawal of SDF forces from Manbij proper almost led to Syrian forces retaking the strategic city. There is a distinct possibility this might happen under Turkey's plan, as well, given that Turkish officials have been working closely with their Russian and Iranian counterparts to negotiate some sort of final settlement to the conflict that meets their various interests. 

Given the disparate geopolitical agendas of all of the parties involved, it may be difficult to find any sort of agreement that any plurality of actors can agree to in the end. Given how fluid and confusing the situation is in Syria, to begin with, it is easy to see how various sides and their local partners could come to blows, even inadvertently. This, in turn, creates broader risks of new conflicts erupting inside Syria and potentially spilling over into neighboring countries. Iraq, which continued to be wracked by mass protests and a subsequent violent government crackdown, is also particularly vulnerable at present to a resurgent ISIS.

Iraqi security forces, as well as predominantly Iranian-backed militia groups, have reportedly killed hundreds of protesters and injured thousands more already. The demonstrations, which appear largely youth-based and leaderless, and have very broadly stated goals, such as ending corruption and political patronage, look unlikely to end any time soon. 

However, it's also unclear what impact they may have in unseating Iraq's most entrenched political figures, who are the primary targets of the protester's outrage. Iraqi authorities have sought to blame nebulous "malicious hands" for stoking the violence on both sides, but has offered no evidence to support these claims or explanation about who these actors might be and what their purported agenda might be.

A smaller explosion of protests last year, which also led Iraqi security forces and militias to conduct a violent crackdown, eventually subsided without any significant change in the status quo. Where Iraq's top leadership makes any concessions now remains to be unseen, but, if they don't, it could lead to cycles of protests and accompanying violence that terrorist groups, such as ISIS, could exploit. Disaffected young Iraqis who see limited opportunities to improve their livelihoods in the near term would be a worrying source of potential new recruits.

Beyond all this, there's simply the damage to the credibility of the U.S. government, which has not only stated its intent to abandoning key allies who have been critical in the advancement of American interests in Syria, but is also doing so immediately after publicly offering guarantees that this would not happen. The Kurds have certainly suffered numerous betrayals in the past, including by the United States, but, since the 1990s, they have enjoyed broad, bipartisan support in the halls of the U.S. government, making this all the more glaring. 

So, Trump's political critics in Congress and elsewhere, both Republicans and Democrats, have, unsurprisingly condemned his decision and voiced their intent to try to block him from implementing it. Even some of the President's staunchest political allies, most notably Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, have described the announcement as dangerously misguided and shortsighted. 

It is possible that some of these individuals may be able to convince Trump to walk back his plan, or at least his rhetoric. The President himself has already made a somewhat conflicting statement on Twitter 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."

Trump has made this vague threat in the past. It came after his political allies and advisors convinced him to slow his order to withdraw all forces from Syria last year. At that time he also voiced support for the Kurds and the SDF. 

Unfortunately, Trump has framed his latest decision as making good on a three-year-old campaign promise to pull American troops out of unpopular foreign wars and is clearly seeking a political victory of some form. The original announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria was also an attempt to make good on this pledge and garner domestic support. 

With the President now embroiled in one of most serious sets of American political scandals in a generation, centering on alleged attempts to get the Ukrainian government to investigate the business deals of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his family, he may be less willing to back down. America's chief diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is also tied up in these allegations and Trump recently fired National Security Advisor John Bolton, hiring Robert O’Brien in his place. The scandals and shakeups may limit the number of individuals who may be in a position to effectively argue for taking a different track in Syria.

Even if Trump were to back down from his current course of action, as the Pentagon's statement suggests could be possible, his initial decision has already seriously eroded ties between the United States and the SDF. It may be difficult, if not impossible to rebuild that relationship before the security situation in Syria shifts beyond a point of no return. 

In addition, every time the United States makes these types of extreme policy decisions, only to quickly retract them, at least to some degree, it only raises questions about the continued reliability of the U.S. government as a partner, in general. Given the unfortunate decades-long history of the U.S. government abandoning proxy forces or otherwise cutting ties with local forces that made immense sacrifices alongside American troops, dating back to the Vietnam War, one has to wonder how this latest shift in policy may impact the ability to find partners willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. personnel anywhere in the future.

With regards to Syria specifically, Trump decision has only opened the door more for a new and serious conflict to emerge and has further limited the U.S. government's ability to influence the situation, militarily or diplomatically, in any meaningful way going forward.

Update 3:45 PM:

There are already unconfirmed reports that Turkey has begun air and artillery strikes on various targets near the border with Syria.

Fox News is also reporting that the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria is no longer allowing Turkish aircraft to fly along the Syrian border under its auspices and the U.S. military is no longer providing the Turkish military with feeds from American unmanned aircraft flying over northeastern Syria.

Curiously, a Tweet from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper accompanying the official Pentagon statement from Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Jonathan Hoffman has disappeared. The statement remains online and it is unclear what the reason for the deletion was, though it may simply be a matter of seeking to avoid any confusion over attribution of the press release.

Update 5:45 PM:

The White House has sought to push back on reports that the U.S. government has given Turkey's planned intervention into Syria its approval in a press briefing. The unnamed senior adminitration official leading the press conference also told reporters that between 50 and 100 special operations forces had relocated to other bases in Syria as they “should not be put at risk or injury, death or capture."

However, the official also made clear that the United States would not seek to impede any Turkish advances into northeastern Syria. "The U.S. is not in a position and will not be in a position to fight Turkey over any action it takes in Syria," they said.

The White House is also insisting that Trump's decision was coordinated with other officials, including within the Pentaton and State Department. The Pentagon has similarly claimed that Secretary of Defense Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army General Mark Milley, were not "blindsided" by the President's moves. However, at the time of writing, there have been no statements of any kind on this important and still-developing stiuation from the State Department, U.S. Central Command, or U.S. European Command.

In the meantime, there continue to be reports that Turkish troops and TFSA fighters are moving toward Syria or otherwise preparing for a major operation into the country.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com