The situation I address here is awash in complexities and troubling aspects.
This past Sunday, October 6, President Trump, after a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced a very sudden decision to pull US troops out of northern Syria.
This was in the face of Turkish threats to invade the semi-autonomous area held by the Kurds, called Rojava (in green on the map below). The Turks have been seeking a “safe zone” that would prevent infiltration of Syrian Kurds into Turkey (see this on map as well).
Trump made this decision unilaterally, without consulting advisors. (I think it no accident that John Bolton, who probably would have vigorously opposed this, is gone.) The Pentagon was unaware that this was going to happen. Commanders on the ground in Syria were not consulted, and US allies were not informed.
The president declared that the US goal of eliminating the ISIS caliphate had been accomplished and that it was time for America to withdraw from involvement in the Middle East’s never ending battles. This line reflects campaign promises that he had made and which he is particularly eager to honor now because he is under attack at home. From a purely domestic political perspective this was probably a smart move – Americans are weary of on-going US involvement in this part of the world.
There are multiple problems with this scenario, however:
Primary among them is the fact that the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had fought valiantly alongside of US troops in taking on ISIS – which likely would not have been defeated without them. They lost roughly 11,000 troops in the fight.
Erdogan is the only world leader who considers the Kurds to be “terrorists,” because of what he claims is their connection to and support for large numbers of Kurdish insurgents who generate unrest inside of Turkey. His charge apparently has some validity. While he claims to simply seek that “safe zone,” it seems clear that his intentions towards the Syrian Kurds are hardly benign.
What marks this situation is that US is not simply abandoning the Kurds in Syria now: Trump has given the nod to Erdogan to move in across the border (in a limited fashion). This is a betrayal of the Kurds who were US allies. A spokesman for SDF said it was “a stab in the back.”
Nikki Haley pointed out in a tweet that Turkey is no friend of the US. I will go further: Erdogan is a ruthless Islamist who has expansionist goals. Yet Trump imagines he can forge some arrangement with him.
We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back. The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake. #TurkeyIsNotOurFriend
— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) October 7, 2019
Many critics of this move by the president have spoken out, including a usually supportive Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), who called the move “disaster in the making.”
“Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration,” he tweeted.
“I hope I’m making myself clear how short-sighted and irresponsible this decision is. I like President Trump. I’ve tried to help him. This, to me, is just unnerving to its core.” (Emphasis added)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K), who has been largely supportive of the president, said this: “As we learned the hard way during the Obama Administration, American interests are best served by American leadership, not by retreat or withdrawal.”
And to this I say, Amen! I despaired of Obama’s policy of weakness and thought we would see better now.
Trump was quick to defend himself by saying that the Kurds were paid well to fight alongside US troops. Focusing on the money is perhaps quintessential Trump, but that does not sit well either. Responding to vociferous criticism, he insisted that he was not abandoning the Kurds, and would destroy Turkey economically if the Turks stepped wrong now – apparently meaning they could establish their “safe zone” but not move militarily against the Kurds in Syria.
On Wednesday, the Turkish defense minister confirmed that a ground offensive in northern Syria had begun; there were reports of five people killed in the Kurdish area and another 10 wounded by Turkish forces. On Thursday, the Turkish offensive pushed deeper into Syria, with both air and ground forces are involved. I do not believe that as yet the Turks have moved beyond the region they want to clear out as that “safe zone.” The Turkish assault is on Kurdish forces as well as civilians in that northern region.
The Kurds are defending themselves and fighting back: They have shelled Turkish villages on the other side of the border, killing some civilians.
Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) on Wednesday released a draft of sanctions against Turkey.
The senators say their sanctions will go into effect unless the Trump administration announces that “Turkey is not operating unilaterally” (i.e., without US support) in Syria east of the Euphrates and that Turkish military forces have withdrawn. See here for terms of the sanctions legislation:
Will it work in discouraging Turkish aggression? It remains to be seen.
There is more to be concerned about in northern Syria than the risk to the Kurds of current withdrawal of US forces:
- A vacuum has been created that is evolving into a new war zone – as if there has not yet been enough fighting in Syria. Assad, with solid reason, considers the Turkish forces to be occupiers and will likely take them on, with Russia and Iran acting with him or on his behalf. The Russians have a vested interest in what goes on in Syria, as does Iran, of course, which does not want Turkey in the picture. Iran has already launched an exercise at Turkey’s border.
- Syrians in the north, who are aware of the Kurdish pledge to fight the Turks with full force, are fleeing the area, adding to the already extant refugee problem.
- There remains a potential problem with ISIS. Trump is correct that the caliphate in Syria has been eliminated. But that does not mean ISIS presence is gone. Within that Kurdish area in the north, there are camps and prisons in which tens of thousands of ISIS operatives are being held – they are still ideologically devoted to their cause, and fierce. Should the Kurds be weakened by Turkey, it is anyone’s guess what would happen to those ISIS detainees. A resurgence is not impossible.
Add to this the fact that Iran is emboldened as it sees the US as weak. Israel – and Netanyahu specifically – had been delighted at Trump’s readiness to take on Iran after the appeasement of Obama. But this is no longer the case.
