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Will Trump’s Syria Withdrawal Protect the Kurds?
by Sherkoh Abbas, Jerry Gordon and Robert Sklaroff
It has been nearly a month since the December 14, 2018 phone call between Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Trump during which an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Syria was discussed by the President. Trump basically said he was taking out 2,200 US troops in Syria giving Erdogan the opportunity to clean up the remnant of ISIS forces in eastern Syria. That Trump call with Erdogan lent the impression that once again the US was going to abandon the Kurds. However, as we will see, Trump’s challenge to Erdogan has gone through several transformations following his December 19, 2018 declaration outside the White House that he was immediately bringing the troops home as the US-led coalition and Kurdish partners had effectively defeated the Islamic State, leaving the field to Turkey. Erdogan requested US logistic assistance in completing the transfer of Turkish -backed forces down the Euphrates River to Deir al-Zour province in Eastern Syria 240 miles distant to accomplish that objective. The reality, given his faux staged coup in July 2016, he purged his senior military. Further, his experience denying use by the US Fourth Infantry Division of the Turkish Mediterranean port of Iskenderun during the 2003 Iraq invasion taught him how powerful were the US capabilities that circumvented his obstruction. He was miffed that, following Trump’s withdrawal announcement, US Coalition Commanders were recommending leaving heavy weapons in the possession of the Kurdish YPG -l ed mixed Arab and Assyrian Christian Syrian Democratic Force (SDF).
The Kurdish -led SDF performance against ISIS demands support
The reaction to Trump’s withdrawal announcement was a veritable jeremiad in the form of a resignation letter from Secretary of Defense James Mattis outlining the reasons for his position. Principal among them was he had set conditions that US forces would remain until a stabilized Syria and withdrawal by Iran was achieved and that involved maintaining the alliance with the SDF. To the Trump team that appeared to be mission creep from the original objective of the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State. President Trump in response advanced Mattis’ leaving taking to December 31, 2018 upon receipt of the Defense Secretary’s letter. Simultaneously State Department official Brett McGurk, Special Envoy to the US-led Global Coalition resigned to leave by year-end. McGurk authored US opposition to the September 2017 Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum. That resulted in the rout of Peshmerga and Kurdish civilians from the oil-rich Kirkuk governorate takeover by Iran-led Shi’ite Hashd Al-Shaabi Popular Mobilization Militias equipped with US weapons backed by an Iraqi Armored force.
Before leaving his Pentagon post former Secretary Mattis signed an order implementing withdrawal. That left open the question of conditions precedent and the schedule for US troop withdrawals. Despite that uncertainty Mattis’ order set in motion a series of steps by the military to reinforce existing positions as staging for an eventual withdrawal. As we shall see later it created internal divisions between the Pentagon and National Security Adviser Bolton which in turn led to contretemps with Turkish President Erdogan on one emerging condition- the matter of protection of the US -backed Kurdish YPG - led SDF.
The SDF had earned its reputation the hard way over five years at the cost of thousands of valiant fighters killed and wounded as the battle-hardened 60,000 ground force fought in battles against ISIS at Kobani, Hasaka city , Raqqa and Deir al-Zour province along the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria. Those US- backed SDF operations reduced the size of the Islamic State Caliphate by over 99 percent which at its apogee was equivalent to size of Britain. US -coalition airpower, Special Forces and Marines - backed SDF units had also repulsed both Russian ‘green men’ contractors and Assad regime units in the critical Battle of Khasham in Deir al-Zour on February 7, 2018.
Reaction of Kurds and Israel to Syria Withdrawal
The Trump announcement and Defense Secretary Mattis’ resignation unnerved the Kurds and other regional allies: the Israelis, Jordanians, Iraqis, the UAE and the Saudis. President Trump said that Israel had billions of US Defense aid commitments and could defend itself. Israeli PM Netanyahu’s reaction was: “In any case, we will take care to maintain the security of Israel and to defend ourselves in this area.” During their discussions in Brasilia on the sidelines of the January 1, 2019 inauguration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Secretary of State Pompeo assured Israeli PM Netanyahu that US commitment to countering Iranian aggression in the region will not be changed with the announced Syrian withdrawal. Israelis were skeptical: 61 percent of Israelis who responded in a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute said they did not feel secure with US withdrawal from Syria.
Outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot estimated that upwards of 100,000 Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Forces and paid mercenaries from Afghanistan and Pakistan could be deployed in Syria. Brig. Gen (ret.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former IDF director of Research for Military Intelligence, now at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said, “If … the [US] forces in the south are going to leave the area, it would mean that [Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s] forces and the Iranians will have full control over Syria. This would mean that they may try to deliver weapons from Iran through Iraq to Syria, and then to Lebanon, and there’s not going to be anything in between to stop them … that’s where the problem lies.”
