The Kurds are about to learn a hard lesson about partnering with the US against transnational terrorism. After having served as the main fighting force against ISIS in Syria and having bled all over Raqqa to wrest back control of its “capital,” the Kurds have now hunkered down and await an attack from US ally Turkey. The US will have exited the theater by the time it comes, which led Turkey’s defense minister to publicly promise to “bury” the Kurds in their entrenchments:
Turkey’s defense minister said Thursday that Kurdish forces in Syria would be “buried” in their trenches in any Turkish operation to rout the fighters from the border, just one day after President Trump announced a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.
Speaking from the Qatari capital, Doha, Hulusi Akar said Turkey was preparing “intensely” for a military offensive east of the Euphrates River in Syria, where Kurdish-led forces have battled the Islamic State militant group.
The fighters have dug trenches and tunnels in the area in anticipation of the operation, Akar said, according to Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency.
“But whatever they dig . . . when the time comes they will be buried in the trenches,” he said. “Of this there should no doubt.”
That’s probably true, now that the US has decided not to stick around. Before Donald Trump’s announcement yesterday of withdrawal from the theater, the Pentagon had warned Turkey not to attack our anti-ISIS alliance partners. The statement last week had assured Turkey that we would guarantee the integrity of the border and prevent any YPG fighters from crossing into Turkish territory to link up with Kurdish separatists there:
“Unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as U.S. personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern,” said Pentagon Spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson on Dec. 12. “We would find any such actions unacceptable.”
He said “coordination and consultation between the U.S. and Turkey is the only approach to address issues of security concern in this area.”
The U.S. military is committed to working closely with the Turkish military to boost cooperation and coordination, said Robertson, adding “uncoordinated military operations” will undermine that shared interest.
“We have solemn obligations to one another’s security. We are fully committed to Turkey’s border security,” he said.
Of course, now that we’re leaving, we can’t guarantee anything to either side. That’s just the first and most acute dimension of the vacuum that will get left in our wake. Once the Kurds start getting pounded by Turkey, the remnants of ISIS will re-form into a fighting force and begin recruitment in the vacuum left by the Kurds. At some point that will be a big enough threat to Iraqi villages and towns that we’ll have to take some military action to deal with it, only we won’t have any partners left to ensure that those actions are effective. And that’s if we stick around in Iraq, a question that our Iraqi partners have to be asking themselves after yesterday.
All of these factions are going to start looking elsewhere for reliable partners. They won’t have far to search:
For Putin, who himself has been dismayed by the Trump administration’s frenetic application of sanctions against Moscow and one-off military strikes in Syria, the chaos of the president’s governing style landed decisively in his favor.
“The Kremlin is of two minds when it comes to Trump: It hates the unpredictability and lack of coordination coming out of this White House but totally loves the chaos Trump is unleashing,” said Andrew Weiss, a Russia scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Anything that damages America’s alliances and image of a steadfast, reliable partner is a net win for Moscow.” …
The cacophony among U.S. allies, analysts said, is likely to please Putin, who has long sought to chip away at Western unity. But in the short term, the Kremlin stands to gain the most on the ground in Syria, where Russia has long been seeking to consolidate gains for Assad.
The confusion between the United States and its closest allies backs the message that Putin has been sending to Russia’s partners in the Middle East: that Russia is an ally that can be trusted and one that will fight until the end.
This morning, the White House was still trying to claim that Putin’s crying in his borscht over the US withdrawal in Syria. It’s so silly that even Trump’s favorite morning show wasn’t buying it:
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) December 21, 2018
NBC’s longtime foreign correspondent Richard Engel scoffs:
Putin just said he welcomes the Us pullout from Syria, and Russia has had forces/mercenaries there waiting for US troops to leave. So when Sanders said “the idea that Putin is happy about this is ridiculous,” how uninformed does she think people are?
— Richard Engel (@RichardEngel) December 21, 2018
This vacuum plays directly into Putin’s hands, even more than the eventual vacuum in Afghanistan will. Except for its earlier connections to al-Qaeda, Afghanistan had no real strategic value. Syria does for Russia and Iran, and to the US and its Sunni partners in the region. Withdrawing without gaining any concessions from Russia and Iran in exchange is a long-term disaster for the US and its allies, and the best news possible for our opponents.
Update: Maybe the Kurds can breathe a little easier — for now, anyway:
President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that Turkey would postpone a military operation against Syrian Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria as he “cautiously” welcomed Washington’s decision to withdraw its troops in the area. …
“We had decided last week to launch a military incursion in the east of the Euphrates river … Our phone call with President Trump, along with contacts between our diplomats and security officials and statements by the United States, have led us to wait a little longer,” he said in a speech in Istanbul.
“We have postponed our military operation against the east of the Euphrates river until we see on the ground the result of America’s decision to withdraw from Syria.”
Erdogan said this was not an “open-ended waiting period”.
Erdogan wants the Kurds out of Manbij, a point on which Turkey and the US agreed over the summer. The SDF took the key ISIS stronghold two years ago and have held it ever since. With its proximity to the border, the Turks don’t want it to become a communications center for Kurdish separatists in Turkey. If the Kurds leave and the Turks can’t hold it, though, ISIS forces in the area will want the city back.
At any rate, the Kurds have gotten the message by now. The US is done with them. They’re on their own.