Writes Times of Israel editor David Horovitz (emphasis added):
“President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from a crucial area of the Turkey-Syria border, widely seen as an abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies there, has reinforced the resonance of a series of ‘emergency’ warnings issued by Israeli leaders in the days leading up to Wednesday’s solemn Yom Kippur.
“Israel’s concern, as Channel 13’s military analyst Or Heller put it on Wednesday night, is that ‘Trump’s isolationism’ will encourage Iran to do what it did to Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities last month: attack…
“When the new Knesset was sworn in last Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel was facing a dire challenge from an increasingly emboldened Iran. ‘This isn’t spin, it’s not
a whim, this is not “Netanyahu trying to scare us”…Anyone who knows the situation knows that Iran is getting stronger and is attacking around the world, saying clearly, ‘Israel will disappear.’ They believe it, they are working toward it, we need to take them seriously. That reality obligates us to act. Remember my words and heed them.’
“Even when Netanyahu convened Israel’s key decision-making security cabinet for the first time in two months on Sunday, with Iran at the top of the agenda, many opposition politicians and analysts still largely attributed the gathering to political motivations.
“But then, later that day, Trump announced his planned troop withdrawal…
“…a US troop departure eases Iran’s path to growing control in Syria, and helps facilitate its relentless effort to establish a corridor of military control from Tehran to Beirut.”
Add to all of this a very deep and pervasive unease in Israel as to whether Trump can be relied upon as an ally. At this point, the answer across the board, as I am reading it, is that he cannot.
“…diplomatic correspondent Shimon Shiffer warned that Trump’s decision on the Syrian withdrawal, and his ‘abandoning of the Kurdish allies, who believed that the US would stand with them… must set all our red lights flashing.’ And the conclusion for Israel, Shiffer charged, ‘needs to be unequivocal: Trump has become unreliable for Israel. He can no longer be trusted.’”
Former Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, has indicated that he did not know any longer if the US would come to Israel’s aid in the event of a major war.
There had been talk recently of a mutual defense pact of some sort with the US, something that is, even in the best of times, viewed with caution. Now there is a consensus: Israel must provide her own defense and rely upon no one. Naftali Bennett is among those who made this point very succinctly.
This cartoon by Amos Biderman sums it up nicely:
I want to point out that US troops have not entirely left Syria, although this may be Trump’s ultimate goal. At present they are pulling out of that northern Kurdish region. Trump – responding to criticism – has made noises about the possibility of moving back north if necessary.
Senator Graham has now tweeted, imploring Trump to reverse his decision: he has asked that the president impose sanctions on Turkey, establish a safe zone for the Kurds in Syria, and prevent the re-emergence of ISIS.
The possibility that Trump might respond to massive pressure still exists.
I note that there are analysts who think that Trump’s gambit may actually work, if he can contain Turkey via sanctions.
Caroline Glick, for example, tweeted this with regard to Iranian activity at the Turkish border:
“This seems like a rather positive development, in a Machiavellian sort of way. Turkey leads the Sunni jihadists. Iran leads the Shiite jihadists and they are priming for a war against one another?”
This seems like a rather positive development, in a Machiavellian sort of way. Turkey leads the Sunni jihadists. Iran leads the Shiite jihadists and they are priming for a war against one another?https://t.co/ES8UaGEmlL
— Caroline Glick (@CarolineGlick) October 10, 2019
I further want to provide some reassurance here. The threat to our north is increasing, but we remain vigilant and very strong. As Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi said on Monday:
“We are keeping our eyes open, having daily situation assessments, and taking professional decisions that lead to attacks and the thwarting of threats.”
Also on Monday, a senior officer with IDF Military Intelligence said that the Iranians “get a high mark, too high,” for the Abqaiq [Saudi] attack; Tehran, he declared, would “absolutely” not succeed if it attempted to launch a similar assault on Israel.
While Netanyahu has said that Israel is prepared to deal with any threat, offensively and defensively, and has the overwhelming power to do so.
All this said, Israel needs to project a strong confident image, which requires a strong, confident government. Under these circumstances I consider it deplorable that the negotiations have not yet succeeded. It’s time for everyone to come together!
And I end here with this, with great pride in our nation and our prime minister:
Netanyahu has condemned the Turkish invasion in Syria and warns of ethnic cleansing. And he has offered the “gallant Kurds” humanitarian aid.
This reflects the tone of a petition signed by dozens of IDF reservists from captain to lieutenant colonel and presented to Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chief of Staff Kohavi:
“We, as Israelis and Jews, must not stand by when we see another nation abandoned by its allies and left defenseless. We remember very well the blood of our people what happens when the nations of the world abandon the fate of a people.”
The petition calls for providing food, clothing, medicine, intelligence and military assistance to the Kurds in northern Syria.
“Israel is a country that has the means to help the Kurdish people, and now is the time to do so…we know that there are broad strategic implications here, and of course we are not fully aware of the overall picture, [however] we, who have been educated on the values of personal examples and the sanctity of life, cannot help but feel it at this time and would be happy to assist in any action.”
Wow! This, my friends, is who we are. And this is why we will always win. Netanyahu alluded to this: the spirit of the Israeli people. We are extraordinary.