It is now clear that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan intended the annihilation of the Syrian Kurds already two years ago. (Photo by Getty Images)
It is now clear that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan intended the annihilation of the Syrian Kurds already two years ago. Moreover, his plans became evident to the US military by the beginning of 2019 and were conveyed to President Trump at that time.
In order to disguise his plans, Erdogan revealed them stage by stage, by making first lesser and then greater demands on the US military, to which Trump agreed — sometimes in the course of telephone conversations with Erdogan. So Erdogan was able to hoodwink the US military up to January 2019 and to hoodwink Trump up to the current invasion: Trump resolutely defied contrary advice from the military (and from everyone else).
At first, Erdogan demanded the removal of Kurdish militias only west of the Euphrates river. This was the proclaimed aim of his so-called Operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch (the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Kurds from the Afrin area). With that accomplished, he began demanding a Turkish-controlled “security zone” east of the river, to be 32 kilometers deep. The US responded by agreeing to joint US-Turkish patrols in the area. Erdogan demanded that the Kurdish towns in the area should dismantle the fortifications that they had raised to defend themselves from the Islamic State (ISIS). The Kurds agreed, reassured by the US military that this step would remove any excuse for a Turkish invasion.
Finally, in October 2019, Erdogan asked Trump in a further telephone call to remove US troops from the patrols and Trump agreed, believing that by threatening Turkey on Twitter, he could deter a Turkish invasion. The invasion started forthwith. It has been stalled, maybe, now that the Kurds have invited the army of the Assad regime to deploy throughout northeastern Syria up to the Iraqi frontier. If so, the beneficiaries will include Iran, America’s arch enemy, which can now see its yearned-for highway all the way from Tehran to Quneitra on Israel’s border.
Timetable to Annihilation
In this timetable, there is no need document with links information that has been reported many times in many media. To be recommended, however, are especially the articles of Seth Frantzman, who personally knows well both the area and the leading Kurdish partisans.
September 2014-April 2015. The Kurdish town and area of Kobani were assailed by ISIS forces with the flight of 400,000 Kurds. But a Kurdish militia, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), succeeded (with US Air Force support) in driving ISIS out – albeit with great casualties and the destruction of most of the town. Now (October 2019) Turkey has attacked Kobani and residents have fled again.
October 2017. After a long campaign, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a coalition of the YPG and other Arab and Christian militias – captured the ISIS capital of Raqqa. In subsequent operations, the SDF captured all other ISIS strongholds and imprisoned thousands of ISIS terrorists and their families. Some 11,000 Kurds sacrificed their lives. They had been supported by US air power and a tiny ground force of US, French and UK special forces units, which suffered few casualties. All this time, however, Erdogan claimed that the SDF were terrorists as wicked as ISIS, alleging – without any evidence of note – that its YPG component was simultaneously fomenting rebellion among Kurds in Turkey.
January-March 2018. Supported by Turkish air power, artillery and armour, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – a militia trained in Turkey and composed of Islamist refugees – conquered the area of Afrin, the town at the westernmost end of those parts of Syria which contain a large Kurdish population. Since 2012, under the protection of the YPG and later SDF, Afrin had been one of the few peaceful enclaves during the horrific civil war in Syria. The Turkish-backed invasion expelled not merely the SDF militia but an estimated 400,000 civilian Kurds. In their former homes, Turkey’s Free Syrian Army settled like-minded Islamist refugees who had been driven out of Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian regime with Russian assistance. The newcomers instituted a harsh Sharia regime that forced also local Christians to flee. This was a dress rehearsal for the current Turkish offensive of October 2019.
April 2018. President Trump announced his intention to withdraw all US forces from Syria. His own Defense Secretary James Mattis, his personal advisors and his chief supporters in Congress, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, urged him at least to wait. A Gatestone article asked: “Is Trump About to Repeat Obama’s Worst Mistake?” It forecast that the result would be a Turkish attempt to annihilate the entire Kurdish presence in Syria. The article added that, since Iran had denounced the Turkish operation in Afrin, Iran might be the very country, through its presence in Syria, to which the Kurds would be forced to turn for salvation. The chief allies of the USA, in order to survive, might have no choice but to go over to the chief adversary of the USA.
December 2018. Turkey threatened to repeat its Afrin operation in Manbij near the west bank of the Euphrates. The US military dithered over how to protect its SDF allies and the Kurds of Manbij. It was then surprised and dismayed when the SDF invited the army of the Syrian regime, with Russian support, to take over its positions. Turkey gave up on its plans, but today it is threatening Manbij again. Another Gatestone article was titled “America’s Loyal Syrian Kurdish Allies Evade Annihilation – While US forces in Iraq face expulsion.” It rejected Trump’s claim that he could somehow control events in Syria at a distance via the US presence in Iraq; it noted that precisely this presence could end anytime on account of local opposition there, leading to a collapse of US policy in the Middle East. Trump’s claim was immediately refuted in October 2019. As for a collapse of US policy, Trump’s recent tweet that “Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out” indicates that he does not care.
