How Putin Outfoxed Trump, Pence and Erdogan
On October 17, brandishing President
Donald Trump's threat to destroy the Turkish economy, US Vice President Mike
Pence visited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Feigning a spirit of
compromise, Erdogan agreed on a memorandum with Pence that effectively gave
Erdogan the green light to complete his ethnic cleansing of the Syrian Kurds.
On October 22, Erdogan went to visit
Russian President Vladimir Putin. This time, Erdogan feigned full satisfaction
with a joint memorandum that limited his ethnic cleansing to an Arab-majority
stretch of Syrian territory adjacent to the Turkish border, where few Kurds live
anyway, while conceding the protection of all other Syrian Kurds to Putin.
Trump claimed the entire credit for
this outcome. But in reality it was the culmination of a scheme that Putin had
been planning since at least January 2019, when he promoted a meeting between
representatives of the Syrian Kurds and of the Assad regime.
In short, the two meetings ended with
the US administration claiming its strategic wisdom precisely as it surrendered
its former substantial influence in Syria and established Russian supremacy in
Syria. Before we examine the details, however, a brief geography lesson is
Began with a Railway
The idea of building a Berlin-Baghdad
Railway originated in the late nineteenth century when Syria and Iraq were parts
of the Ottoman Empire. The project gained impetus from German-Turkish
cooperation in the years leading up to World War I, when work began on various
stretches of the route. Although the stretches were not all linked up until
1940, by World War I a stretch did run from Çobanbey in the west to Nusaybin
(the classical Nisibis) in the east.
After the war, Turkey was deprived of
all its Arab territories. Most of the west-to-east border between the new
Republic of Turkey and the French Mandate for Syria was determined to run along
the Syrian side of that stretch of railway. One result was that the towns that
grew up around the railway stations were now split into twin towns. Nusaybin
matches Qamishli, one of the biggest Syrian Kurdish centers. Çobanbey matches
Al-Ra'i, where Kurds were largely driven out by Erdogan's so-called Operation
Euphrates Shield (from August 2016 to March 2017). Thereafter,
Turkish forces sought to capture Manbij, further south, from the majority
Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF responded by inviting Assad
regime forces (with Russian backing) first to the outskirts of Manbij in
December 2018 and now, in late October 2019, to take over the town in order to
frustrate Erdogan's current so-called Operation Peace Spring (as we shall see).
The Kurdish towns in Syria consist
mainly of various points where the Kurdish population that dominates
southeastern Turkey spills over into the Syrian side of the frontier between the
two states. Only in the triangle of territory at the northeastern end of Syria,
lying between Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan, is there a considerable Kurdish
population more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the Turkish frontier. So when
Erdogan announced that Operation Peace Spring was intended to establish a
"safe zone" extending 32 kilometers into Syria from which the SDF
would be expelled in order to resettle millions of Syrian Arab refugees, he was
plainly planning an ethnic cleansing of Kurds. As explained in an earlier article, Erdogan disguised his intentions by
undertaking the ethnic cleansing in a piecemeal fashion, first with Operation
Euphrates Shield and then, starting in January 2018, with Operation
Olive Branch (the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds in the Afrin
area – the westernmost Kurdish spillover into Syria). But he intended a total
ethnic cleansing of Kurds all along. Operation Peace Spring was meant to do east
of the Euphrates river what he had already accomplished west of the river with
the two earlier operations.
to Turkish Aggression
The drama of recent weeks began with
joint Turkish-US patrols along the Syrian side of the border and ended with
joint Russian-Turkish patrols. This switch already indicates who intimidates
Erdogan and who does not.
In a speech at the United Nations on
September 24, Erdogan set off the drama by presenting "a map of Syria with
a red line drawn across the top" and declaring: "We intend to
establish a peace corridor with a depth of 30 kilometres and a length of 480
kilometres in Syria and enable the settlement of two million Syrians there with
the support of the international community." Three days later, details
of the plan were published by Rudaw (an Iraqi Kurdish network),
gleaned from a Turkish newspaper:
Unnamed sources told Turkish media
Haberturk on Friday that 140 villages, each to house 5,000 Syrian refugees, and
10 districts, each accommodating 30,000 Syrian refugees, will be built in the
so-called safe zone Turkey wants to see established some 30-40 kilometres deep
into Syrian territory. In total, 200,000 residences will be built to house about
a million Syrians who have fled to Turkey since the civil conflict erupted in
2011 and the subsequent rise of the brutal extremist Islamic State (ISIS). The
construction plans also include sport halls, schools, youth centres, mosques,
and medical clinics. The whole project is estimated to cost about $27 billion.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shared this plan with American officials
during his visit to the United Nations General Assembly this week, according to
Turkish media reports.