“It’s true that the original mission of getting rid of ISIS forces was accomplished. But the question was whether to still have US troops in Syria to take care of the Iranian issue or not. …The Iranians are going to be empowered and feel much stronger. It’s not totally clear that the Islamic State cannot reemerge, taking advantage of the weakening of their adversaries in this area, and they can rise again.”
Israel, he stressed, will take any measure it deems necessary to defend itself and never expected the US to protect it with forces.
Russia, has been “very satisfied” by Trump’s decision, Kuperwasser noted, and “will have more [of a] free hand to control what’s going on in Syria.” After the Trump announcement, Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed the move, calling it “the right decision.”
Syrian Kurds immediately reached out to the Russians and Assad seeking protection at the flashpoint of Manbij. Manbij is an Arab city strong point on the West Bank of the Euphrates River held by the Kurdish YPG- led SDF backed by a few hundred US Special Ops troops. They have been engaged since the August 2016 Turkish incursion with Syrian Free Army Jihadist militia at Jarabulus in Northern Syria – Operation Euphrates Shield .
Erdogan’s malevolent agenda for Syria’s Kurds
Erdogan has made no secret that he considers the PYD-YPG Kurds as the affiliate of the PKK, whom he and the US had designated as terrorists. The PYD adhered to the Marxist - egalitarian ideology espoused by the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan. He was arrested by Turkish Intelligence in Nairobi in 1999 with the assistance of the CIA and jailed in Turkey. The PYD had created a series of domestic councils in the Syrian Kurdish homeland of Rojava in the vacuum created by the Assad regime’s attention on fighting battles against rebel forces elsewhere with Russian support. The accusations of Erdogan against the PYD-YPG could have countered if the US had insisted on ‘rebranding’ the SDF and PYD to include other key Kurdish organizations such as the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria (KURDNAS).
Erdogan’s express objective was to ethnically cleanse the Kurds in northern Syria creating space for ultimate repatriation of the largely Sunni Syrian refugees in Turkey effectively occupying the 517-mile border with Iraq. His first objective was the conquest of the ancestral Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwest Syria.
In January 2018, Turkish forces, backing the renamed Free Syrian Army composed of former Al Qaeda and Islamic State jihadists, invaded and began ethnic cleansing of Afrin sending Kurdish civilians and YPG forces fleeing from their ancestral homeland. Moreover, it disrupted US coalition operations in Deir al-Zour Province when YPG-led Kurdish detachments of the SDF streamed back up the Euphrates Valley to block further Turkish -backed jihadist advances.
In the wake of the Trump withdrawal announcement, Assad’s military acceded to the request of the PYD/YPG and in early January 2019, began massing forces in the area surrounding Manbij. As if to answer both the US and Turkey, Russian military police were also dispatched from Idlib province to patrol the Manbij approaches, as well.
Trump’s Post Christmas Trip to Iraq reveals Continued US Presence to deal with ISIS and Iran
Internally, both Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton undertook initiatives to complete the transformation of President Trump’s Syrian withdrawal announcement. On December 26th, President and First Lady Melania made a surprise trip to Al-Asad airbase in Western Anbar province in Iraq where 5,200 US were deployed less than 20 miles from the Syrian Frontier. That exposed Trump to conversations with Central Command air, ground and special operations unit commanders who informed him that the war against ISIS was not over. During the two weeks following Trump’s phone call with Erdogan more than 469 US – coalition air and artillery strikes were carried out against ISIS fighters in Eastern Syria. SDF fought ground battles against ISIS fighters incurring casualties and capturing dozens of foreigners, including three Americans who had joined the Islamic State. The USS John C. Stennis carrier battle group showed up in the Persian Gulf to fly 75 sorties daily against ISIS targets. President Trump while on the Iraq trip said that he has no intention of pulling back U.S. forces in Iraq. Iraq could be used as a base for the U.S. if it decided “to do something in Syria.” Besides monitoring any potential resurgence of ISIS, the U.S. presence in Iraq could be used “to watch over Iran,” in the President’s words. “We’ll be watching.”
