The US Airstrike on its Former Headquarters Is a Terrible Symbol of American Failure in Syria
LONDON (October 19, 2019) — I was driving a year ago past a giant cement factory in northeast Syria which was then the military headquarters of the US forces fighting alongside the Kurds to defeat Isis. I did not want to loiter — in the land of the vehicle-borne suicide bomber, the soldiers inside such facilities keep a suspicious eye on any car or truck that gets too close to them.
It was this same Lafargue cement plant, close to the Euphrates, that was bombed by two US F-I5 jets last week after being hastily abandoned by US forces, to destroy stores of ammunition that had been left behind. The airstrike on the former US headquarters is a symbol of the US failure in Syria, just as a helicopter crammed with terrified Vietnamese lifting off from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon in 1975 became a symbol of the US defeat in Vietnam.
People across the Middle East are asking how far the US pull-out from Syria changes the balance of power in the region, as Russia, Turkey, Iran and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad all, in their different ways, move to fill the vacuum left by the US. Does it mean, for instance, that Donald Trump’s policy of confronting Iran, which was already in trouble, is close to being capsized entirely?
The crisis is bizarre and unprecedented because it did not have to happen this way: in the course of a few weeks, Trump has managed to convert a limited US reverse into a full-scale self-inflicted disaster. A good argument could always be made for the US pulling out of Syria, where it was a weak and vulnerable player, but it was Trump’s impulsive tweet that provoked a US scuttle and a Turkish invasion. The blatancy of Washington’s betrayal of the Syrian Kurds, the essential ground troops in the elimination of the Isis caliphate, ensured that this not-unexpected drawdown of US forces has done maximum damage to America’s credibility.
Trump’s efforts to escape a mess of his own making keep making it worse. On Thursday night in Ankara, US vice president Mike Pence announced that after tough negotiating with Erdogan, he had persuaded the Turks to agree to a five-day truce in Syria. It turns out that he had achieved this negotiating masterpiece by giving the Turks everything they wanted, such as a permanent Turkish occupation of a 300-mile long and 20-mile wide swathe of Kurdish-inhabited northeast Syria.
Turkish military forces are supposedly pausing their offensive for five days while the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) withdraw. This agreement was succinctly described by Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group as “a capitulation dressed up as a win [for the US]”.
Its real purpose is to enable Trump to claim to have ended the war in northern Syria through astute diplomacy — though reporters at Pence’s press conference in the Turkish capital were already asking him if this was “a second betrayal of the Kurds”.
Nothing in this deal is what it seems to be: even treachery requires some strength to influence events and the US no longer has the power in Syria to carry out a further act of betrayal of their former allies.
The YPG commanders say that they will abide by the ceasefire in the narrow corridor of territory between the towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad, already largely under Turkish control. But this is only 20 per cent of the “safe zone” that Erdogan says he has been promised by the US, which is no longer in a position to pressure the Kurds into making territorial concessions to Turkey.
As for the ceasefire (or “pause”, as the Turks like to call it), this could go the way of many another Middle East truce that never quite got off the ground. Erdogan says that fighting has ceased, but the YPG say that they are still holding out in Ras al-Ayn, a largish town on the border, and they have cleared Arab paramilitaries under Turkish command from the M4 highway that runs east to west across northern Syria.
The truth is that Trump and Erdogan both need to get off the hook in Syria and pretend to their domestic audiences to have won triumphant successes. Turkey wants to claim a non-existent military victory and Mr. Trump is saying that he ended a war that he is accused of fecklessly initiating. Real power has already ebbed away from the US in Syria, something that is apparent to the rest of the Middle East. If there is to be a settlement of the Turkish/Kurdish border war, it will be orchestrated next week by Russia with the participation of the Syrian government and input from the YPG, which has nimbly switched sides.
Syrian Kurdish claims to have been horrified and surprised by Trump stabbing them in the back should be taken with a fairly large pinch of salt. When interviewing the Syrian Kurdish leaders in northeast Syria in recent years, I was struck that these were not people who trusted anybody very much, a trait born of grim historic experience.
The speed and efficiency with which Russian and Syrian forces rushed into the main cities of northeast Syria as soon as the Turkish offensive began 10 days ago indicate pre-planning, and torpedoed Turkish hopes of seizing important Kurdish-controlled cities such as Manbij and Kobani. The Turkish invasion force is, in any case, far too small to penetrate far beyond the frontier or defeat the YPG.
The US was always going to break with the Kurds at some point. Theirs was a marriage of convenience born of the war against Isis. But it was Trump’s impulsiveness, and a wish to bypass the US foreign policy establishment that wanted to stay in Syria, that led to the final humiliating flight from the Lafargue cement factory and elsewhere.
Ironically, Trump’s instinct that the US is better off out of the Syrian mess has a lot to be said for it. But his shambolic way of carrying out this policy has magnified perceptions of imploding American power.
On a more mundane level, but nevertheless highly damaging for the US, the Kurdish-Turkish crisis of the last few weeks has seen Trump’s tweets and other communications scale new peaks of craziness. “Don’t be a tough guy,” he wrote to Erdogan, “Don’t be a fool.” Stuff like this inspires comparisons between Trump and the dottier Roman emperors and makes every other world leader sound sane by comparison.
Combine the ever-increasing weirdness of Trump with the fact that his government is permanently wracked by internal strife — where the Pentagon, State Department, CIA and other agencies pursue different policies from the White House — and there is the potential for every US setback to evolve into a debacle.
Syrians Throw Potatoes at Withdrawing American Troops
(October 21, 2019) — Residents of a heavily Kurdish city in northeast Syria threw potatoes at withdrawing American troops on Monday, underscoring the deep anger over President Trump’s decision to pull most US forces from the region amid a Turkish military offensive.
While Defense Secretary Mark Esper suggested Monday that a small US force may stay behind to guard oil fields in the region, the bulk of the 1,000 American troops are now exiting Syria and heading to Iraq. An American convoy leaving the city of Qamishli was hit with potatoes on Monday while protesters shouted “No America” and “America liar,” the Associated Press reported.
“Like rats, America is running away,” one protester yelled, according to media reports.
Earlier this month, Mr. Trump announced that he would pull US troops from key buffer zones along the Turkey-Syria border. The move paved the way for a Turkish military assault against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a key ally in the US fight against the Islamic State.
Turkey considers elements of the group to be terrorists.
As the Turkish military assault gained steam last week, the US announced it would pull virtually all of its 1,000 troops from northeastern Syria to keep them out of harm’s way. The withdrawal is still ongoing.
Mr. Esper, who is traveling in the Middle East and visited Afghanistan on Monday, said the US may ultimately keep a small residual force in northeast Syria to guard oil fields. The secretary said the administration does not want the Islamic State to gain control of the energy reserves and use them as a revenue source.
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