Here’s what most people don’t understand about the war in Syria: The combat-phase of the war is largely over. What’s left is an arduous mop-up operation in the Idlib demilitarized zone and a potentially explosive standoff between the United States and Turkey in the north.
For a while it looked like the US-Turkey confrontation would fizzle-out after President Trump announced the withdrawal of all US troops from the theater. But Trump has apparently caved in to his hawkish foreign policy team and agreed to leave 400 military personnel behind to participate in a ‘multinational observer force’ in northeastern Syria. The announcement has dashed all hopes for an expedited political settlement and sabotaged Turkey’s plan to expel terrorists along its southern border, establish a “safe zone” stretching 20 miles into Syria, and resettle some of the more than 3 million Syrian refugees it has taken in over the last eight years. In short, Trump’s new plan needlessly prolongs the conflict while further alienating a critical ally in the region. And what does the US gain by implementing the policy? Nothing. All the main cities and industrial hubs have already been recaptured, reconstruction has already begun, and Syrian President Bashar al Assad is safely tucked away in Damascus. The only thing Washington’s multinational force will do is provoke an invasion by Turkey whose security is gravely undermined by the plan. Certainly that is not what Trump wants, is it, to stumble into a war with a country that serves as a vital transit-route and energy hub for the pivot to Asia?
The point we’re trying to make is that, the real conflict in Syria is no longer between the Syria Army and the foreign jihadists, it’s between the United States and Turkey. If the US were to withdrawal, the confrontation would end clearing the way for dialogue, compromise, and (eventually) serious negotiations. Turkey, Russia and Iran have made already great strides in resolving their differences through the Astana Process. A US withdrawal will undoubtedly lead to a comprehensive ceasefire followed by a final settlement.
None of this is possible as long as the US occupies territory in the east. That is why the US needs to withdraw its troops, stop its meddling, and leave. Regrettably, the Trump administration is now pushing a plan that is no different than the one announced by Rex Tillerson on January 18, 2018 when the former Secretary of State announced the creation of a 30,000-man Border Security Force (BSF) to occupy East Syria. The Turkish leadership saw Tillerson’s announcement as an attempt to betray Turkey by creating a de facto Kurdish state along its southern border. Adding insult to injury, Tillerson’s 30,000-man Border Security Force was to be comprised of YPG militants that are linked to the terrorist organization, the PKK, which has prosecuted a scorched earth campaign against Turkey for more than three decades.
Two days after Tillerson’s provocative announcement, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a ground and air offensive into Syria capturing the city of Afrin before moving eastward to the Euphrates River. The message was clear: Turkey will defend its national security interests whether it ruffles Washington’s feathers or not. The formation of a multinational observer force along the border to protect Washington’s proxies (The YPG also known as the SDF) creates the same ominous circumstances that preceded Turkey’s last incursion. Does Washington really think that Turkey will allow the strategy to be implemented? How about if the shoe was on the other foot: Would Washington allow ISIS units to occupy camps along the US-Mexico border?
Of course, not. The idea is ridiculous. There’s ample evidence that Trump understands what’s going on and actually empathizes with Erdogan. In fact, just days before Trump’s “withdrawal” announcement, Trump had a long conversation with Erdogan during which he acknowledged that the US mission had been accomplished, ISIS had been defeated, and that it was time for the US to go. An article is the Times Of Israel recounts what actually transpired in Erdogan’s conversation with Trump. Check it out:
“The Dec. 14 call came a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu agreed to have the two presidents discuss Erdogan’s threats to launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in northeast Syria, where American forces are based…..
“The talking points were very firm,” said one of the officials, explaining that Trump was advised to clearly oppose a Turkish incursion into northern Syria and suggest the U.S. and Turkey work together to address security concerns. “Everybody said push back and try to offer (Turkey) something that’s a small win, possibly holding territory on the border, something like that.”
Erdogan, though, quickly put Trump on the defensive, reminding him that he had repeatedly said the only reason for U.S. troops to be in Syria was to defeat the Islamic State and that the group had been 99 percent defeated. “Why are you still there?” the second official said Erdogan asked Trump, telling him that the Turks could deal with the remaining IS militants.
With Erdogan on the line, Trump asked national security adviser John Bolton, who was listening in, why American troops remained in Syria if what the Turkish president was saying was true, according to the officials. Erdogan’s point, Bolton was forced to admit, had been backed up by Mattis, Pompeo, U.S. special envoy for Syria Jim Jeffrey …
In the following days, Trump remained unmoved by those scrambling to convince him to reverse or at least delay the decision to give the military and Kurdish forces time to prepare for an orderly withdrawal…”
(“Trump decided on Syria pullout during phone call with Erdogan, ignored advisers”, The Times of Israel)
Let’s summarize: Erdogan threatened to invade Syria, so Trump’s advisors told him to pacify Erdogan with empty promises. Trump was told exactly what ‘he could and couldn’t say’, but quickly went off script and decided to settle the matter by himself. (Big surprise) As it happens, Trump not only made the right decision, but the only decision that would patch up relations with an important ally while avoiding a catastrophic invasion.
Now Trump has backtracked on his promise and things are worse than ever. Now the administration is going to use a multinational force to knife Turkey in the back, annex Syrian sovereign territory for an autonomous Kurdish state, and actualize the neocon dream of permanently partitioning the war-torn country.
That is not to suggest that Erdogan’s aims are pure or praiseworthy. They’re not. Erdogan wants a safe zone that can be resettled with refugees whose leaders are beholden to Ankara and who will act as agents for political change in Syria. Erdogan is a scheming, narcissistic, street-fighter who is driven by personal ambition and an unquenchable thirst for power. Fortunately, those attributes can be tempered through diplomacy, negotiation and compromise. But that process can not even begin until the US withdraws its troops and its Kurdish proxies are forced to strike a deal with Damascus. Once again, it is the United States that stands in the way of any movement towards peace.
If the US withdraws, then the Kurds will have to hash out an agreement with Syrian President Bashar al Assad for protection from the Turks. The Kurds will gain limited autonomy provided they decommission their army and agree to share critical oil revenues. The Turks will get their ‘safety zone’ but with strings attached and under terms that are agreeable to both Iran and Russia. In other words, Turkey will not be allowed to simply annex the area it militarily occupies. Putin will make sure of that.
There will likely be a massive resettlement of Syrian refugees in the north and east, but Turkey will be required to share peacekeeping and security duties with Moscow. And while this accommodation may create a soft partition in the north, I suspect Putin will agree to the arrangement in order to placate Erdogan and to bring the war to a swift end.
So what Trump needs to do is reject the counsel of his advisors and stick to his guns. He needs to keep his campaign promise and end the pointless foreign wars. He needs to realize that the only way the war is going to end is if Uncle Sam packs it in and goes home. As Commander in Chief he can make that happen.