Turkey's hat trick: US troops leaving Syria as Kurds head south

The situation in northeastern Syria remains in flux on an hour by hour basis. There’s still a semi-official “ceasefire” in place, largely being enforced by the Russians, but that’s only scheduled to hold for another couple of days at most. Just since I went to bed last night, two more big (and disturbing) developments took place. The first was an announcement from the Defense Department that all – or at least most – of the United States troops in Syria would be withdrawing to Western Iraq. If there was any question as to whether or not we’d be backing up the Kurds, it appears that ship has sailed. (Associated Press)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper says that under the current plan all U.S. troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq, and that the military will continue to conduct operations against the Islamic State group to prevent a resurgence in that country.

Speaking to reporters traveling with him to the Middle East, Esper did not rule out the idea that U.S. forces would conduct counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria. But he said those details will be worked out over time.

We’re supposedly reserving the option to run counterterrorism operations back into Syria from Iraq, which I suppose is plausible. And we’re probably going to need that option now that hundreds if not thousands of ISIS prisoners have reportedly hit the road. But if we’re not directly supervising the terrorist cleanup operations and the Kurds aren’t around to do it (more on that in a moment), who’s going to take care of that responsibility? The Turks? The Russians? I’m not exactly brimming with confidence over either possibility.

Getting back to the question of the Kurds, after initially announcing that they’d struck a deal to work with Bashar al Assad’s forces, they are now reportedly evacuating the border region and heading south.

A senior Syrian Kurdish official says his forces will pull back from a border area in accordance with a U.S.-brokered deal after Turkey allows the evacuation of its remaining fighters and civilians from a besieged town there.

Redur Khalil, a senior Syrian Democratic Forces official, said Saturday the plan for evacuation from the town of Ras al-Ayn is set for the following day, if there are no delays.

He says only after that will his force pull back from a 120-kilometer (75-mile) area between the towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal-Aybad. It will withdraw and move back from the border 30 kilometers (19 miles).

This is quite a reversal of policy. Up until now, the Kurds had only been evacuating civilians, claiming that they would stick around the meet the Turks on the field of battle. But with Russian and Syrian forces tossed into the mix, the writing may have been on the wall.

Keep in mind that this isn’t just a reshuffling of military assets. The Kurds have been living in that region for generations and were well established there. Assuming Turkey allows them to withdraw safely, they will have basically committed ethnic cleansing of an entire region in a matter of weeks. But there’s also no assurance that the Kurdish forces will even be allowed to leave peacefully. As of this morning, the AP is reporting that several towns, including Ras al-Ayn, are completely surrounded without an escape corridor to the south.

So at this point, Turkey has indeed pulled off a hat trick of sorts, flushing out the Americans, putting the Syrian forces in a subservient position and preparing to either drive out the Kurds or wipe them out when the ceasefire ends. They’ve also solidified their military alliance with the Russians at the same time. (Erdogan is meeting with Putin in Sochi on Tuesday.) How this could have ended more badly for U.S. and western interests is difficult to imagine.