Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with Donald Trump (File)
The Trump Administration sank in confusion and criticism on Monday after Donald Trump’s order, apparently without consultation of the military and State Department, to accept Turkish control of northeast Syria and mainly-Kurdish areas.
After Trump’s phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Sunday night, the White House issued a statement that “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria”. It said US troops would withdraw from the “immediate area” as Ankara took control of a “safe zone”, 488 km (270 miles) along the Turkish-Syrian border and across the Kurdish cantons of Kobani and Cezire.
The episode was reminiscent of Trump’s impulsive order last December to withdraw all US troops from Syria, again after a call with Erdoğan. The Turkish President, who has vowed the elimination of the Syrian Kurdistan Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its YPG militia as “terrorists”, immediately declared the zone extending east across the Euphrates River to the Iraq border.
As with that incident, it soon appeared that Trump had not spoken with the US military or diplomats before making his commitment.
The Pentagon withheld comment yesterday, except for Defense Department insistence that Trump had not approved a Turkish attack on Kurdish groups, with whom the US has worked since autumn 2015 to remove the Islamic State from northeast Syria.
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman rewrote the White House statement as he asserted, “The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey — as did the President — that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in northern Syria.”
A “senior State Department official went farther, “We have shut down Turkish participation in the air. Right now we are controlling the airspace over northeast Syria. We have no intention in the immediate near future to change that.”
A series of senior Republican legislators loudly condemned the White House. Among them was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who said “precipitous withdrawal” would benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime — and the Islamic State, which Trump said had been destroyed.
McConnell urged to “exercise American leadership”.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a friend of Trump’s, led the denunciation on Twitter and on Trump’s favorite outlet Fox TV. From morning to night, he warned, “This decision to abandon our Kurdish allies and turn Syria over to Russia, Iran, & Turkey will put every radical Islamist on steroids.” He pressed the point by invoking the drawdown of US forces in Iraq by President Barack Obama, whom Trump despises.
No matter what President Trump is saying about his decision, it is EXACTLY what President Obama did in Iraq with even more disastrous consequences for our national security.
Unlike President Obama, I hope President Trump will reassess and take sound military advice.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) October 7, 2019
Graham told Fox, “I will do everything I can to sanction Turkey if they step one foot in northeastern Syria,” and said he would introduce a non-binding resolution in the Senate asking Trump to reverse the “shortsighted and irresponsible” order.
He then drove a stake through Trump’s main contention, “ISIS is not defeated. This is the biggest lie being told by this administration,”
Sen. Marco Rubio criticized “a grave mistake that will have implications far beyond Syria”, and Sen. Mitt Romney, spoke of the “betrayal” of the Kurds “in the face of an assault by Turkey”. Rep. Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, declared “a catastrophic mistake”.
Former high-ranking US officials joined the furious reaction. Nikki Haley, who was Trump’s Ambassador to the UN, tweeted:
We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back. The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake. #TurkeyIsNotOurFriend
— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) October 7, 2019
And Brett McGurk, who resigned as US envoy for the anti-ISIS campaign after Trump’s withdrawal order last December, posted an essay via Twitter which concluded:
Bottom line: These are matters of war and peace, life and death. Our military personnel, friends and allies, deserve deliberation and thought before decisions are made (the essence of “command”). Erratic swings favor far more patient adversaries in Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran.
— Brett McGurk (@brett_mcgurk) October 7, 2019
Trump: “My Great and Unmatched Wisdom”
In October 2015 the US created the Syrian Democratic Forces, in which the Kurdish YPG is the leading element, to defeat the Islamic State after ISIS failed in a months-long campaign to overrun the Kurdish canton of Kobani.
But Ankara considers the YPG and the Syrian Kurdistan Democratic Union Party to be part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK, which has fought Ankara’s security forces for 35 years.
After months of tension and negotiation following Trump’s December order, Turkey and the US agreed on oversight of the “safe zone” in northeast Syria. However, the two sides did not clarify the depth of the zone — Turkey wants 30 km (19 miles) while the US has proposed 15 km — or the operational command of the patrols.Over the past week, Erdoğan, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar stepped up demands that the US accede to the Turkish conception of the zone and military operations.
White House aides insisted that Trump told Erdoğan in their Sunday call that he did not support Turkish cross-border operations. Trump, having effectively conceded to Turkish demands, postured on Twitter:
….the captured ISIS fighters and families. The U.S. has done far more than anyone could have ever expected, including the capture of 100% of the ISIS Caliphate. It is time now for others in the region, some of great wealth, to protect their own territory. THE USA IS GREAT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2019
He pushed aside the Kurdish groups allied with the US against ISIS: “The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so.”
Meanwhile, Turkish warplanes bombed a gate on the Syria-Iraq border, claiming that they were hitting “PKK-linked targets”, and kept up pressure on Washington. Daily Sabah, linked to the Government, headlined, “US Continues to Dispatch Military Aid to YPG/PKK in Syria, Footage Shows”.