Analysis

The Seeds of Trump’s Abandonment of Syrian Kurds Were Sown by Obama

Like the Democratic incumbent before him, President Donald Trump seems to believe that conflict is the natural state of things in the Middle East

President Donald Trump talks with former President Barack Obama on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 20, 2017
Rob Carr,AP

The Turkish offensive on northeastern Syria is the culmination of incoherent U.S. policy concerning the conflict in Syria, which has prioritized finding short-term fixes over attempting to address any of the dynamics driving the violence. 

The scope of the Turkish invasion, made possible through the withdrawal of U.S. troops from parts of the border region, remains unclear. The offensive, which began Wednesday, will likely precipitate mass displacement, and if the military action extends beyond the takeover of a few border towns, it could also result in demographic re-engineering, empower Iran and the Syrian regime, and deprive the United States of whatever leverage it had left in trying to shape the outcome of the civil war in Syria.

The Turkish operation is driven by fears of the growing strength of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the umbrella of militias that gained control of much of northeastern and eastern Syria owing to U.S. backing. The SDF is led by the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG (the People’s Protection Units, part of the Öcalanist-armed movement that has waged an insurgency against Turkey since the 1980s). According to the SDF, the force lost over11,000 fighters, men and women, in the campaign to liberate almost a third of Syria from ISIS control.

The outlines of the Turkish operation are unclear at this stage, hence the overall consequences are murky. Multiple fighters in the ranks of the Syrian factions that are set to participate in the offensive alongside Turkish forces told Haaretz that the scope of the operation will likely be limited to the capture of the town of Tel Abyad and possibly Ras al-Ayn. 

Such an offensive would involve the use of heavy artillery and lead to mass flight of the local population. The Syrian factions set to participate in the offensive, operating under the name the Syrian National Army, a Turkish creation, carried out large-scale looting in towns they have previously captured in northern Aleppo. This damage, however, will be nothing in comparison to what a deeper Turkish invasion would precipitate.

Turkey has threatened to carry out a much wider operation, effectively taking over the most densely populated towns and cities along the Syrian-Turkish border. The Turkish drums of war began beating louder after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used his annual UN General Assembly speech to promote a plan for the return of 1 to 2 million Syrian refugees to northeastern Syria

Such a return, he argued, could be made after Turkey creates a so-called “safe zone” in the region, 30 kilometers (19 miles) wide and 480 kilometers (about 300 mile) long. Turkey would take over the area and construct massive housing complexes that could house the refugees sent back from Turkey. 

An offensive 30 kilometers deep into northeastern Syria would entail grave human rights abuses. Civilians will flee en masse to avoid being killed by artillery and street battles. My interviews with locals indicate that the civilians who do not pick up weapons to defend their homes will attempt to flee to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which is already hosting 1.1 million registered displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees. Based on past experiences in Efrin, a Kurdish enclave captured by Turkey and its Syrian factions in 2018, Turkey will likely allow or encourage Arabs to settle in homes once owned by Kurds, altering the demographic makeup of the region.

Such a deeper offensive will also serve as a boon for the Bashar Assad regime, Iran and ISIS. The SDF would be forced to withdraw forces from the southern provinces it currently holds, particularly oil-rich Deir Ezzor, allowing the regime and Iran to advance into the area. Alternatively, the prospect of a deeper Turkish invasion may cause the YPG to hastily reach a “reconciliation” agreement with the Assad regime, allowing the Syrian Army and Iranian-backed militias to take over this resource-rich region. 

In either scenario, ISIS — which is already launching daily hit-and-run attacks in SDF-held Deir Ezzor and imposing protection taxes on trade — will be able to reassert itself. Areas under regime control in Deir Ezzor and the Homs desert witness even greater violence, with sophisticated and highly deadly ISIS attacks.

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters pose for a photo in Baghouz, Syria, after the SDF declared the area free of Islamic State militants, March 23, 2019.
Maya Alleruzzo,AP

A regime and Iranian takeover of northeastern Syria and its oil will effectively end whatever leverage the United States still possessed in trying to shape the outcome of the war in Syria. The Americans will have nothing to offer to the regime in return for concessions on issues the U.S. cares about such as an Iranian presence in Syria or the fate of the tens of thousands of political prisoners languishing in regime prisons. Trump, who likes to consider himself a great negotiator, unilaterally disarmed the U.S. of its pressure tools. 