As Rudaw recalled, Erdogan, in his
speech to the UN, spoke of even larger numbers, while euphemistically dubbing
this scheme a "peace corridor":
"We want to be able to resettle
two million Syrians into the peace corridor with the support of the
international community. If we can extend this corridor to the Deir ez-Zor-Raqqa
line, we can increase the number of Syrians to return home from Turkey, Europe,
and other countries to up to three million."
The line mentioned is more than 100
kilometers south of the Syrian border with Turkey. Rudaw also recalled that
"Turkey and the US agreed in early August to set up a safe zone in some
parts of northern Syria to address Ankara's security concerns about the Kurdish
forces in northern Syria" and "discussed relocating some of the 3.6
million Syrian refugees living in Turkey." Only what the US wanted to talk
about – in agreement with the Syrian Kurds - was merely resettling in this
area refugees that had fled from it, not the vastly greater number intended by
Erdogan (let alone $27 billion). Rudaw concluded:
Turkish and US troops have begun aerial
and ground patrols in the proposed safe zone, but Erdogan says this is not
enough. He has threatened to go it alone, establishing the safe zone by the end
of September if the US does not act more quickly.
It was against such a background that
Erdogan, in a phone call on October 6, told Trump that he was going ahead
with his plans, whereupon Trump decided on the spot to withdraw the US personnel
from the joint patrols. Trump was fully informed of the scale of the population
transfer envisaged by Erdogan and thought that he could deter Erdogan with a
pair of tweets on Twitter:
"As I have stated strongly before,
and just to reiterate, 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 (I've done before!). They must, with Europe and others, watch
"... the captured ISIS fighters
and families. The U.S. has done far more than anyone could have ever expected,
including the capture of 100% of the ISIS Caliphate. It is time now for others
in the region, some of great wealth, to protect their own territory. THE USA IS
When Erdogan showed indifference to
threats of obliteration, Trump proceeded to send him a yet more hyperbolic letter on October 9:
Dear Mr. President,
Let's work out a good deal! You don't
want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don't want to
be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy—and I will. I've already
given you a little sample with respect to Pastor Brunson.
I have worked hard to solve some of
your problems. Don't let the world down. You can make a great deal. General
Mazloum is willing to negotiate with you, and he is willing to make concessions
that they would never have made in the past. I am confidentially enclosing a
copy of his letter to me, just received.
History will look upon you favorably if
you get this done the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the
devil if good things don't happen. Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!
I will call you later.
Upon receiving it, according to Turkish officials, Erdogan "threw Trump's
'don't be a fool' letter in the trash and considered it 'the final straw' before
launching his offensive in Syria." The assault stretched all the way from
Kobani in the west to Qamishli and Derik (both of which include numerous
Christians) in the east. Turkey contributed aerial bombing, artillery and tanks,
but assigned the role of infantry to the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), a
militia created out of Islamist Arab refugees from the Syrian Civil War. As the
Trump administration should have anticipated – forewarned by the example of
Afrin – wherever the militia arrived it committed atrocities that have been
described by Amnesty International and summarized by Seth Frantzman. Videos have surfaced in which the militia summarily
executed captured civilians and boasted that it would decapitate any
"infidel Kurds" that it came across.
The history of Kobani to date in the Syrian Civil War
illustrates the bitter paradox. It began in late 2014, when American planes
arrived to bomb the positions taken up in the town by the Islamic State (ISIS),
in order to facilitate a counterattack by Kurdish forces after most of the
population had fled. On the ground, the Syrian Kurds were reinforced with
artillery supplied by Iraqi Kurds. Last year, after the SDF captured the ISIS
"capital" Raqqa, Kobani's residents told the reporter that they were
living in peace and rebuilding. After the American withdrawal early in October,
Turkish American-made planes came to bomb the villages around Kobani in order to
facilitate its capture by another Islamist force, provoking a fresh flight of
the population. Today it is Assad's troops, but especially the Russian military
police that accompany them, who protect Kobani.
