ABU DHABI—Abandoned by the Americans, their former allies, Syria’s Kurds reportedly are allowing troops from the Assad regime to enter territory they had under their control. The Kurds also are putting out feelers to Russia for support against an onslaught by Turkish troops and Turkish-supported militias.
A return of Bashar al-Assad’s forces to northeastern Syria for the first time in seven years would make visible the end to the bitter, controversial U.S. mission there against the so-called Islamic State. That’s not because of any concerted decision to withdraw by President Trump, whose antiwar rhetoric obscured his vacillation about leaving. It’s because Assad will deny his American adversary the room to operate that the Syrian Kurds had provided their deceitful American partners.
“We know that we would have to make painful compromises with Moscow and Bashar al-Assad if we go down the road of working with them,” the Kurdish commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) wrote in an op-ed published Sunday in Foreign Policy. “But if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people.”
More in sorrow than in anger, the commander, Mazloum Abdi, wrote, “When the whole world failed to support us, the United States extended its hands. We shook hands and appreciated its generous support.”
But under Turkish pressure, at Washington’s request, the Kurds “agreed to withdraw our heavy weapons from the border area with Turkey, destroy our defensive fortifications, and pull back our most seasoned fighters. Turkey would never attack us so long as the U.S. government was true to its word with us.”
Or so they believed.
“We are now standing with our chests bare to face the Turkish knives,” Mazloum wrote.
Brett McGurk, who resigned as the presidential special envoy to the coalition against ISIS last December, told The Daily Beast on Sunday that such a move by the Syrian Kurds was predictable under the circumstances.
Even last year, when McGurk was still serving, Kurdish leaders in Syria were telling the Americans that if support for them and deterrence against a Turkish attack was not going to continue, they needed to make a deal with the Assad regime and Russia for protection. “We have given our road map to the Russians. We are just waiting on a decision,” one senior Kurdish official told The Washington Post.
McGurk said he supported that idea at a time when Trump already was talking about pulling out of Syria, but he met firm opposition within the administration. (Special Representative for Syria Engagement Jim Jeffrey, for one, “told the Kurds on multiple occasions, ‘we’ll manage Turkey, don’t make a deal with the [Assad] regime,’” according to a source familiar with the matter.) Then-National Security Adviser John Bolton and crew insisted the U.S. must stay in Syria until Iran was out, or at least on its way. (Representatives for Bolton, whom Trump fired last month, did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Neither did State Department spokespeople.)
Since McGurk’s resignation, he has stayed in touch with the members of the SDF and some contacts in the U.S. departments of state and defense. He says the Kurds asked repeatedly if the support and protection of the United States could be relied upon, and they were told repeatedly that the Americans had their backs.
But that was not the case.
McGurk told the Beirut Institute Summit in Abu Dhabi that when the Russians first got heavily involved in Syria in 2016, an oft-repeated truism about Kremlin duplicity was, “Everybody knows not to get into a well with a Russian rope.”
“But now what I hear,” McGurk told the audience, “is that nobody should get into a well with an American rope.”
In other words, once it became clear in 2018 that Trump was hostile to the open-ended U.S. presence in Syria he inherited, the Kurds had options to help ease the end of their relationship with the Americans. But Trump’s State Department and Pentagon, unwilling to face up to a final withdrawal—and the unequivocal loss of U.S. influence in a part of the Middle East where it is increasingly impotent, if not irrelevant—convinced the Kurds not to plan for an American departure. Had the Kurds done so, their new Russian and Syrian partners might have been able to spare them the devastation that Turkey is now wreaking as the U.S. pulls back and stands by.
And now that the slaughter has begun, Mazloum has made clear that his forces and his people have no choice but to look to Russia and Damascus for support. Unfortunately for the Kurds, as McGurk points out, after Trump’s betrayal dramatically weakened their position, when they call the Russians or the Syrian regime it’s not clear that anyone is picking up the phone.
Meanwhile, mass escapes of ISIS prisoners and alleged war crimes by Turkish-backed militia members in northeast Syria reflected the mounting chaos as Ankara drives ahead with an assault that already is deeper into Syria than originally announced.
“I think we are likely to see a significant comeback by ISIS,” McGurk told the audience in Abu Dhabi.
In Washington and in the field, confusion among the Americans is rampant. Ever since last Sunday’s phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the administration has aggressively insisted that its green light to Erdoğan, complete with a presidential invitation to the White House next month, was really a red light.
On Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS, “Look, it's a very terrible situation over there. A situation caused by the Turks, by President Erdoğan. Despite our opposition they decided to make this incursion into Syria.” Trump has escalated his rhetoric about the generation-long disaster of the U.S. military in the Mideast, but he has still yet to withdraw from Syria–and has in fact deployed 14,000 new troops to the Gulf region in the past six months. Incoherence, deceit and betrayal are now the most conspicuous characteristics of U.S. policy.
Esper said that because the Kurds are looking to cut a deal if you will with the Syrians and the Russians to counter-attack against the Turks in the north, American troops could find themselves “caught between two opposing advancing armies and it's a very untenable situation. So I spoke with the president last night after discussions with the rest of the national security team and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria.”
But as it dawns on Trump that his “end endless wars” mantra could ignite a new endless war, he is reluctant to carry out a full troop withdrawal. Esper spoke about withdrawing from “northern Syria” two days after he and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted there were “no additional changes to our force posture.” Two knowledgeable U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that the U.S. planned to remain in Syria, just further away from the Turkish fighting positions. Some undisclosed hundreds of the 1,000 U.S. forces currently in Syria will indeed leave the country—for elsewhere in the Mideast, however, not home.
But all of that improvisation, the consequence of senior officials attempting to salvage something after the Trump-Erdogan accord, may now be overtaken by events. Assad’s forces are unlikely to permit continued U.S. operations. The end of a war never declared by Congress may come not by American decision, let alone negotiation, but by American adversaries seizing the initiative that Trump has been comfortable abandoning.
Already reports are coming in from Syria of ISIS fighters breaking out of their Kurdish detention facilities as the Kurds fight for their lives. According to the New York Times, the rapid pullback, sometimes under fire from their Turkish NATO ally, has cost the Americans their plans to move a handful of senior ISIS detainees to U.S. military custody in neighboring Iraq. All of it raises the prospect of ISIS grabbing victory—meaning a new lease on life—out of the jaws of defeat after the Kurds, sponsored by the U.S., finished off the Caliphate in 2018.
Meanwhile leaders in the Middle East are trying to come to terms with the fact that the Americans have proved to be fatally unreliable allies.
Hoshyar Zebari, the former deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Iraq, told the Beirut Institute Summit in Abu Dhabi that in the Syrian war, “The Russians did not walk away from their partners. The Iranians did not walk away from their partners. But the Americans did.”
“Definitely the Turks will be emboldened,” Zebari told The Daily Beast. “We expect about 50,000 refugees to cross the border,” he said, mostly into the Kurdish region of Iraq.