There’s a lot of propaganda being pushed about Trump’s withdraw of US troops from north Syria. Pro-Putin folks stress Putin’s “patient diplomacy”. Pro-Trump folks cheer his ‘America First’ policy. And anti-Trump folks denounce US “betrayal” of the Kurds.
But my understanding of what actually happened – based on following what’s been happening there for a few years – suggests that the truth is much more complex (and much more interesting). It’s a story that illustrates how policy is conducted by the Deep State regardless of the promises made by their front-men political operatives. And also how appearances are colored to influence policy outcomes and public perception.
First some background.
A good explanation of the Syrian Conflict is provided here.
Both Kurds and USA entered into alliance of convenience with the other. Each need the other to attain their goal. For the US, it was removal of Assad and (ultimately) dismemberment of Syria. The Kurds hoped to benefit from this dismemberment and they also needed arms and financial support. But Kurds got another important benefit: USA protection from Turkey’s wrath.
Why the wrath? Kurdish PKK has been waging war on Turkey for decades. They have received support from their Kurd friends across the border in Syria known as the YPG. But also because for many years during the Syrian Conflict the Kurds engaged in ethnic cleansing of Turkmen/Sunnis as they sought to create a contiguous area for a Kurdish state (“Rajova”). As an avowed Islamist, Erdogan considers it his duty to protect Turkmen and other Sunnis living in or near Turkey.
Israel has long befriended the Kurds and supported a Kurdish state as part of their Yinon Plan to breakup Syria and Iraq into small states that don’t threaten Israel and can be manipulated.
US and Turkey have the largest standing armies in the NATO Alliance. Turkey’s strategic location makes it even more important. And USA has a very important base in Turkey (Incirlik) where it holds nuclear weapons. Turkey was always going to be more important to USA than the Kurds.
Importantly, Turkey was a prime member of the ‘Assad must go!’ Alliance which waged a proxy war on Syria using Jihadi mercenaries. This illegal war has been described as a Civil War by Western propaganda but it was really a conspiracy between USA+Saudi Arabia+Israel+Qatar+Turkey. The conspiracy was described by renown reporter Seymour Hersh in “The Redirection” (written in February 2007!):
In the past year, the Saudis, the Israelis, and the Bush Administration have developed a series of informal understandings about their new strategic direction. At least four main elements were involved, the U.S. government consultant told me. First, Israel would be assured that its security was paramount . . .
Second, the Saudis would urge Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian party that has received support from Iran, to curtail its anti-Israeli aggression . . .
The third component was that the Bush Administration would work directly with Sunni nations to counteract Shiite ascendance in the region.
Fourth, the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria.
Other states, like the Europeans, kept quiet as they hoped to benefit from tens of billions of dollars in reconstruction contracts.
While Turkey’s importance to USA is far greater than the Kurds, Israel’s influence on USA is far greater than Turkey’s. So it’s highly likely that Israel pressured the US to prefer the Kurds over Turkey citing the paramount importance of bringing down the Assad regime (a goal that is also supported by Turkey).
After the July 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan, relations between USA and Turkey soured. This led to Turkey’s developing stronger relations with Russia and in 2017 Turkey was demanding to be allowed to enter Afrin and Manjib. In January 2018, Turkey and their Free Syrian Army (FSA) irregulars began an attack on Afrin, which was largely completed by March.
Erdogan then turned his attention to Manjib, threatening an attack and publicly stating that USA (under Obama Administration) had made a deal that allowed for Turkey’s occupation of Manjib (!) But giving up Manjib would destroy USA’s alliance with Kurds and consequently wreck the ‘Assad must go!’ Alliance’s strategy. So USA troops were stationed at the Manjib border to block a Turkish attack. This may have been the lowest point in USA-Turk relations.
In the summer of 2018, relations between the Trump Administration and Erdogan’s Turkey noticeably improved. This came after months of little steps that formed a basis for reaching an understanding. It’s highly likely that that understanding/secret agreement included USA’s recognition of Turkey’s right to defend itself and a USA withdrawal from the border when Turkey choose to attack the Kurds. It also seems to have included USA support for Turkey’s occupation of Idlib. In August 2018, USA declared first that it would bomb SAA if they conducted a chemical attack in Idlib and then that they would bomb SAA if they made ANY ATTEMPT to take Idlib(!!)
Aside: This led to a Turkey-Russia agreement for Turkey to set up observation posts in Idlib and work to eliminate Jihadi’s in Idlib over a 3 month period. An agreement which Erdogan failed to follow-thru on. It may be that, for personal and political reasons, Erdogan wanted to reverse the Kurds ethnic cleansing BEFORE he tackled the Jihadists in Idlib.
Trumped effectively delays the incursion
The Turk-US understanding may have been that Turkey could make an incursion sometime after 1st January 2019. Or the timing may simply have been dependent on events “on the ground”. If the former, then Trump decided to secretly act against Erdogan wishes. If the latter, then Turkey and USA were conspiring to ‘shake things up’ at an opportune time.