After both parties in both Houses of
Congress united to propose sanctions on Turkey, Trump on September 17 sent Vice
President Pence to Ankara. The same day, the White House announced "an historic agreement,"
according to which:
Turkey is implementing an immediate
The two governments committed to
safeguard religious and ethnic minorities.
Both governments are increasing
cooperation to help detain ISIS fighters.
Relations between the United States and
long-standing NATO ally Turkey have been bolstered.
This agreement is the result of
President Donald Trump's forthright leadership over the past week and the
successful negotiations in Ankara led by Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of
State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, backed by a
team of skilled and dedicated diplomats and military officers.
Turkey has agreed to pause its
offensive for 120 hours to allow the United States to facilitate the withdrawal
of YPG forces from the Turkish-controlled safe zone. Turkey has agreed to a
permanent ceasefire upon completion of the YPG withdrawal. The U.S. has already
begun to facilitate the YPG withdrawal from the safe zone area.
The Administration laud's [sic]
President Erdogan's willingness to step forward, agree to a ceasefire, and take
this opportunity for resolution. The two governments are committed to a peaceful
safe zone in northeast Syria.
The text of a "Joint U.S.-Turkish
Statement on Northeast Syria" completed the White House statement.
In a subsequent press conference, Trump switched from threats to the warmest of
compliments for Erdogan: "I just want to thank and congratulate President
Erdogan. He's a friend of mine and I'm glad we didn't have a problem because,
frankly, he is a hell of a leader and a tough man, a strong man." Trump
also tweeted triumphantly:
"This deal could NEVER have been
made three days ago. There needed to be some 'tough' love in order to get it
done. Great for everybody. Proud of all!
"This is a great day for
civilization. I am proud of the United States for sticking by me in following a
necessary, but somewhat unconventional, path. People have been trying to make
this 'deal' for many years. Millions of lives will be saved. Congratulations to
Unfortunately, the Turkish Foreign
Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu gave a very different account of what had been agreed:
"We will suspend the Peace Spring
operation for 120 hours for the PKK/YPG to withdraw. This is not a ceasefire. A
pause of Turkey's operation in Syria is not a ceasefire, ceasefire can only be
declared between two legitimate parties."
The American media were also not
impressed. Among many examples, Fox Media's Chris Wallace questioned "whether the US-brokered
deal in Syria is a cease-fire or a surrender."
The natural reading of the 13 points of
the "Joint U.S.-Turkish Statement on Northeast Syria" reinforces
Point 9: "The
two sides agreed on the continued importance and functionality of a safe zone in
order to address the national security concerns of Turkey, to include the
re-collection of YPG heavy weapons and the disablement of their fortifications
and all other fighting positions."
Point 10: "The
safe zone will be primarily enforced by the Turkish Armed Forces..."
Point 11: "The
Turkish side will pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow the withdrawal
of YPG from the safe zone within 120 hours. Operation Peace Spring will be
halted upon completion of this withdrawal."
Point 12: "Once
Operation Peace Spring is paused, the US agrees not to pursue further imposition
Above all, the "Joint U.S.-Turkish
Statement" nowhere defined the length or even the depth of the "safe
zone," allowing Erdogan to understand it to mean – as in the various
Turkish statements at the UN – the entire length of the border and a variable
depth enabling the settlement of one or two or three million Islamist Syrian
refugees. On the other hand, the Trump administration assured the SDF – and
the SDF thankfully agreed – that the depth of the "safe zone" would
be 30 kilometers (19 miles) and that it would extend from Tel
Abyad in the west to Ras al-Ayn in the east. Their twins on the Turkish side of
the border are respectively Akçakale and Ceylanpinar.
Out of the 440 kilometers from Kobani
to Derik, the distance between the two towns is merely 120 kilometers. This is a
stretch in which the Kurdish population is relatively small because here the
Arab population of Syria spills over into Turkey. At the beginning of the Syrian
Civil War, the FSA – the militia now sponsored by Turkey – seized the area
from the Assad regime. Then ISIS took over until it was driven out by the SDF.
At various stages, part of the Arab population fled into Turkey. In Turkey's
current attack upon the Syrian Kurds, this was the only area where the FSA
pushed back the SDF, although the latter fought to hold positions in Tel Abyad
and Ras al-Ayn themselves.