January 2019. After Mattis resigned as Secretary of Defense over Trump’s Syria policy, Erdogan announced his intention to create a “security zone” of 32 kilometers beyond Turkey’s border with Syria. As the Voice of America itself reported on January23, Erdogan’s plan was to resettle three million or more refugees from other parts of Syria in this “security zone” extending twenty miles deep into Syria. Twenty miles may not sound much, but – the VOA omitted to mention – almost all the Kurdish towns of northeastern Syria lie within that area. (The only noteworthy exception is Hasaka, which includes many Kurds.) So Erdogan’s intention to annihilate the Kurdish presence in that area and replace it with others has been manifest ever since the beginning of 2019 at least.
October 2019. Urged by Erdogan in a telephone call on October 6, Trump decided to remove the tiny number of US soldiers engaged in the joint US-Turkish patrols (not more than 50) to the complete surprise of (among others) Secretary of Defense Mark Enser and Jim Jeffrey, the Administration’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement. The Turks quickly invaded, using the Free Syrian Army as its ground force, supported by artillery and bombing from the air. Kurdish leaders complained that the US military had not merely abandoned them, but was preventing them from turning to Russia and the Syrian regime (as in the case of Manbij). Then hundreds of inmates of a Kurdish-run prison camp for ISIS captives were set free by Turkish bombing of the area or by an attack by the Free Syrian Army (accounts differ). Enser, realizing that even thousands more ISIS captives could soon be on the loose, hastily evacuated the remaining thousand or so US personnel in the area. With that obstacle removed, the Kurds invited the Syrian regime to arrive with Russian assistance. It should be said that, however much people may detest Bashar Al-Assad, who is responsible for mass murder, one hopes that he will again rescue America’s abandoned allies.
Impotent Tweets and Republican Outrage
This is the pair of tweets with which Trump thought that he could frighten off Erdogan from his genocidal plans:
“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 over…
“… 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 GREAT!”
It is hardly possible to find anything in those tweets that is not subject to great doubt. The glee can be imagined with which Erdogan showed disdain for tweets on Twitter and hastened to implement his carefully prepared plans. As for “great and unmatched wisdom,” so many of Trump’s erstwhile advisors and supporters saw confirmed their fears of unmatched folly.
The ISIS captives have already begun to run free. They consist of 11,000 fighters and 70,000 family members, who were being supervised by thousands of SDF soldiers. Those SDF soldiers will now need to defend their own homes and families. How little US ground forces contributed to the capture of the Islamic Caliphate, and how great were the sacrifices of the Syrian Kurds, has already been noted. The wealthy Gulf sheikhdoms, in some of which foreigners make up 80% or 90% of the population, are protected from Iran only by US bases. Saudi Arabia, which has a substantial military, is struggling to make way against the Houthis in Yemen. And the throwing of the USA’s faithful Kurdish allies to the dogs is not a proof of the greatness of the USA.
Once the vanity of threatening Erdogan with tweets was exposed, Trump spoke in a press conference, in which he sought to besmirch the name of the Syrian Kurds by complaining that in World War II they had not participated in the Normandy landings. Whatever he knows or not about today’s Syria, he knows nothing of Vichy Syria, the regime of French collaborators with Germany that ruled Syria after the collapse of France in 1940. When British Empire forces invaded Syria and deposed the Vichy regime there, they had no means to replace it and so allowed Syrian politicians to declare independence. Under both Syrian regimes, the Kurdish minority had neither the opportunity nor the training nor even a pointless invitation to fight in Europe.
In the same press conference, Trump confusedly claimed that the USA had been working in Syria with the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist organization in Turkey – exactly what Erdogan alleges as the excuse for his invasion. Trump also claimed to have showered the Syrian Kurds with weapons to defend themselves. Turkey, of course, is employing tanks, artillery and aircraft, against which the Kurds have no answer.
A whole series of Trump’s Republican supporters in the Senate expressed outrage over his decision, starting with Lindsey Graham (“Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration”) and continuing with Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, who remarked: “As we learned the hard way during the Obama Administration, American interests are best served by American leadership, not by retreat or withdrawal.” Both they and leading House Republicans made haste to introduce sanctions on Turkey and Erdogan.