Importantly, despite having initially set a deadline of 3 months for Erdogan to deal with the Jihadis in Idlib, in December 2018 Putin seemed willing to allow Erdogan much more time and leeway. Russia and Syria were not yet in a position to attack Idlib. They wouldn’t do so until mid-2019!
In any case, in December 2018 Trump made the surprising and shocking announcement that he was ‘pulling out’ of Syria. In hindsight, Trump’s announcement was either a delaying tactic or a placeholder for an eventual ‘shake-up’ that would include a Turk incursion. USA didn’t really want to ‘pull out’ – they wanted to continue, as long as possible, their strategy of strangling Syria by denying it access to it’s eastern oil fields. And they seek to use the resulting hardships to press for a favorable political solution that includes a federalized Syria without Assad.
Aside: In parallel to USA or USA-Turk planning, Israel appears to have made a plan of it’s own to ‘trump’ the whole issue: they attacked Damascus airport on Christmas in a way that suggests that they hoped to cause Syrian armed forces to down a civilian airliner (likely with many Christians on board)
And it worked! USA could have planned for an orderly withdrawal. But they hadn’t! Instead the withdrawal announcement (predictably) generated fierce resistance from the military and foreign policy establishment (the “bad cop” to Trump’s “good cop”). The most theatrical part of this farce was the resignation of General Mattis. Most failed to see that General Mattis was already half out the door due to his age and having served on the board of Theranos, a fraudulent medical company that was a spectacular failure.
This set in motion a months-long effort to negotiate (or renegotiate) a compromise. Neocon extraordinaire John Bolton took the lead, traveling to Turkey many times despite reportedly getting a cold reception. In February USA stated that they had reached an agreement that attempted to placate Turkey by withdrawing some troops and declaring that USA would stop providing Kurds with some types of arms. But if any agreement was reached, it was probably nothing more than a short-term extension (6 months?) Erdogan was still unhappy.
Erdogan was still again insisting that he would attack northeastern Syria whether USA withdrew or not. Erdogan had also started a media campaign to pressure US acquiescence. He declared that USA had supported/funded ISIS. Erdogan likely has a great deal of information that would be damaging to USA.
In August USA and Turkey reached an agreement to implement a “Northern Syria Buffer Zone” in which USA and Turkey would jointly patrol a “buffer zone” within Syria. The combination of the USA restricting what weapons the Kurds could obtain and the NSBZ effectively addressed Turkeys security concerns. Yet Erdogan still pressed for more concessions!?!
On September 10th John Bolton resigned. It’s unknown exactly why he resigned but in hindsight he may have objected to the ‘buffer zone’ itself or further concessions. Or, he may have hoped that his departure could cause a delay like Mattis’ departure had. But it’s also possible that Bolton wanted to be out of the picture well before the Turkish incursion that he had secretly arranged for actually occurred.
It’s hard to say because Bolton had made other mistakes. He was deeply involved in the failed effort to remove Venezuela’s Maduro. And he had become an obstacle to talks with North Korea. It was time to cut the attack dog loose.
In any case, the timing of Turkey’s attack couldn’t be better for the ‘Assad must go!’ Coalition. It comes after SAA made progress toward reclaiming Idlib, killing hundreds of Jihadis in the process. The SAA’s Idlib attack now appears to be stalled.
The result is still unfolding. We will soon see what plans USA, Turkey and others may have made in preparation for the (inevitable) Turkish incursion: release of ISIS prisoners? agreements with other elements of SDF so as to retain the oil fields?
Erdogan was ‘played’, or he conspired with USA. Erdogan must have known all along that USA+Kurds were only going to address his security concerns – not his desire to reverse Kurdish ethnic cleansing. But he accepted the delays and negotiations and pulled the trigger on an incursion when it suited him and USA.
Nevertheless, if he was ‘played’ then it was because USA wanted to give the its anti-Assad/Pro-Kurd strategy as much ‘running time’ as possible – indicating the great determination to continue a strategy that was devised before Trump came into office.
Trump is not honest when he tries to parlay his withdrawal as consistent with his ‘America First’ campaign rhetoric. His withdrawal from Syria’s northern border is not a full pull-out from Syria. And Trump is still “locked and loaded” with respect to Iran.
Those who decry the “betrayal” of the Kurds are hypocrits. They likely know that Trump did everything he could to delay the (inevitable) incursion.
Those who tout Putin’s patient diplomacy as responsible USA’s removal for north Syria may be overstating their hero’s impact. Erdogan’s Islamist policies have been consistent and Islamists/nationalists represent the core of his political base. And if US-Turkey secretly conspired together, then Putin’s diplomacy failed.
There’s now a USA-Turk agreement for a ceasefire and reports that USA may retain control of the oil fields.
If Kurds won’t fight with SAA against former SDF comrades (backed by USA), then what has SAA gained except the responsibility of patrolling a long border? SAA would then have to chose: fight SDF for oil fields or fight for Idlib.
Has Turkey kicked USA out or kicked SAA in the shins (hobbling their ability to fight)? SNA can redeploy to Idlib (or the oil fields) while Turkey pins down thousands of SAA troops at the northeastern border.
Main photo: A scene from the Reality Show Presidency.