It made sense, therefore, for the SDF
to withdraw from this area alone, in accordance with its stance that refugees
should be allowed to return only to where they had originally come from. Of
course, it will be no fun for Arabs to live under the regime of head-chopping
and subjugation of women practiced by the FSA Islamists. The SDF, by contrast,
set up a system of decentralized administration (also described here) whereby each town was governed by a council reflecting
the local ethnic mix and the council was headed jointly by a man and a woman.
Yet Turkey had unleashed its assault
along the full 440 kilometers. On October 20, as the "ceasefire" (US
version) or "pause" (Turkish version) was breaking down, Erdogan
reiterated that his "safe zone" must be 440 kilometers long,
destroying the assurances (of 120 kilometers by 30 in depth) that the Trump
administration had given to the SDF. As an issue of the Yetkin Report remarked, this was one of the "13
unsafe questions about the Safe Zone in Syria."
In those three days between October 17
and 20, however, the SDF and the Assad regime activated an agreement that they
had been quietly negotiating since January and intensively since July, by when the SDF realized that they
would indeed be abandoned by the Trump administration and exposed to a
devastating invasion by Trump's "friend," that "hell of a
leader" Erdogan. Forces of the Assad regime, accompanied by Russian
military personnel, rushed to all the frontier areas where the SDF had stemmed
the attacks of the FSA. The Russian contribution was 300 extra military police
and 20 armored vehicles, somewhat more than the 50 or so US troops that Trump
pulled out, precipitating the Turkish invasion.
The guiding genius of this development,
acting behind the scenes for months, was Putin. Already on January 23, Putin had
praised the Syrian Kurds for opening a dialogue with the Assad regime under
Russian auspices. This was reported by the Voice of America, adding:
Earlier this month, White House
national security adviser John Bolton appealed to the YPG to refrain from
dialogue with Damascus. "I think they know who their friends are,"
Bolton said, referring to the Kurds.
Bolton was truly their friend and was
still trying to persuade Trump to be one. On September 10, Bolton gave up trying
and resigned. (Trump claimed to have fired him.) The Syrian Kurds were proved to
have had a shrewder estimation of whom they could trust.
What the Syrian Kurds want from Assad
is at a minimum the end of the policy of Arabization imposed by Assad's father
in the 1970s, whereby Kurdish towns and villages were given new Arabic names (Derik
is officially "Al-Malikiyah") and Kurdish was banned from public life.
To this end, they have started Kurdish schools that they want to retain in any deal with
Assad. They would like further autonomy, but would settle for the system of
decentralized administration described above.
From the early months of the Syrian
Civil War, incidentally, there was an ambiguous relationship between the Kurdish
YPG and the Assad regime. Sometimes they were struggling against each other, but
sometimes they were fighting in parallel against Islamists, until Assad removed
his forces in August 2012 to areas in western Syrian where they were desperately
needed. Such a relationship has now been renewed.
The situation immediately after the
arrival of Assad's military was described in a report by El Pais. Natalia Sancha in Qamishli told of
seeing SDF and Assad regime positions stationed one alongside the other, from
which both were jointly fighting back against the FSA. Andrés Mourenza on the
Turkish side of the frontier in Ceylanpinar recounted that most of its 87,000
residents had fled because of shells fired back against the FSA by the SDF from
Also on October 20, Erdogan demanded that Assad's forces should withdraw from
the entire frontier so that he could realize his dream of resettling millions of
refugees. This, he said, would be on the agenda when he met Putin on October 22.
But the outcome of the meeting, a memorandum of understanding comprising ten points, was to
dash Erdogan's dreams maybe forever. It is enough to cite points 3 and 5:
In this framework, the established status quo in the current Operation Peace
Spring area covering Tel Abyad and [Ras al-Ain] with a depth of 32km (20 miles)
will be preserved.
Starting 12.00 noon of October 23, 2019, Russian military police and Syrian
border guards will enter the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border, outside
the area of Operation Peace Spring, to facilitate the removal of YPG elements
and their weapons to the depth of 30km (19 miles) from the Turkish-Syrian
border, which should be finalized in 150 hours. At that moment, joint
Russian-Turkish patrols will start in the west and the east of the area of
Operation Peace Spring with a depth of 10km (six miles), except Qamishli city.
