Turkey invades Kurdish Syria, as US backs off

Oct 11, 2019 | AIJAC staff

Turkey invades Syria: Turkish Armed Forces' howitzers deploy across the border near the  Kurdish-held Syrian town of Tell Abyad (Image: GETTY).
Turkey invades Syria: Turkish Armed Forces' howitzers deploy across the border near the Kurdish-held Syrian town of Tell Abyad (Image: GETTY).

Update from AIJAC


10/19 #01

This Update deals with the consequences of the Turkish invasion of Kurdish-controlled northern Syria over the last few days, and its effective green-lighting by US President Donald Trump earlier this week.

We lead with a discussion of the possible consequences, for the Kurds, for Syria, for the fight against Islamic State, and for the regional situation from top Israeli academic expert Jonathan Spyer.  The piece was written before the invasion got into full swing, but Spyer speaks from personal experience, having visited Kurdish-controlled Syria in the past and met Syrian Kurdish leaders more recently. Spyer predicts large movements of populations, the possible completion of Iran’s planned “land bridge” across the Middle East, and the confirmation of a general perception across the region that the US Administration is becoming disinterested in what happens there, and focused solely on ending its commitments and retreating. For all the details of Spyer’s concerning analysis, CLICK HERE. Subsequent to the Turkish invasion beginning, Spyer also did an insightful interview with the Times of Israel focussed mainly on the mass population displacements likely to occur.

Next up are two American experts on Turkey, Eric Edelman and Aykan Erdemir, a former US Ambassador to Turkey and a former Turkish parliamentarian, respectively. They focus on the consequences for US credibility and Washington’s ability to achieve its foreign policy goals of the Trump Administration’s decision to, in their view, “reward a fellow NATO member for behaving badly.” They believe the consequences could be very negative and “will create a vacuum that Moscow and Tehran will be only too willing to fill, doing lasting damage to the interests of the United States and its European allies.” For their full analysis of why,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, we offer some good analysis of the Israeli response to these developments, from Herb Keinon, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.  In short, he notes that Israeli leaders are both unhappy and fearful regarding the US decision to wash its hands of Syria, because, amongst other reasons, it leaves a power vacuum likely to be filled by Israel’s enemies, and other US allies may now be forced to look elsewhere for security. He goes on to quote some Israeli experts and officials on the subject. For the rest of what he has to say,  CLICK HERE. More on the Israeli response comes from a New York Times piece by David Halbfinger quoting numerous Israeli experts and officials.

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Some Further Thoughts on the Situation in Northern Syria

Jonathan Spyer

Jonathanspyer.com, Posted on October 9, 2019

Turkey’s invasion plans for Kurdish Syria – now underway (Map Source: The Sun). 

The way appears to have been cleared for an invasion of northeast Syria by Turkey and its allied Sunni Islamist militias.

If such an invasion takes place, it will end one of the more successful partnerships achieved by US military diplomacy in recent years – namely that between the United States Armed Forces and the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG).  It will also have profound implications, both strategic and tactical, for the US in the Middle East, and for the strategic balance in the region as a whole.

In June, I sat with a senior Syrian Kurdish official in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Suleymaniya.  Did he expect, I asked him, that US forces would withdraw from the area under de facto joint US-Kurdish control?  The man’s answer avoided emotionalism or rhetoric.  ‘I don’t know. We hope not. But they may well leave,’ he said, before adding:  ‘If they do, we have made it clear that the following day we will make a deal with the regime.’

In April 2017, I asked a Palestinian activist supporter of the Syrian regime in Aleppo how Damascus would secure the return of the lands then and currently under the control of the Syrian Kurds and the US.  ‘We don’t know,’ was his honest reply.  ‘But we know that we will be returning there.’

Both men now have an answer to the questions that were perplexing them.  Only the regime supporter is likely to be pleased with the outcome.

If Turkish and allied forces enter northern Syria, the immediate Kurdish concern will be at the prospect of widespread ethnic cleansing.  The fear is well founded.  Around 200,000 Syrian Kurds fled the advancing Turkish army and its Sunni allies when Erdogan destroyed the Kurdish Afrin canton in north-west Syria in January, 2018.  The Kurds expect that a repeat of this operation on a larger scale is currently brewing to the east.

To avoid it, they are likely (as my interlocutor in Suleimania suggested) to permit the Russians, the Assad regime and its Iranian allies to enter the areas presently under their control.

There is no love lost whatsoever between the Assad regime and the Syrian Kurds. But Assad, the Russians and the Iranians have no interest in a large scale ethnic cleansing of Kurds, of the type a Turkish invasion is likely to produce.

