Syria Crisis - US Backs out
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In News: US President Donald Trump has casted his decision to abandon Kurdish fighters in Syria as fulfilling a campaign promise to withdraw from "endless war" in the Middle East, even as Republican critics and others said he was sacrificing a US ally and undermining American credibility. Trump declared US troops would step aside for an expected Turkish attack on the Kurds, who have fought alongside Americans for years, but he then threatened to destroy Turkey’s economy if they went too far.
- Even Trump's staunchest Republican congressional allies expressed outrage at the prospect of abandoning Syrian Kurds who had fought the Islamic State group with American arms and advice.
- Trump said he understood criticism from fellow GOP leaders but disagreed. He said he could also name supporters, but he didn't.
- Pentagon and State Department officials held out the possibility of persuading Turkey to abandon its expected invasion. U.S. officials said they had seen no indication that Turkey had begun a military operation by late Monday.
What is exactly happening?
Turkey has long wanted to move across the border into northern Syria, where it sees the Syrian Kurdish forces (specifically the People’s Protection Unit, or YPG, which forms the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces) as tied to to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), separatists that Turkey considers a terrorist group. The PKK has waged an insurgency against Turkey for decades, and it’s allied with the Syrian Kurdish forces across the border — which has long put Turkey on edge.
Turkey has two main goals in northeast Syria: to drive the Kurdish YPG militia which it deems a security threat away from its border, and to create a space inside Syria where 2 million Syria refugees currently hosted in Turkey can be settled.
An economic downturn in Turkey is increasing domestic pressure on Erdogan to resettle 2 million of the 3.6 million people the country has taken in. But the Kurds that Turkey sees as a threat are Washington’s most critical partner on the ground in Syria. Kurdish fighters fought on the front lines against ISIS; they’ve received backing for years, including US technical and intelligence assistance and air support.
This put the US in an awkward position from the start — between a NATO ally in Turkey on the one hand and its most reliable partners in fighting (and detaining) the Islamic State on the other.
So what was the step taken?
In response, in August, the US and Turkey agreed to a security mechanism designed to ease tensions between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds. In Starting in September, the US and Turkey began running joint patrols and the US helped push back some Syrian Kurdish forces from the Turkish border, including destroying their fortifications, to help create a smaller buffer zone in Syria. Basically, it was establishing a “safe zone” step by step, and without the potential violence that a Turkish invasion would unleash. The Pentagon promoted these efforts.
But Erdogan had evidently started to get a bit impatient with this approach. The Turkish president apparently found a sympathetic partner in Trump, who’s notoriously skeptical of US troop commitments overseas and may have his own domestic political reasons for doubling down on a promise to end America’s entanglements abroad
Implications of the US deciding to pull out of Syria: A new conflict, shifting alliances, and a possible ISIS resurgence
This directive — which apparently blindsided allies and lawmakers and national security officials alike — leaves the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely made up of Kurdish civilians and Kurdish troops who led the fight against ISIS on the ground in Syria, at the mercy of Turkish forces. In doing so, the US is jeopardizing its partners on the ground and unleashing unpredictable consequences for Syria, now in its eighth year of war.
For many, Monday’s announcement looks a bit like a repeat of what happened in December 2018, when Trump abruptly announced he was pulling all troops out of Syria over the objections of the Pentagon, including his then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who ultimately resigned over the decision. Trump, in that instance, partially walked back his pronouncement, leaving a troop contingent in the country, in part because of Turkey’s threat to the Kurds across the border.
- And it’s not just troops who are at risk if Turkey invades, it’s also Kurdish civilians who could be massacred in any assault. About 1.7 million Kurds live in the north-eastern region of Syria, though that area is larger than Erdogan’s planned 18-20 mile “safe zone.”
- Still, the United Nations has already warned of the possibility of mass displacement and mass slaughter in the wake of such an operation by Turkey. Kurdish forces have established relative peace and security in their region of northeastern Syria after years of fighting ISIS; Turkey’s encroachment threatens to upend it all.
- The Kurdish forces have also vowed that, if Turkey invades, it will do what is necessary to protect its people and its troops. That opens up the possibility that Syrian Kurds will look elsewhere for protection, and that likely ally is Bashar al-Assad, the ruthless Syrian dictator, who with help from Russia and Iran is trying to retake all of Syria. The Kurds, who control a swath of land in northeastern Syria, have not ruled out making a deal with Assad if the US abandons them, which could potentially return a huge chunk of Syria back to the government’s control.
- At the same time, diplomats are alarmed at Turkey’s plan to resettle millions of Syrians, which they fear could amount to “demographic engineering” if ethnic Arabs are encouraged to establish themselves in Kurdish-majority villages and towns. They also worry that some people might be coerced into returning against their will.
- Turkey’s action along Syrian border could result in a break out of prisons guarding Islamic State (IS) detainees. This attack will definitely reduce and weaken the guarding system for those Daesh (Arabic acronym for IS)militants in the prisons. This could lead to their escape or to behaviours that may get out of the control of the security forces. A prison struck by Turkish shelling holds “the most dangerous criminals from more than 60 nationalities” and Turkey’s attacks on its prisons risked “a catastrophe”.
- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in an address to his party’s officials, claimed that as many as 109 ‘terrorists’ (a reference to Kurdish fighters) were killed since Ankara launched an attack.
- Erdogan also warned that if the European countries continue to label its military incursion in Syria as an occupation, Ankara will release the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in their country to Europe.
- Turkey launched airstrikes, fired artillery and began a ground offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, after US troops pulled back from the area, paving the way for an assault on forces that have long been allied with the United States.
- “We are deeply concerned at the unilateral military offensive by Turkey in north-east Syria. Turkey’s actions can undermine stability in the region and the fight against terrorism,” the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.
- The confusion over Trump’s Syria policy on Monday also damages the US’s credibility, revealing it to be an unreliable and disorganized international partner. That will have consequences beyond Syria.
Connecting the dots:
- Critically evaluate the Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.
- Should global institutions interfere in the internal affairs of a country if there are allegations of human rights violations? Substantiate your viewpoint.