Comparing these two points with the
points quoted from Pence's agreement with Erdogan, note firstly that (unlike the
wording of Pence's "U.S.-Turkish Statement") Turkey's presence in
Syria is expressly restricted to the area that it had captured, contradicting
Erdogan's expectations of the meeting. Second, this area is described as a
"status quo," not as an area to which Turkey has any rights. Third,
elsewhere Turkish forces are restricted to joint patrols with Russians and to a
mere 10 kilometers from the frontier, while they will not enter Qamishli – the
largest Kurdish population center – at all. Thus fourth, there is only a small
area where Erdogan can resettle refugees and it is an area whose existing
population is Arab and not Kurdish. Fifth, while Pence agreed that the heavy
arms of the Kurds would be re-collected, now the Kurdish forces can take them
along when they withdraw.
How could Putin crush Erdogan so
quickly? Partly because Erdogan had alienated all his NATO allies, first by
ordering anti-aircraft missiles from Russia, which obliged the USA to stop
selling aircraft to Turkey, and then by his assault upon the Syrian Kurds, which
prompted European NATO members to impose arms embargos. But also because Putin
is able at any time – and is merely biding his time – to initiate a fresh
bombardment of Turkey's proxies (the FSA and others) in northwestern Syria. That
threat could work to intimidate Erdogan where Trump's tweets failed.
What seems to have generally been
overlooked here is that no disarmament of the SDF is so far envisaged, unlike
what happened when the Assad regime regained control elsewhere in Syria. The
answer to this puzzle is to be found in remarks by Assad on this occasion:
Syrian President Bashar Assad has vowed
to reunite all the territory under Damascus' rule. On Tuesday, Assad called
Erdogan "a thief" and said he was ready to support any "popular
resistance" against Turkey's invasion. "We are in the middle of a
battle and the right thing to do is to rally efforts to lessen the damages from
the invasion and to expel the invader sooner or later," he told troops
during a visit to the northwestern province of Idlib...
Assad called Erdogan "a thief, he
stole the factories and the wheat and the oil in cooperation with Daesh (the
Islamic State group) and now is stealing the land." He said his government
had offered a clemency to Kurdish fighters - whom it considers separatists - to
"ensure that everyone is ready to resist the aggression" and fight the
Indeed, what better tool could Assad
have for this purpose than the well-trained, heavily armed and battle-hardened
100,000 members of the SDF? Moreover, although Erdogan falsely claims that the
YPG (the Kurdish component making up some 60% of the SDF alongside allied Arab
and Christian militias) is merely an extension of the PKK (the Kurdish
terrorists who have been fighting against the regime in Turkey), there is one
place where the YPG is sponsoring an insurgency against Turkey and its FSA,
namely, in order to regain the Afrin area. So Assad and Putin may be scheming to
recapture Afrin in same style as they have used to regain most of western Syria,
namely, Assad regime infantry backed by heavy Russian bombing. Only this time
the SDF will be available to serve as infantry.
Note the opinion of Robert Pearson, a former US Ambassador to Turkey,
speaking on Middle East Forum Radio on October 23, that "Sooner or Later,
Putin Will Force Turkey out of Syria." He also predicted that the Trump
administration would frustrate efforts in Congress to sanction Turkey:
To be honest with you, Erdoğan
doesn't care what the U.S. does because [it has] now completely abdicated any
influence or control in Syria. [It has] nothing on the table with Turkey that
Turkey would find appealing to bargain about. So the real question is whether
the Senate will pass a veto-proof heavy sanctions bill that would punish Turkey
economically as a result of the incursion. I think that President Trump and his
allies are working strenuously to let the heat about
this issue out without allowing any of the substantive reaction that
the Senate's been talking about.
Returning to the area of Syria granted
to Erdogan by Putin, what is meant by "30" or "32 kilometers
south of the border between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn"? The media repeat
this formula without explanation. Apparently, the reference is to Highway M4,
which runs approximately parallel to the border at more or less that distance
from it. The question, then, is whether this stretch of the road will be
controlled the Assad regime or by the invaders. After the SDF withdrew from Ras
al-Ayn, Turkey's FSA proxy advanced south to Tel Tamr on Highway M4, where it
was repulsed by Assad's forces on October 24. Tel Tamr, however,
is not south but slightly southeast of Ras al-Ayn, therefore definitely outside
the so-called "safe zone" as defined by Putin. Nevertheless, Assad
will surely want the strategic road to be entirely in his own hands, he may
claim the right to use the SDF – now his ally – to defend it, and Putin is
likely to back Assad (with Russian airpower if necessary).
