Huff: Trump Betrayal of Syria’s Kurds Emboldens the Islamic State, Iran

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Getty Images

Dramatic developments over recent days appear to mark a turning point for the U.S. and allies in the war on the Islamic State (ISIS) — almost certainly a drastic turn for the worst.

President Donald J. Trump’s surprise Wednesday announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Kurdish Syria — proclaiming the “defeat” of ISIS — is an unimaginable blow to Kurdish allies on the ground. The snap move hands ISIS a sorely-needed last-minute reprieve, with the Iran-Russia-Syria alliance poised to fill the vacuum left by departing American forces.

About 2,000 U.S. troops are deployed in the Kurdish-majority territory of Northeastern Syria, a self-governing entity comprising almost one-third of the war-torn country. Up to now, close air support from the U.S. and coalition partners — in addition to weapons, vehicles, training, and artillery — proved indispensable to the Kurdish-led campaign to retake nearly all territory once held by the ISIS in Syria.

Now, this progress will be halted — setting the stage for a reversal of epic proportions.

Rumors of ISIS’ demise are greatly exaggerated. ISIS, under the slogan Remaining and Expanding, is still very much alive.

Accordingly, the U.S.-led coalition “conducted 208 strikes consisting of 378 engagements” between December 9 and 15 alone, while 79 Kurdish fighters were killed by ISIS in a 48-hour span less than a month ago.

The Center for Strategic & International Studies notes that ISIS is currently conducting 75 attacks per month in Iraq, and some 2,500 jihadists still hold territory in Syria. Untold numbers operate underground, as experts estimate 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS fighters simply melted back into the civilian populations of Syria and Iraq.

ISIS is “reorganizing and reactivating,” Masrour Barzani, security chief of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, told The Washington Post. “From Syria to Anbar and Mosul, we see them coming back. The ideology is there, and they continue to have large numbers of followers,” Barzani added.

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this month said one of America’s primary post-ISIS objectives was to establish a 40,000-strong local stabilization force to prevent the resurgence of ISIS. The training process was merely 20 percent complete by the time of President Trump’s pullout announcement, leaving locals woefully unprepared to assume full security responsibility.

Some 3,200 ISIS prisoners currently held by Syria’s Kurds are another area of major strain. Unable to care for the well-being of these jihadists — including more than 1,100 fighters hailing from 31 countries — Kurdish authorities say they are considering whether to release them, in a further boon for ISIS’ hopes to regroup and resume the offensive.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s long-sought opportunity to expand their incursion into Kurdish Syria has arrived.

Turkish President Recep T. Erdogan asserts that Syrian Kurdish forces are a branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a group currently engaged in conflict within Turkey. To this end, Turkish-backed jihadists invaded the westernmost Syrian Kurdish canton of Afrin last January and then set their sights on nearby Kurdish-held Manbij, where American forces also operate. Turkish officials passively threatened U.S. troops with “accidental” crossfire, but soon, U.S. forces will no longer stand in the way. Erdogan announced he would “wait a little” until the U.S. departs before beginning the planned offensive.

Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar applauded Trump’s move, saying America’s Syrian Kurdish allies east of the Euphrates “will be buried in their ditches”. In turn, as with Afrin, Kurdish forces intend to withdraw from their front against ISIS to bolster defenses along the Turkish border.

Wasting no time, ISIS is already conducting heavy counterattacks from their remaining stronghold.

“The decision to pull out will directly affect the efforts to fully rout the terrorist organization, and it will have dangerous repercussions that will affect the global stability and peace,” said the SDF, adding that the “condition of instability and insecurity” left by the “political and military vacuum” will leave the people “to the claws of enemy forces.”

But Turkey isn’t the only winner. As Syria’s Bashar al-Assad reasserts control over last remaining rebel holdouts, signs point to preparations for a possible offensive on Kurdish areas. Left with little leverage to negotiate, Kurdish leaders are reportedly weighing the transfer of their oilfields to the Syrian regime and to allow deployment of Syrian forces into the self-governing Kurdish enclave in hopes of deterring a Turkish offensive. This would mark the first return of Syrian regime forces to the area since 2012, a landmark accomplishment in Assad’s crusade to reassert control over all of Syria.

Such a win for Assad would be a tremendous setback for President Trump’s claimed goal of rolling back Iranian influence. Iran’s deadly forces and proxies — including the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah — operate freely among the Syrian forces that they prop up, and in tandem with parallel terror proxies across the border in Iraq. This would solidify Iranian progress in establishing a “land bridge” of unimpeded influence, reaching from Iran directly to Israel’s borders. Hence, countering Iran in Syria is a cornerstone of U.S. Administration plans to curb Iran’s expansion, led by Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and National Security Advisor John R. Bolton. It is unclear how the withdrawal will square with previously stated policy goals.

