It’s all over the news, and every American politician (and French) seeking re-election is repeating it: Trump has betrayed the Kurds to Turkey, set ISIS fighters free, and is actively running the U.S. military in a way that benefits only Russia.
The danger with facts everyone knows is that there’s no easy way to convince people they’re wrong. Usually the problem boils down to oversimplification; it’s easy to be wrong when you don’t know anything. In this case, it’s that — plus, everyone’s got a massive axe to grind and Trump’s a great target to score points off.
But some of it’s definitely true, so we’ll start there and move on.
First and foremost: Trump’s order to move troops out of the way of the Turkish advance did in fact make it easier for Turkish military forces to move against SDF-held territory, who until recently were supplied, trained, and actively assisted by a small cadre of American Special Forces. The SDF is an alliance in the Syrian Civil War that has made massive gains against ISIS (or ISIL, or Daesh, as you prefer) territory, and it’s largely composed of Kurdish YPG troops along with some rogue units of the Syrian Army and local militias.
Likewise, it’s absolutely true that Turkey has begun massive artillery bombardments of several SDF positions, moving in infantry to capture neutralized territory in key positions all along the border, which indicates that it’s likely they will attempt to capture the entirety of northern Syria, from the Euphrates to the Iraqi border, in the process wiping out or driving back the solidly established Kurdish military units in the area and dividing them from the local militias. Long-term, this will serve to defeat plans to establish an independent Kurdistan in present Syria.
It is certain that ISIL fighters will escape from Kurdish-run detention facilities during the conflict. We know this in part because the SDF has advised certain media outlets in advance that it would happen. Four were reported to have escaped thus far; we can be fairly sure that some (if not all) such escapes were deliberately arranged by the SDF as a way to force international cooperation. It’s a legitimate gambit on their part, but it’s perhaps a bit transparent. (EDIT: Deliberate releases have been denied by the SDF, and the US DoD has echoed their statement as of 14 October. Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that prison guard forces have been tapped for fighting troops.)
Another key point missing from the narrative is the element of timing. There was a telephone call between Trump and Erdogan on October 6th; Turkish forces were moving on October 7th. The Turkish offensive was well-coordinated, beginning with overwhelming artillery bombardments. There is absolutely no way that such an operation could have been undertaken without months of preparation — not merely unit deployment and training, but the massive stockpiles of artillery ammunition that needed to be moved through highly inaccessible mountain passes. It is evident that this was merely a courtesy call from Erdogan that informed Trump that he was invading, and that American troops in the area needed to be removed. It was not a negotiation; it was not a discussion.
In one instance, a concealed American observation post was bracketed by artillery fire, but not directly attacked. Again, this indicates that Turkey was sending a message; that the American unit was immediately withdrawn shows that the message was received.
Several months ago, after an earlier phone call between Trump and Erdogan, Trump announced that American forces would be removed from northern Syria. There was a huge outcry; several officials resigned in protest, and the Administration appeared to back down. However, the events appear to have played out in exactly that manner: Erdogan announced his intention; Trump acquiesced; Turkey prepared; the U.S. withdrew forces; Turkey invaded. In short, this was no surprise.
And, as there was no long-term agreement between the United States and the SDF — Kurdistan has not been recognized as a country, so there’s no possibility of any treaty — it can hardly be considered treacherous behavior. The local populace may well have expected us to stay there; the Kurdish soldiers likely did as well. But there is zero chance YPG command would have been surprised by either the Turkish offensive or the American reaction; they are far too effective as fighters to ever be so incompetent.
More to the point, the small training cadre — between a dozen and a couple hundred troops — could not possibly have had any serious intention to engage the Turkish force, not with a massive American military and even nuclear presence present at Incirlik Air Base ever since the early days of the Cold War. We’ve relied on Turkey far too heavily for far too long to pull out now. Erdogan’s government has opposed ours diplomatically for two decades, but they have done so while at the same time hosting our military as a deterrent to Russian aggression.
It also must be observed that the YPG forces in Syria are closely tied to the PKK in Turkey. The PKK has long been considered not only by the Turkish government but by our own and those of Europe to be a terror organization, one beholden to and funded by both China and Iran. The U.S. government has no legitimate interest in any long-term alliance with this faction — though, to be sure, there are other Kurdish groups in Iraq that strongly oppose Iran; these would be highly effective allies.
Obama originally authorized cooperation with the YPG in 2014 because they were religiously and philosophically most closely aligned with ISIL while being nevertheless committed to the goal of an independent Kurdistan rather than any dominant Islamic State. The YPG drew manpower away from ISIL; this would not have been the case had we instead opted to ally with the KDP or KNC based in Iraq (the two non-terrorist anti-Iran Kurdish factions). That they were allied with Iran was seen as no obstacle; at the time, we were engaged in normalizing relations with that country. As a result of changes in current diplomacy, and particularly when considering the present Iran-Saudi tensions and related American deployment, it should be clear to the meanest intellect that our continued presence in northern Syria was a fairly extreme aberration.
I’ll put it simply: Turkey is not being very friendly. However, neither is Iran, Assad’s Syria, the PKK, or by extension the YPG. None of these factions is any more than the enemy of our enemy. As a nation our interests are best served by getting out of the way and letting the armies of our adversaries fight among themselves.
Yes, pro-American militants are in harm’s way. Many local Syrian militia members doubtless feel betrayed. We have made no friends by this decision. But I submit to you that we were never likely to make friends here in the first place; our best efforts would have only gained either Iran or Assad greater power. This was a sound military and geopolitical decision — arguably unscrupulous, but despite appearances, neither treacherous nor stupid. Consider: France’s Macron pledged military assistance to the YPG in 2018; today, he condemns us for leaving — but where are the French troops?
And, given Obama’s choice of ally, this was inevitable regardless of the identity of the current President.
Let me be clear: I really detest defending Donald Trump; I despise the man. I’m not alone in this — but dislike is not enough; his actions need to be wrong in order for me to condemn them. I’m not at all convinced he acted wisely rather than out of cowardice, or even to create a distraction from the ongoing impeachment proceedings. But it must be stressed that, regardless of his motivation, the actions themselves are entirely justifiable.
Note: Header image shamelessly stolen from Southfront.org — They’re an excellent source of data, though like everyone they have some institutional bias. It’s my hope that they’ll forgive my trespass in exchange for my honest (if not wholehearted) endorsement.