On October 23, with Putin's scheme
accomplished, Trump held a briefing at the White House in which he claimed for his
administration total and exclusive merit for the outcome.
"This was an outcome created by
us, the United States, and nobody else, no other nation. Very simple... In any
event, by the moves that we've made, we are achieving a much more peaceful and
stable area between Turkey and Syria, including a 20-mile-wide safe zone....
Thousands and thousands of people have been killed in that zone over the years.
But it's been sought for many, many decades, and I think we have something
that's going to be strong and hold up... I want to thank Vice President Pence
and Secretary of State Pompeo for leading the American delegation so
successfully to Turkey several days ago, along with National Security Advisor
These claims bear no relation to the
truth. The outcome was achieved by Putin "and nobody else." Far from
being "successful," the delegation sent by Trump to Turkey was
hoodwinked by Erdogan in the same way as Erdogan had been hoodwinking the Trump
administration for two years about his real aims in Syria. As for "many,
many decades," it is indeed a matter of hardly two years since Erdogan
concocted his scheme and the Syrian Civil War itself began only in March 2011.
The irrelevance of the Trump
administration was also asserted by Robert Pearson in the interview cited above. The small US military presence on
the ground should have been kept, he said, in order to "ensure that the
Kurds made the best deal possible with the Damascus and with Turkey regarding
their future in Syria."
"By fleeing as we did, we made it
impossible for them to do that, and they had to jump into the arms of the
Russians and the Syrians just for survival purposes. That's where we are
Indeed, once Trump decided to withdraw
from Syria, all of his efforts to influence the situation – documented in the
tweets and briefings quoted above and his peculiarly undiplomatic letter to
Erdogan – were in vain. We wonder whether, nevertheless, Trump does believe
all those illusory claims. Since John Bolton left his administration, there is
nobody left to advise him otherwise but only adulators like Stephanie Grisham ("the genius of our great
More generally, we wonder how Trump
habitually decries the "fake news" of the US media, when all those
statements about Syria, Turkey and the Kurds conspicuously lack a factual basis
and so are themselves eminent candidates for being fake news. For his statements
up to October 19, a useful summary – with links to more detailed analysis –
is available here. And there are more examples since then, as we shall now
Ever since he abandoned the Syrian
Kurds to annihilation, Trump has sought to belittle their contribution to the
fight against ISIS and to US interests in general. To put things in proper
perspective, there is a Wikipedia article on "Casualties of the Syrian Civil
War" that makes a brief mention of the United States:
A U.S. pilot was killed on 30 November
2014, when his F-16 fighter aircraft crashed in Jordan following a combat
mission against the Islamic State jihadist group. Also, a U.S. special forces
member died due to a bomb explosion while supporting Kurdish-led forces during
the Wrath of Euphrates offensive against ISIL-held Raqqa. Two
other service members died due to non-combat causes in northern Syria in 2017. A
US servicemen died on 30 March 2018 by an IED explosion in Manbij. Four
Americans, including two soldiers, were killed by a bombing in Manbij city on 16
January 2019. One American soldier was killed on 28 April 2019, possibly due to
a Turkish shelling.
On the other hand, around 12,000
Kurdish fighters died fighting Islamists and many thousands more were injured.
The American contribution consisted mostly of air power, but also a small
contingent of special forces and trainers; hence the tiny number of casualties.
Yet this is how Trump described the
Kurdish role in the defeat of ISIS during a cabinet meeting on October 21, in the middle of the current
"Now, as far as ISIS is concerned,
when I took over – November, 2016 – ISIS was all over the place. I'm the one
– meaning it was me and this administration, working with others, including
the Kurds – that captured all of these people that we're talking about right
"Because President Obama – it
was a mess...
"As you know, most of the ISIS
fighters that we captured – 'we.' We. Not Obama. We. We captured them. Me. Our
country captured them, working with others, including the Kurds. And we helped
them, don't forget. We helped the Kurds. Everyone said the Kurds helped us;
that's true. But we helped the Kurds. They're no angels, but we helped the
The reality, as usual, is other than
Trump believes or maintains. Not "We" but the SDF did all the
capturing and SDF holds the ISIS captives in separate camps for the 11,000 males and
tens of thousands of dependents. In the biggest camp, holding 68,000 dependents,
one problem is that the women hold secret trials in which women and even children are
convicted of "apostasy" and killed. Formerly, the SDF guards sought to
frustrate this phenomenon, but afterwards many of them were withdrawn to combat
the Turkish invasion and they can barely guard the perimeter; some inmates
already escaped. The locations of the camps form one of four
maps available in an excellent BBC guide.
