Has the US president lost the plot in Syria?

As one commander put it: “We’re on the two-yard line. We could literally fall into the end zone. We’re that close and now it’s coming apart.”

A US military convoy is seen on the main road in Raqqa, Syria July 31, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/RODI SAID)
A US military convoy is seen on the main road in Raqqa, Syria July 31, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS/RODI SAID)
If US President Donald Trump drove the way he conducts foreign policy, he would be pulled over on suspicion of DUI. The commander-in-chief’s statement on Thursday that the US will be coming out of Syria “like very soon” and that “we’re going to have a hundred percent of the caliphate... taking it all back. Quickly, quickly” has left everybody gobsmacked. Not least the troops on the ground.
NBC News has in a report from the Syrian front (“White House chaos jeopardizes war on ISIS”) reflected the sense of frustration felt by the US special forces that have supported the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their battle against Islamic State (ISIS). As one commander put it: “We’re on the two-yard line. We could literally fall into the end zone. We’re that close and now it’s coming apart.”
This is nothing compared to the sense of betrayal felt by the Kurdish forces. “We have been abandoned and betrayed,” said one Kurdish commander. The US operations director, Gen. Jonathan Braga, is unequivocal in his praise, saying, “I think the world owes them a debt of gratitude.”
Not so Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has made Turkey’s occupation of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria part of his platform ahead of the local, parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2019. There is not only this dimension but the fear that Afrin is the first step of Turkey’s expansion eastwards in northern Syria.
Turkey will, for example, appoint a Turkish governor for Afrin with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a motley band of jihadis, as local support.
Already in 2017 Turkey in Operation Euphrates Shield with Russia’s connivance took control of much of the area between Afrin and the Kurdish region east of the Euphrates, apart from Manbij, which was captured by the SDF with US support. Erdogan has repeatedly declared his intention to take Manbij as part of his drive east, which will inevitably lead to a clash with the US. Unless, of course, the US backs down.
After US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in February met with President Erdogan for over three hours with only Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as interpreter, Cavusoglu claimed they had agreed on the “stabilization” of Manbij and the area east of the Euphrates, but now Cavusoglu has backtracked and said there was “an understanding.” Despite the working groups that had been agreed on, until Mike Pompeo is confirmed as secretary of state, there will be a vacuum in the State Department.
There is also confusion in the Pentagon, which immediately distanced itself from its Kurdish allies in Afrin and stated, “We are not involved with them at all.”
To mollify Turkey, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis added, “there are areas of uncommon ground where sometimes war just gives you bad alternatives to choose from.” The State Department has also made it clear that US relations with Turkey are long-lasting and strategic, whereas the alliance with Kurdish forces is temporary, transactional and tactical.
Syria’s Kurds feel not only betrayed by the US but also Russia. At the Astana talks in January 2017, Russia put forward a draft constitution for Syria, which provided a framework for the settlement of the conflict and also a degree of Kurdish autonomy. It was cooperation between Russia and the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) militia, the backbone of the SDF, that contributed to the defeat of ISIS in the Deir al-Zor region. It was also agreed that a Russian mission would be deployed to Afrin to maintain security together with Kurdish forces.
Instead, Russia chose to give the green light to Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin and now, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russia has agreed to Turkey’s takeover of Tal Rifaat, adjacent to Afrin, which has been under the control of the YPG. One consequence has been the boycott by Syria’s Kurds of the National Dialogue Conference in Sochi in January.
At a meeting with Russian commanders in December, the YPG’s commander, Sipan Hemo, called on Russia and the US to be the guarantors of a peaceful and democratic solution in Syria, but this option has obviously been abandoned.
In February, pro-Assad forces backed by Russian mercenaries attacked the SDF in Deir al-Zor, where it is sitting on about a third of Syria’s energy resources, but were repelled with heavy losses because of US air support.
The change in strategy is to Turkey’s advantage, as it can under Russia’s umbrella continue with its program of territorial expansion. President Erdogan’s chief adviser, Yigit Bulut, has already stated that Russia is more of a strategic partner and ally for Turkey than the US. Bulut also said there is no solidarity among NATO member countries and that the NATO concept is finished. Another aide, Ilnur Cevik, has bluntly told the US to pack up and go home.
In a recent panel discussion at the Brookings Institution, former US ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman made it clear that any policy toward Turkey that is not marked by a unified message is going to fail. It will also be interesting to learn Trump’s newly appointed National Security Advisor John Bolton’s views on this issue.
At the same time, Turkey’s growing aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea constitutes not only a threat to NATO ally Greece but also Cyprus. The US has stated it recognizes the right of the Republic of Cyprus to develop its resources in its Exclusive Economic Zone, and has dispatched the USS Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship with 2,500 sailors and marines, to the Eastern Mediterranean in a clear warning to Turkey not to interfere with the surveying activities of ExxonMobil’s two vessels.
Russia has agreed with Syria to upgrade its naval maintenance facility in Tartus to a fully operational naval base, which should also give the US food for thought.
The author is a commentator on Turkish affairs and former adviser to the Turkey Assessment Group in the European Parliament.