How did America reach a situation in which it is about to squander most of the gains it made in the war on ISIS? The U.S. administration, both under Barack Obama and Trump, did not attempt to develop a long-term strategy concerning Syria. After muddling through the first years of the uprising and war, the Obama administration settled on a policy solely focused on defeating ISIS in the battlefield. The root causes that allowed ISIS to flourish in Syria and Iraq, such as the oppressive, corrupt and discriminatory regimes ruling these countries, were apparently deemed too complicated to be addressed or mitigated. 

The seeds for Trump’s decision to allow for the Turkish invasion were sown under the Obama administration, when the Democratic president and his team decided to limit their involvement in the civil war. Only after ISIS invaded Iraq in mid-2014, carried out a genocide against the Yazidi community and beheaded foreign hostages did the Americans decide to directly intervene in the war in Syria by backing the YPG, starting in September 2014. The United States abandoned the plan to rely on Arab rebels to take on ISIS — in part due to the rebels’ refusal to commit themselves to fighting ISIS alone — while ignoring the Assad regime, responsible for most civilian casualties and destruction in Syria.

The tactical assistance to the YPG shifted to a partnership, with the Americans deploying special forces in areas under the control of the group. The United States encouraged the YPG to include non-Kurdish fighters in their ranks — leading to the creation of the SDF, which now counts about 70,000 fighters in its ranks.

The growing strength of the SDF increasingly became a source of great concern for Turkey, particularly after domestic political changes and the breakdown of peace talks in 2015 between Ankara and the PKK (the Turkish, and leading, branch of the Öcalanist movement). The Americans attempted to partially assuage Turkish fears, but did not invest much effort in trying to restart talks between the PKK and Turkey, which could have reduced Turkish-YPG tensions. 

Trump initially pursued Obama’s policies, despite coming into office promising to end costly entanglements abroad. The only change was to double down on sanctions against the Syrian regime. Rhetorically, the Trump administration adopted a bellicose position toward Iran, unlike Obama, but U.S. policies on the ground in this regard remained largely identical to Obama’s, leaving it to Israel to deal with the Iranian buildup in Syria.

In December 2018, however, even as ISIS continued to hold territory in Syria, Trump tweeted that the United States would be pulling its forces out of Syria. This decision was then largely reversed by the State Department and the Department of Defense, which are overwhelmingly opposed to such a pullout due to its disastrous repercussions. The bureaucrats were able to reign in Trump’s worst impulses on Syria and tried to mitigate the effects of the reduction in U.S. forces  in the region and the elimination of all stabilization funding to the war-affected region. But as Trump’s recent declaration shows, earnest bureaucrats cannot forever keep a petulant president from re-inserting himself into the decision-making process.

But even the logic pursued by the Obama administration of narrowly focusing on the counter-ISIS mission would have led to a U.S. withdrawal once ISIS’s territorial “caliphate” was destroyed, leaving the SDF in the lurch. Even if the United States had mediated negotiations over autonomy between the Assad regime and the SDF, as advocated by former Obama administration officials, the regime’s track record shows that under Russian pressure, it has only allowed limited autonomy inside a handful of formerly rebel-held towns in Daraa. 

Rebels who have left these towns have been arrested by the regime and assassinated. This experience is unlikely to be repeated in an area covering a third of Syria. The regime could have just waited out the United States and retaken SDF-held areas, reinstituting its full control over internal security — a top priority of the regime.

Trump, similarly to Obama, seems to believe that conflict is a natural state in the Middle East, unsolvable. Kurds and Turks are “natural enemies,” he said Monday, and conflict between them can only be “held off.” Obama infamously stated that “the Middle East is going through a transformation … rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” Such a cynical and essentialist perspective provides Western elites with an easy excuse for inaction or empowerment of strongmen. The resulting policy means that none of the root causes of instability and violence in the Middle East are addressed, namely the kleptocratic and oppressive regimes of the region, forcing the United States to launch occasional interventions when violence begins spilling over. 

The United States has been humbled by its experience in Iraq. But the trauma from a misguided war of choice should not lead it to resort to myopic, short-term policies, which at times produce great violence and suffering, as the looming Turkish invasion shows. 

Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a Research Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking. Follow her on Twitter: @Elizrael