Following the US announcement, there were already reports of a movement of regime and Russian forces toward the city of Manbij.  An unseemly race for the spoils between the regime/Russians/Iranians and the Turks/jihadis appears set to start.  The latest confused reports from the area suggest that a Turkish force has already penetrated the border in the Tel Abyad-Ras al-Ain area.  ISIS, meanwhile, has emerged in Raqqa and is attacking SDF positions in the city.

Should the southern part of the area east of the Euphrates fall to the regime and its allies, the result will be the consolidation by Iran of its ‘land bridge’ from the Iraq-Iran border to Lebanon, the Mediterranean and the border with Israel.  With pro-Iranian militias currently suppressing dissent in Baghdad, this will leave the Iran-led regional alliance as the major victor of the turbulent events in the Levant over the last decade.

A large movement of populations is a real possibility.  At the UN General Assembly, President Recep Tayepp Erdogan declared his intention of creating a ‘safe zone’ stretching eventually to a line between Raqqa and Deir e Zur, around fifty miles into Syria.

Syrian President Recep Tayepp Erdogan says he is seeking a “safe zone” up to 80 kilometres into Syia – which he plans to fill with millions of refugees. 

Such an area, Erdogan suggested, would enable the resettlement of up to 2 million Syrian refugees.  Life for the remaining Kurds in Turkish-controlled Afrin (200,000 have been displaced) has become a daily round of humiliations at the hands of the thuggish Islamist groups who are the allies of the Turks in the area.  If Turkey seizes control of areas close to the border such as Kobane, Amude and even the city of Qamishli, (all within the area proposed by Erdogan) Kurds are likely to head south in large numbers to the areas set to come under regime control, or east towards Iraqi Kurdistan, on the other side of the Tigris River.

The fate of the 60,000 ISIS prisoners currently held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, should also be considered.  The Kurdish-led SDF was holding these captives as part of their alliance with the US. That alliance has just been pronounced dead. The SDF looks set to be about to fight an advancing Turkish army – a project for which, it may be presumed, it will be in need of all available personnel.

Can Turkey, whose own relationship in recent years with ISIS  included verified episodes of collusion, be trusted with the task of holding these individuals in continued captivity, pending some future legal process?  The record would suggest otherwise.

This US decision brings to an end any lingering hopes that the Trump Administration intended to pursue a coherent, region-wide policy to contain and turn back Iranian expansion – or more broadly to reward friends and punish enemies.

The signs had been accumulating over the summer.  The failure to respond to the Iranian downing of the RQ-4A Global Hawk drone over the Gulf in June, the departure of hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton, the failure to act against the attacks on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in September, and then the sudden overtures to President Rouhani of Iran in early October all suggested an absence of focus or interest on this matter.

The apparently imminent abandonment of eastern Syria will confirm it.  In the Middle East, this Administration does not want to win. It wants out.   Enemies of the US will certainly be taking note. Allies, potential and existing, will do so too.

It is, of course, not too late for the US to reverse course. Hopefully, this will happen. All efforts should be made in that regard. The scenarios discussed above are conditional on no such reversing of direction taking place.Trump’s

Trump’s Capitulation to Erdogan Destroys U.S. Credibility

By abandoning America’s Kurdish partners in Syria, the White House has sent a message to allies everywhere that Washington can’t be trusted.

By Eric S. Edelman, Aykan Erdemir

Foreign Policy, OCTOBER 8, 2019

Trump’s tolerance of Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish Syria rewards a fellow NATO member for behaving badly (Image: AFP/Getty)


History repeats itself, as Karl Marx once wrote, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” In a farcical return to the chaos that resulted from a December 2018 phone call between the U.S. and Turkish presidents, Donald Trump has once again announced the pullback of U.S. forces in northeastern Syria, sending Washington’s entire policy establishment into damage control mode.

To prove he was not pushed around by or caving into the demands of Turkey’s Islamist strongman, Trump then tweeted threats to “totally destroy and obliterate” the Turkish economy, echoing his tweet to “devastate Turkey economically” the last time around. So far, the only thing he seems to have destroyed is U.S. credibility in the Middle East and beyond.

Trump’s latest move rewards a fellow NATO member for behaving badly, as he has done multiple times before when dealing with Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has held U.S. citizens and State Department employees hostage, helped Iran evade U.S. sanctions at the height of Washington’s efforts to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions between 2012 and 2014, and most recently procured the Russian-made S-400 air defense system despite frequent warnings against doing so.

So far, Erdogan has miraculously walked away without any major diplomatic pushback, sanctions, or fines from the United States owing to an inexplicable leniency that belies Trump’s tough talk. Even as the U.S. president was reinforcing his Turkish counterpart’s sense of impunity, he was selling out the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), comprising Syrian Kurds, Arabs, Syriac Christians, and Yazidis who have been key partners in defeating the Islamic State while sacrificing more than 11,000 of their soldiers in the effort.