President Trump already ceded a key piece of this land bridge when the U.S. stood down as Iranian-backed militias in Iraq stormed Iraqi Kurdish positions in reprisal for the Kurds’ 2017 independence referendum. President Trump also seemingly passed on the opportunity to aid pro-democratic Kurdish groups resisting Iran’s mullahs from the inside.

Turkey might be placated with such an outcome, as cooperation with Russia and Iran continues to deepen.

Turkish President Erdogan on Thursday reiterated his opposition to American sanctions on Iran, saying that Turkey will “stand by the Iranian people,” before hosting Iran’s president mere hours after the Trump announcement.

This comes after the foreign ministers of Iran, Russia, and Turkey conferred with the U.N.’s envoy for Syria in Geneva last Tuesday, the latest in moves by the tripartite axis to increasingly marginalize America from their designs for Syria’s future.

President Trump did offer one heartfelt reason for bringing a swift end to involvement in Syria: his exhaustion of losing brave soldiers. But unlike America’s 17-year, “forgotten war” in Afghanistan, the story in Syria could not be more different.

The hard numbers show President Trump deserves credit for leading one of America’s most successful engagements in history.

In the Syrian intervention, a total of two members of the U.S. armed forces have been lost in active combat operations, and only one under Trump as Commander-in-Chief, over nine months ago. Another two perished in non-combat incidents, and one F-16 pilot died after crashing in Jordan, in 2014. Some ten additional American citizens fell during battle with ISIS, as volunteers among the ranks of Syrian Kurdish forces, out of more than 1,600 Kurdish fighters lost.

America’s partnership with the Kurds delivered legendary results. The joint offensive of Kurds on the ground and America in the air has killed or captured more than 35,000 ISIS fighters, and 99 percent of total ISIS territory has been retaken. Now, America’s boots on the ground could leave within 60 days – and the air support may leave with them.

Beyond the resurgence of ISIS, Iranian expansion, and Turkish reprisals on Kurdish allies, the next chapter could also portend a renewed downward spiral for Syria’s humanitarian crisis.

Iraqi Kurdish officials warn of a fresh avalanche of refugees from Syria flowing into their areas, which has already hosted two million refugees. Ultimately, many of them will end up in Turkey, which previously threatened to weaponize the refugees by accelerating their flow into Europe if Turkish geopolitical demands go unmet.

Such instability also reopens the door to repeated victimization of the Yazidi and Christian minorities by Islamic State and other marauding radicals.

It is unclear what, if anything, President Erdogan used to bait President Trump into the surprise move. Curiously, the U.S. State Department approved a potential $3.5 billion missile sale to Turkey the day before the pullout decision, in a Turkish pivot from plans to obtain similar systems from Russia. The approved sale does not mean a signed deal, so it is possible President Trump will find himself empty-handed.

For now, the weight of responsibility now shifts to European and Arab participants in the 79-member coalition against ISIS.

Syrian Kurds held talks in Paris in a bid for increased support, requesting a French-led no-fly zone. France pledged their 1,000 troops will remain in the fight, and British officials indicate they will continue their mission.

It is also difficult to imagine Sunni Arab Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE accepting Trump’s capitulation to Iranian influence as the final answer to what amounts to an existential threat from the Shia regime. Still, Arab resources have been slow and limited — and in exchange for reduced Saudi Arabian support to the Kurds, Turkey may curb the slow-drip of news fueling international outrage over the death of Jamal Khashoggi.

The only hope for the Kurds may lie with President Trump changing his mind, as he did before.

Closer to home, pressure intensifies as President Trump’s shock statement prompted the sudden resignation of Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis, and vocal outrage from Hill lawmakers, senior advisers, and coalition partners alike.

According to Senator Lindsey O. Graham (R-SC), Mattis believes that “the day we leave it’s going to be open season on every Kurd who’s supported us.”

Sen. Graham told CNN that he is “pleading with the President to reconsider, postpone this withdrawal and make it condition based,” and is working to hold hearings on Capitol Hill to assess the implications for America’s Kurdish allies.

President Trump’s lonely celebration of “victory” against ISIS will likely be short-lived. America may find itself back in the region sooner than later — but with fewer allies, against even more emboldened enemies.

Zach D. Huff is a Kurdish affairs analyst. A part time resident of Iraqi Kurdistan, he has reported from Kurdish regions of Syria and Iran. He previously served as a combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, and was on the national staff of Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign.


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