As for the comparisons with Obama, the
Kurdish YPG began its expulsion of ISIS and other Islamists on its own
in July 2013. Then, from September 2014 on, the Obama administration provided the airpower that
enabled the SDF to recover all the Kurdish home towns, expand to broader areas
of northeastern Syria, and begin the advance southwest toward Raqqa, the
so-called ISIS capital. Only the actual conquest of Raqqa, where the SDF took
heavy casualties over an area that it did not need for its homeland, took place
under the Trump administration. To claim that it was all "We... we"
and belittle Obama and the Kurds in this regard qualifies as fake news. Also
Trump "took over" not in November 2016 but in January 2017.
Trump originally motivated his
abandonment of the Syrian Kurds by the need to bring American troops home and
spare them further casualties. As noted above, precisely in Syria the US
military had suffered only eight deaths, compared with thousands in Iraq and in
Afghanistan. Second, the Defense Department decided instead that the withdrawn
troops should go to Iraq to assist in mopping-up operations against ISIS
remnants (where the troops would be seriously exposed to injuries and deaths,
unlike in Syria). The Iraqi government, when it heard about that, protested that its
permission had not been given and the troops could only pass in transit on their
way home. Then Trump had a third idea: he would use some of them to secure
Syrian oil fields.
After Trump abandoned the Syrian Kurds
on October 6, he received two visits from retired General Jack Keane, now a
Fox News analyst, on October 8 and 14, the second time accompanied by Senator
Lindsey Graham. They showed him maps displaying oil fields in the SDF-controlled
areas. Keane and Graham spoke of the oil fields falling into the hands of Iran,
an unlikely prospect, but apparently because they guessed that Trump would react
only to the word "Iran." Trump thereupon decided to send thirty tanks
to the area along with support personnel (a total numerically comparable with
the troops that Trump was intending to withdraw in the first place).
On October 24, Trump proclaimed his
reasoning with typical factually conflicted tweets:
"The Oil Fields discussed in my
speech on Turkey/Kurds yesterday were held by ISIS until the United States took
them over with the help of the Kurds. We will NEVER let a reconstituted ISIS
have those fields!"
"I really enjoyed my conversation
with General @MazloumAbdi. He appreciates what we have done, and I appreciate
what the Kurds have done. Perhaps it is time for the Kurds to start heading to
the Oil Region!"
Brett McGurk responded: "The President of the United States of America
appears to be calling for a mass migration of Kurds to the desert where they can
resettle atop a tiny oil field." (We recall that McGurk was Trump's own
envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition until he resigned in 2018 over Trump's
announcements about leaving Syria.) The main oil fields are in the Deir ez-Zor
region, captured by the SDF in October 2017, but more than 100 kilometers south
of the Kurdish homeland, so it would require a mass migration of all the Kurds
to find safety there.
But Keane rather was considering the
Karatchok and Rumeilan oil fields, which lie some 20 kilometers south of the
Turkish frontier between Qamishli and Derik (thus within Erdogan's version of
the "safe zone," but which Putin forced Erdogan to renounce). The
Kurds can hardly "head to" this "Oil Region" because they
are already there, unless Trump meant an evacuation from the rest of their
homeland to this one spot. The Kurds freed this area from ISIS already in October 2013, three
years before Trump was elected and eleven months before the US intervention in
northeastern Syria began in September 2014. So Trump's tweet that these oil
fields "were held by ISIS until the United States took them over with the
help of the Kurds" was therefore more fake news.
Trump has gone on to speculate about
bringing in an American oil company to exploit the oil fields and
letting the Syrian Kurds have some of the proceeds to help them economically.
This means that he did not think about the oil fields until
just weeks ago. And he still does not know that the Kurds
captured them from ISIS on their own, that they began to supply oil from them to the Assad regime among
others, and that the proceeds have already been the main source of revenue for
the confederation of self-governing towns set up by the SDP. Also, if a US firm
instead of locals operates the oil fields, it is technically a war crime (pillaging foreign territory).