Trump’s hasty action risks undermining all the gains that U.S. special operations forces and their SDF partners have secured to defeat the Islamic State. A recent report by the U.S. Defense Department inspector general warned that the Islamic State “solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria.” There are further credible reports of Islamic State efforts “to replenish its ranks from members held in detention facilities.”

Given that these terrorist detainees are dispersed in a number of facilities, some of which are deep in Syrian territory, there is no way that Turkish troops and their proxies can take control of such facilities from the SDF in an orderly fashion. The logical result of the inevitable clashes between Turkey and the SDF will be a redeployment of SDF forces from the detention facilities to the front lines, leading inevitably to mass prison escapes and an Islamic State resurgence. If the Islamic State makes a comeback, triggering attacks not only in the Middle East but also in Europe and the continental United States, this will all be laid rightly at Trump’s doorstep.

The humanitarian consequences will be no less worrisome. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom warned in its 2019 annual report that any planned withdrawal from northeastern Syria should be “conducted in such a manner that will not negatively impact the rights and survival of vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities,” a message the commission reiterated following Trump’s latest announcement.

Turkey’s Islamist proxies in Afrin, which took control of the area following Turkey’s cross-border operation into northern Syria in 2018, have been implicated in numerous human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities in the city—violations almost certain to be replicated in northeastern Syria.

The humanitarian consequences of Turkey’s action appear dire:  Civilians flee with their belongings amid Turkish bombardment on Syria’s northeastern town of Ras al-Ain on October 9, 2019. (Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP)

Erdogan’s plans for demographic engineering in the region are a further recipe for disaster. The Turkish president announced at the United Nations General Assembly that he intends to settle up to 3 million mainly Arab Syrian refugees in northeastern Syria as part of a sinister attempt to turn Kurdish-majority areas into Arab-majority ones. Such a blatant manipulation of the regional ethnic balance is certain to fuel inter-communal tensions and violence in decades to come, further sowing the seeds of hatred and enmity in a region already seething with more than its fair share of prejudices and grievances.

An important word of caution about the sinister motivations behind Erdogan’s Syria plans could have come from Turkey’s pro-secular opposition bloc, which succeeded in defeating Erdogan in the recent municipal elections in Ankara and Istanbul. But Trump’s threats to destroy and obliterate Turkey’s economy have effectively gagged the opposition.

Erdogan instead benefits from a rally-round-the-flag effect in advance of an anticipated military incursion into Syria and activation of anti-American sentiment that bolsters a government badly scathed by the recent economic downturnelection defeat, and defections of some of the founding figures of the ruling party. Trump’s bewildering rhetoric and policy zigzags have not only hurt the prospects for secular political forces on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border; the president has also offered a lifeline to struggling Islamists there.

Trump’s Syria tactics have hurt the United States as much as its partners. The latest abandoning of U.S. allies has solidified an already widespread belief in the Middle East and beyond that the United States is not a reliable ally. As Russia and Iran offer the Syrian theater as proof that they are reliable partners that will stand by their allies, state and nonstate actors will pivot from Washington toward Moscow and Tehran as part of an attempt to hedge their foreign and security policies.

Trump’s willingness to yield in the face of Erdogan’s threats will create a vacuum that Moscow and Tehran will be only too willing to fill, doing lasting damage to the interests of the United States and its European allies. There is no better time to remind Trump that what’s at stake is not just the future of Syria but the fate of the region and Washington’s credibility as an ally.

Eric S. Edelman is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He was U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2003 to 2005 and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2005 to 2009. Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He was a member of the Turkish parliament representing the Republican People’s Party (CHP) from 2011 to 2015. Twitter: @aykan_erdemir

Diplomatic Affairs: Unhappy and fearful

Jerusalem Post, 10/10/2019

Israel is unhappy – even fearful – of this move for other reasons.

US President Donald Trump – shown speaking at the White House on Wednesday – tweeted that Russia and China were the country’s most unhappy with his Syria withdrawal. He might have added Israel to the list, Keinon argues. (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS). 

President Donald Trump – characteristically – took to Twitter on Monday to explain his abrupt decision to withdraw US troops from northeastern Syria and abandon his Kurdish allies there to the mercy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“The two most unhappy countries at this move are Russia & China, because they love seeing us bogged down, watching over a quagmire, & spending big dollars to do so,” he wrote.

Trump could very well have added Israel to this list of countries unhappy with the move, not – of course – because it wants to see the US bogged down in the Syrian quagmire. On the contrary, Israel’s interest is for the US to remain strong and powerful and internationally respected and able to project power abroad. It has no interest in seeing a weakened US mired in the mud anywhere in the Mideast, or elsewhere.