Bolton reveals conditions for US Syrian withdrawal enraging Erdogan
US National Security Adviser John Bolton held meetings in Jerusalem on January 6th and 7th with Israeli PM Netanyahu revealing conditions for withdrawal. That touched off an immediate adverse reaction from Turkey’s President Erdogan and Foreign Minister Cavusoglu before Bolton’s arrival in Ankara on January 8th. Bolton laid out three conditions in Jerusalem with PM Netanyahu: completion of the ISIS defeat, withdrawal of Iran from Syria and protection of the Kurds. President Erdogan in a brusque response said: “John Bolton made a serious mistake….Those who share the same view are also deeply wrong.” When Bolton arrived in Ankara, he was effectively snubbed by President Erdogan, who refused to meet him because he considered those conditions unacceptable, while approving President Trump's original promises. Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu on January 10, 2019 announced that operations in Syria were not dependent on US withdrawal. “If the [pullout] is put off with ridiculous excuses like Turks are massacring Kurds, which do not reflect the reality, we will implement this decision,” Çavu?o?lu said. Bolton returned to Washington facing failure to achieve his objectives. As noted earlier, the Pentagon has already begun staging protective forces for withdrawal of US troops in Syria. The Wall Street Journal reported Col. Sean Ryan, with the U.S.- coalition against Islamic State, saying the military “has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria.” Even though the withdrawal order by former Secretary of Mattis had no schedule or conditions. “The U.S. will withdraw troops from Syria in a strong, deliberate and coordinated manner, and seeks to ensure that the forces that have fought alongside coalition partners in the campaign against ISIS are not endangered,” the Pentagon official said. “As the President said, there is no specific timeline for that withdrawal.”
On January 9th Secretary of State Pompeo, during his Middle East trip effectively countered Cavusoglu saying “U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria will not be scuppered despite Turkish threats against Washington's Kurdish allies there … promising to ensure that the Kurds would still be protected”. He re-emphasized that during a meeting in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan saying: "These have been folks that have fought with us and it's important that we do everything we can to ensure that those folks that fought with us are protected." He was in Iraq at the time visiting both Baghdad and Erbil in the KRG, endeavoring to evaluate whether there had been reconciliation between the central government and Iraqi Kurdistan after the 2017 demarche over Kurdish flight from Kirkuk. Following President Trump’s surprise visit to Al-Asad airbase, several Iraqi lawmakers demanded withdrawal of US troops. Pompeo’s trip to Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia was ostensibly to reinforce US commitments regarding Iran aggression.
The troubled US history of abandoning Kurdish aspirations.
Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have bitter memories of being abandoned several times by the US over the past 50 years. First instance in 1975, when then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the Shah of Iran cut a deal with Saddam Hussein in Algiers the price of which was ending the US covert support for Kurds in northern Iraq. Then there was the US support for Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s when Iraqi Kurds allied with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards lost 100,000 people in the Anfal campaign in 1988 when Hussein forces gassed thousands of Kurdish victims in villages like Halabja. Following the end of First Gulf War in Kuwait, the US failed to stop the revenge attacks by Saddam’s Revolutionary Guards that killed tens of thousands of Iraqi Peshmerga and civilians. The establishment of a US coalition no-fly zone in 1992 facilitated the creation of the US-backed Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the de facto annexation of the oil rich region of Kirkuk in Iraq by the KRG.
The rise of the Islamic State in 2014 and collapse of Iraqi forces resulted in the capture of Mosul, massacre and enslavement of Yazidi women and children and flight of Chaldean Christians from the Plains of Nineveh. ISIS was the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of US military equipment abandoned by fleeing Iraqi forces. The US-coalition backed Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga assisted in retaking Mosul, Sinjar and the Nineveh Plains. Iranian Quds Force - controlled Shiite Hashd al Shaabi Popular Mobilization Militias seized the oil-rich Kirkuk governorate in October 2017 with US supplied heavy weapons. The Iran-backed Popular Mobilization militias effectively took control over the Iraqi/ Syrian frontier created a land bridge for Tehran.
Problematic Prognostication: Will Trump protect the Kurds?
The Administration initially announced that the decision to effect a quick withdrawal from Syria had been conveyed to "America’s partners in northeast Syria, namely the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)." But the Kurds and others see this as a betrayal, portending both a forced alteration of regional demographics and a revival of Islamic State terror.
Desperation has prompted the Kurds to mobilize against a potential Turkish attack by approaching Iran as well as Russia and even Syrian President Assad. The release of 3,200 Islamic State prisoners is a possibility as Kurdish forces on the battlefield need the manpower presently used to guard them.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the U.S. withdrawal will not impede the war against Islamism, and Administration pledges to maintain a presence after the pullout. But the administration appears poised to repeat President Obama’s mistake by invoking claims that our troops will remain on-call just over the horizon.
What to Do
To help protect minorities, as the Kurds have done by creating protected sanctuaries, American troops could be replaced with a French-British led military force coalition. They also could be augmented by a proposed Arab NATO force suggested by Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs President Ambassador Dore Gold to counter Iranian regional hegemony.
