President Trump’s decision allowing Turkey to attack America’s Kurdish allies in Syria reverses warnings issued last week by the administration.
“A conflict along the Turkey-Syria border would serve the interests of all the bad actors in the conflict and in the surrounding region — whether that’s Daesh [ISIS], or al Qaeda, or the Iranian regime,” Joel Rayburn, the special envoy for the Syria conflict, said Wednesday.
Rayburn issued that warning to a Turkish diplomat who portrayed the Syrian Kurds — who helped American troops defeat the Islamic State — as terrorists. Previously, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused the United States of supporting Syrian fighters tied to Turkish rebel groups that Turkey claims are terrorists. Erdoğan has resented the partnership for years, because he believes that the Syrian Kurds are tied to rebel Turkish Kurds who seek to create an independent Kurdistan within Turkey.
American officials have touted the implementation of a “security mechanism” designed to prevent conflict along the border.
“So far, the implementation is going pretty well,” Rayburn said Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That’s a necessary condition for the resolution of the overall conflict. As long as there is a danger of a conflict along the Turkey Syria border, it’ll be difficult — that’ll make the job of reaching the resolution of the conflict much much harder.”
Trump abandoned that policy in a statement released late Sunday evening. “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.”
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It’s the second time in less than a year that Trump has announced a major policy change in Syria at Erdoğan’s request, just days after senior U.S. officials explained in public why such a withdrawal would be “reckless” or otherwise harmful to U.S. interests. That decision was ultimately reversed but only after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Monday that Trump’s return to that policy will leave “a stain on America’s honor” because it abandons U.S. allies.
American forces previously have prevented Turkey from attacking the Kurdish fighters, who partnered with local Arab militias coordinated by the U.S. to form the Syrian Democratic Forces. The Kurds play an essential role in U.S. strategy, a senior Pentagon official said, and were instrumental in defeating ISIS.
“They bore most of the burden when it came to defeating a caliphate, a territorial caliphate that got to the size of West Virginia,” Michael Mulroy, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said while sitting alongside Rayburn on Wednesday. “And I know that we’ve got a lot of work to do but we shouldn’t just gloss over the efforts that it took to accomplish that. We quite frankly could not carry out our strategy under the national defense strategy if it were not for partners like that.”
That partnership also has prevented Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, backed by Russian and Iranian forces, from reconquering more of the Syrian territory.
Russia has accused the United States of “trying to form alternative bodies of authority” in Syria that would undercut Assad — an argument that played into Turkish fears that the Kurds would try to declare their own state.
“We’ll have to keep that in mind and try to find ways that would prevent [them] from undercutting the sovereignty of the Syrian state,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last year.
Turkish officials echoed Russia’s rhetoric about Syrian sovereignty when announcing their plan to go on offense after Trump’s change in policy.
“Have supported the territorial integrity of #Syria since the beginning of the crisis and will continue to do so,” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu tweeted Monday. “Determined to ensure survivability and security of #Turkey by clearing the region from terrorists. Will contribute to bringing safety, peace and stability to Syria.”