On October 31, Assad gave his own reaction to Trump's oil scheme. After
acknowledging the deal arranged by Putin:
Assad also said Trump's decision to
keep a small number of U.S. troops in the Kurdish-held areas of Syria
"where they have the oil" showed that Washington was a colonial power
that was doomed to leave once Syrians resist their occupation as in Iraq.
But he said his country could not stand
up to a great power such as the United States and that ending the presence of
American troops on Syrian soil was not achievable soon
Assad also confirmed that even after
Putin's deal the SDF need not yet disarm:
The Kurds would not be asked to
immediately hand over their weapons when the Syrian army enters their areas in a
final deal with them that brings back state control to the large swathe of
territory they now control, Assad said in the interview.
"There are armed groups that we
cannot expect they would hand over weapons immediately but the final goal is to
return to the previous situation, which is the complete control of the
state," he said.
There is a possibility, moreover, that
the Trump administration has not considered. What if Assad offers the Syrian
Kurds this deal: "You can keep your decentralized administration and your
Kurdish schools as they are, just hand over the oil fields to us and split the
revenues with us." Trump would need more than thirty tanks to face a
coalition of the SDF, the Assad regime and Russian air power. Also
internationally, even among its closest allies, the USA would hardly find
support for clinging on to the oil fields in those circumstances,
The killing of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi,
the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, provided another opportunity to
belittle the Syrian Kurds. Here are extracts from Trump's briefing:
"The United States has been
searching for Baghdadi for many years. Capturing or killing Baghdadi has been
the top national security priority of my administration. U.S. Special Operations
Forces executed a dangerous and daring nighttime raid in northwestern Syria and
accomplished their mission in grand style. The U.S. personnel were incredible. I
got to watch much of it...
"Baghdadi has been on the run for
many years, long before I took office. But at my direction, as
Commander-in-Chief of the United States, we obliterated his caliphate, 100
percent, in March of this year...
"I want to thank the nations of
Russia, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. And I also want to thank the Syrian Kurds for
certain support they were able to give us. This was a very, very dangerous
Remember, again, that the US military
lost only one soldier when "we obliterated his caliphate"; here the
Syrian Kurds, who bore the brunt of the casualties, are not even mentioned. It
was they who set Al-Baghdadi "on the run." They are also mentioned
only last of those whom Trump thanked in regard of al-Baghdadi's death, although
they should have been first and foremost.
Shortly after Trump's remarks, it
emerged that all the vital intelligence on al-Baghdadi had come from Kurds. And
the Syrian Kurds continued to supply the intelligence even after Trump has
abandoned them. According to a senior official at the US Special Forces Command:
"I don't think we could have done this without the help we got from the
Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, which continued after we began the troop pullout."
On the other hand, other senior military officials indicated that the
operation "occurred largely in spite of Mr. Trump's actions" because
Trump's decision to remove troops from Syria "disrupted the meticulous
planning and forced Pentagon officials to press ahead with a risky, night raid
before their ability to control troops and spies and reconnaissance aircraft
Before their ability disappeared?
Al-Baghdadi was about to move to Jarabulus – in the zone captured by the FSA
during Turkey's Operation Euphrates Shield! So Trump's repeated claims that
after evacuating Syria he could rely upon Erdogan to take care of ISIS turned
out to be true, only literally rather than figuratively. What is the surprise?
The FSA today includes former ISIS fighters and it was the Turkish frontier that
ISIS volunteers generally crossed – without interference – to swell the
Through interrogating one of his wives,
the Iraqi Kurds found the general location of al-Baghdadi in an unexpected
corner of northwestern Syria that was thought to be ruled by Islamists hostile
to ISIS. But the main intelligence came from a disaffected follower of al-Baghdadi who supplied
information to the SDF repeatedly over a considerable time at great personal
risk. Whenever the informant was summoned to meetings held by al-Baghdadi, he
sought to remember everything that he saw, including the layout of buildings. He
also managed to steal underpants belonging to al-Baghdadi and even a blood
sample, providing DNA material that checked with other DNA information about
al-Baghdadi. And he learned about the planned move to Jarabulus.
Without such information, the Special
Forces obviously could not have found and pursued their target, both quickly and
without taking casualties. They evacuated the informant as they left.
Malcolm Lowe is a
Welsh scholar specialized in Greek Philosophy, the New Testament and