Former administration counter-terrorism adviser Sebastian Gorka recently observed that the Trump Doctrine mandates that America will reliably help friends (particularly Sunnis) who do not need nation-building. This could incline the president to recognize and support the Kurds’ unique potency and reliability against the Islamists of both Iran and Turkey.
The president could modernize the process of assembling coalitions-of-the-willing to accommodate contemporary conditions. Joining Kurds could be carefully populated coalitions comprised primarily of Sunni Arabs (including from the Gulf States), Christians, and other oppressed minorities.
- They would be aligned against Islamist non-governmental terrorist groups—including Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusrah Front, and the Muslim Brotherhood – who are committed to combatting American interests and overturning the same governments that were targeted during the past decade.
- They would be aligned against terrorist-funding Iran as well as against Iran’s intention to control the production and export of oil from Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
- They could be aligned against Russia’s intention to become the dominant regional superpower, an objective that appears increasingly likely.
It’s past time for such coalitions to be formed and activated, for the interests of America and Kurds to mesh.
Yet, during the week following Trump’s withdrawal announcement, matters have worsened for Christians who remain at-risk of extinction in the land where Christmas began threatened by Iranian- backed Shabak militias on the Plains of Nineveh. Only America can ensure they won’t have to choose—along with other minorities protected by the Kurds—between annihilation and mass emigration.
Turkey’s demand that Google removes its ‘Kurdistan’ map telegraphs the punch that it appears to be starting to deliver against defenseless Syrians, for Turkey has already massed troops and allies near the Kurdish-held Syrian town of Manbij.
Yet, after Trump said Erdo?an will “eradicate” ISIS in Syria and praised the Turkish leader as “a man who can do it,” in response to a direct question as to whether Erdo?an provided any reassurance that the Kurds wouldn’t be annihilated, a White House spokesperson said only that a “very strong message” had been sent.
The President can still act to defend the Kurds. Having signed the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, which makes it American policy “to regard the prevention of genocide and other atrocities as in its national security interests,” the Kurds would seem to be first in line for protection.
The Syrian withdrawal announcement by President Trump was impetuous, badly handled and may likely result in endangering Syrian Kurdish -led SDF forces, despite their heroic valor in succeeding in the mission of defeating ISIS with US backing. Facing threats by Turkish autocratic President Erdogan bent on seizing the strong point of Manbij and Rojava with US troops gone, it has only the insecure defense of the suspect Assad regime and its questionable Russian allies. The loss of US bases in South Syria and in Deir al-Zour province will result in an estimated 100,000 Iranian -backed proxies, Shi’ite militia and mercenaries occupying Syria. That constitutes a threat to a federated Syria and Autonomous self-governing area for the Kurds. Israel and Jordan frontier security are imperiled. A new flood of refugees may burst into Jordan, complicating an already overwhelming situation. Once more it appears that the US has lost an opportunity to protect and promote federated Kurdistans in both Syria and Iraq.
In November of 2017, after the debacle of the Kurdish independence referendum and loss of the Kirkuk of the Kirkuk Governorate and its oil resources, Ambassador Dore Gold of the JCPA recorded a video with remarks about why Kurdistan is important. You may view the YouTube video, here.
He concluded his remarks with these thoughts that in the light of the current situation are prescient and thoughtful. They bear wide circulation among Kurdish supporters in the US, Israel and Europe.
The tragedy of the Kurds has been compounded by a geostrategic reality. They are surrounded by Middle Eastern great powers. In fact, the Kurdish population of some 30 million people is divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and other places in the area of the Middle East. These Middle Eastern great powers have a strong interest in opposing the emergence of a Kurdish state and of denying the Kurds their right to self-determination.
It is true that Kurds speak different dialects like Kurmanji in northern Iraq or Sorani in central and southern Iraq, but that doesn’t prevent them from working together as one nation. And, in fact, in many of the struggles in the Middle East in the last number of years since 2011, Iraqi Kurds have helped Syrian Kurds, and Iranian Kurds have helped them both.
Despite those linguistic divisions, the Kurds are a nation that deserves national self-expression. In the short term, they face defeat in Iraq, but in the longer term they are a strategic asset to the entire Western alliance and, therefore, they deserve diplomatic and political support.
Sherkoh Abbas is president of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria. Jerry Gordon is a Senior editor of the New English Review and the Robert Sklaroff is a physician-activist. ?This article constitutes the policy of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria. The authors are grateful for the suggestions acquired from Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Jewish Policy Center, Washington, DC