No, Israel is unhappy – even fearful – of this move for other reasons. First, it is fearful because of the vacuum that is created when the US pulls out. Vacuums in the Middle East are always filled, and generally – as was the case when Russia became militarily involved in the Syrian civil war in 2015, a move facilitated by Washington’s own hesitance to get involved – not by actors for whom Israel’s interests are their concerns.

Second, it is concerned that the abandonment of the Kurds will lead other US allies in the region – like Saudi Arabia and Egypt – to look elsewhere for protection. Saudi Arabia is already reportedly in clandestine talks with its archrival, Iran; and Egypt, as it has done in the past, may cast its eyes increasingly toward Moscow. One thing that Moscow’s involvement in Syria shows – including its willingness to sacrifice men and invest billions of dollars there – is that it backs its allies to the hilt, come what may.

Third, Israel is concerned that abandoning the northeastern corridor of Syria will pave the way for Iran’s long-desired land corridor and supply route from Tehran to Beirut, as the Kurdish presence there thwarted that supply line. Many of Israel’s reported actions in Syria over the last few years have been to block the transfer of game-changing weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. A Syria-to-Lebanon land route will now make that even more difficult.

Fourth, Israel is concerned that the abandonment of the Kurds will push them into the arms of Syrian President Bashar Assad, further strengthening him. A strong Assad at this point is not in Israel’s interest, because of his alliance with Iran. A strong Assad means it will be easier for Iran to entrench itself there.

BUT JERUSALEM is not only fearful of the move, it is also internalizing the message it sends.

As Eran Lerman, a former deputy head of the National Security Council, put it: “What this means for us is that it is a good thing that we can defend ourselves when we need to, because to rely on anyone – including our dear and devoted friends in Washington – is to risk ending up like the Yazidis and the Kurds.”

The message Jerusalem is taking from this decision – one made by a very friendly and understanding administration – is that Washington may support it at the UN, may continue to give it considerable financial assistance for weaponry, may not push it on the Palestinian issue, and may give it diplomatic backing when it takes military action to protect itself, but when it comes to the actual use of military force – say, for example, against Iran – Israel is on its own.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “Israel defends itself, by itself” (Photo: Alex Kolomoisky)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at a Yom Kippur War memorial ceremony on Thursday, made clear that this message was received in Jerusalem loud and clear.

“We do not aspire to be ‘a nation that dwells alone,’ but that is how we were forced to stand at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War,” he said, noting that American assistance arrived only toward the end of the war.

“As in 1973, we also very much appreciate the United States’ important support, which has greatly increased over the years, and also the United States’ enormous economic pressure it is exerting on Iran,” he said. But, he added, “we always remember and apply the basic principle that guides us: Israel will defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”

Netanyahu, who has said repeatedly over the last number of years that Trump is the most friendly US president Israel has ever worked with, was careful not to criticize the president. In fact, during his words at the ceremony, he did not even mention the US move, but the context of his comment was clear: the US withdrawal from Syria – and the abandonment of allies that fought alongside the US for years – just highlights the need for this country to be able to stand alone.

AND WHAT does this say about Trump’s relationship with Israel? Does this mean that he no longer is Israel’s “best friend,” and that critics of the Trump-Netanyahu relationship were right: that the unpredictable inhabitant of the Oval Office will turn on Israel on a dime?

One former senior official said that Trump likely does not connect his steps in northeastern Syria to Israel, and separates withdrawing the US forces – as well as Erdogan’s antisemitism and deep hostility toward Israel – from his own policies toward the Jewish state.

In other words, this decision – in Trump’s mind – has nothing to do with Israel. Rather, as Lerman – today vice president at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security – put it, this “has to do with America under Trump trying to farm out things to others that have long been America’s responsibility. And when the Europeans are not willing to take on northern Syria, then he thinks maybe the Turks will.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, when asked in a KAN Bet radio interview on Thursday whether Trump can still be considered Israel’s best friend, counseled humility, saying that it is not Israel’s role to “sit in the balcony and give him [Trump] grades every day and declare whether he has passed our test or not.”

Erdan said that Trump’s commitment to Israel and its security is evident in a number of unprecedented steps the president has taken. Though he didn’t spell them out, what government officials generally tick off in this regard is Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and decision to move the embassy there; recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights; withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal and clamping huge sanctions on Iran; and giving Israel unprecedented backing at the United Nations and in other international fora.

But, Erdan said, the West’s – and the United States’ – treatment of the Kurds leaves much to be desired.

“A situation needs to be created where they [the Kurds] do not feel abandoned,” he said, adding that he would certainly not want to see Erdogan – whom he described as an “antisemitic racist who supports terrorism” – slaughter the Kurds “without us making a moral voice heard and calling on the world to stop it. We can’t stay indifferent on this.”

And that, at this point, is as far as Israeli government officials will go in publicly criticizing a move by Trump that, privately, they view as a colossal and dangerous mistake.


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