Military figures added their criticisms of Trump, starting with James Mattis, but including Joseph Votel, the general who headed US Central Command from March 2016 to March 2019 and supervised collaboration with the Syrian Kurds, and four-star Marine General John Allen, who said that the consequences of Trump’s decision were “completely foreseeable” and that:
“There is blood on Trump’s hands for abandoning our Kurdish allies. I said there would be blood, but could not have imagined this outcome. There was no chance Erdogan would keep his promise, and full blown ethnic cleansing is underway by Turkish supported militias. This is what happens when Trump follows his instincts and because of his alignment with autocrats.”
Those are recently retired senior officers. Add to them a series of messages relayed by Jennifer Griffin, reporting on the ground, from an active-duty Special Ops Officer (whose name she obviously could not disclose). This was one of the thousand US personnel who, as we saw, had to be withdrawn suddenly from the area:
“I am ashamed for the first time in my career. Turkey is not doing what it agreed to. It’s horrible. We met every single security agreement. The Kurds met every single agreement. There was NO threat to the Turks – NONE – from this side of the border. This is insanity. I don’t know what they call atrocities but they are happening. [Trump] doesn’t understand the problem. He doesn’t understand the repercussions of this. Erdogan is an Islamist, not a level headed actor. The Kurds are as close to Western thinking in the Middle East as anyone. It’s a shame. It’s horrible. This is not helping the ISIS fight. Many of [the ISIS prisoners] will be free in the coming days and weeks.”
Also Evangelical Christians, hitherto among Trump’s strongest supporters, are in dismay. They include Mike Huckabee, Pat Robertson (Trump is “in danger of losing the mandate of heaven”), John Stonestreet and Tony Perkins. Their concern echoes messages from Syrian Christians in the Kurdish areas:
- “It is very possible that the American withdrawal from the region will lead to the extinction of Christianity from the region”
- “Turkey aims to kill and destroy us and to finish the genocide against our people”
- “The Turkish regime is based on armed extremist and radical groups that commit crimes against civilians and humanity. Such threats endanger the life of Syriac people in the region.”
Over now to Fox News, on which Trump relies more than most for a fair and accurate hearing. So how has Fox News reacted?
A look through reactions to Trump’s decision in its opinion section reveals the following (in order of appearance):
- Tucker Carlson (“Outrage over Trump’s Syria decision shows Washington’s perverse priorities”)
- James Carafano (“Is Trump serious about Syria? Here’s what you must always remember”)
- Marc Thiessen (“Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds is a recipe for endless war, not a strategy to end one”)
- Jim Hanson (“To halt fighting between Turkey and Kurds in Syria and prevent return of ISIS, US must do THIS”).
The very titles of Thiessen’s article shows that he dissents from Trump’s wisdom. Carlson, while defending Trump, noted:
“We’d love to tell you that it was just the lefty hacks on CNN demanding that we stay in Syria forever. But unfortunately, it was not. Not even close. A ton of Republicans on Capitol Hill made exactly the same point.”
Carafano asked, “So the question is, does the Turkish operation, if conducted in the manner in which the Turkish government claims, threaten any of the U.S. interests in Syria?” and answered “Arguably not.” (In the meantime, of course, Trump himself does not believe that the operation is being “conducted in the manner in which the Turkish government claims.”)
Hanson’s “THIS” consists of demanding a ceasefire, sanctions against Turkey, refugee camps for fleeing Kurds, enforcing no-fly and no-drive zones on Turkey in Syria, and seeking “approval of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Turkey’s war crimes and ethnic cleansing.” Yet he also insists: “Turkey is America’s NATO ally and if we are forced to choose between the Kurds and Turkey we must lean to the side of Turkey.” Evidently, Hanson is perplexed, asking the USA both to lean heavily on Turkey and lean to its side.
The noted jurist Andrew McCarthy has sympathy for Trump’s desire to abandon faraway wars. But his emphasis lies elsewhere: Noting that it is senior Republicans who are now furious with Trump, he continued:
“By redeploying a few dozen American troops in Syria, the president acceded to a Turkish invasion of territory occupied by the Kurds….
“There is rage over Trump’s decision. It is rage over a policy choice, not over high crimes and misdemeanors. Only the most blindly angry can doubt the lawfulness of the commander-in-chief’s movement of U.S. soldiers, even though it rendered inevitable the Turks’ rout of the Kurds… What matters is that President Trump has damaged his support among Senate Republicans. How badly remains to be seen.”
Trump has not acknowledged any blemish in his “unmatched wisdom;” instead he disparages anyone, starting with the brave Syrian Kurds themselves, who calls his wisdom into question.
Malcolm Lowe is a Welsh scholar specialized in Greek Philosophy, the New Testament and Christian-Jewish Relations.