How Putin Outfoxed Trump, Pence and Erdogan

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Via Gatestone Institute

Pictured: US Vice President Mike Pence visits Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey on October 17, 2019. (Photo by Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Turkish Presidency via Getty Images)

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 needed.

It 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.

Prelude 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.

Pence Proposes

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 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!”

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 ceasefire.

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 ALL!”

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 Wallace’s doubts.

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 of sanctions…”

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.”

Putin Disposes

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 Ras al-Ayn.

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:

3. 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.

5. 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 Turkish assault.

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 O’Brien.”

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 today.”

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 President”).

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 see.

Belittling the Kurds

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:

8 servicemen killed

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 crisis:

“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 now.

“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 Kurds…”

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 mission.”

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 disappeared.”

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 ranks.

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 Christian-Jewish Relations.

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