Trump is Betraying more than just the Kurds of North and East Syria

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.

By Kevin T. Mason

In early September 2014, a small group of local men and women fighting under the banner of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) held block after block of ruined Kobane cityscape in northern Syria from an Islamic State at its zenith, while the Turkish military watched on from across the border. Every day that the defenders of Kobane held their ground added a drop of immeasurable hope to those resisting elsewhere. The heroic defense would eventually garner international media attention after the city miraculously held on, day after day. Gradually, though, the superior equipment of ISIS, looted from Syrian and Iraqi military bases, wore the defenders down.

In late September 2014, the U.S.-led Global Coalition made a pivotal decision to begin a bombing campaign against ISIS in coordination with the city’s defenders. The decision to directly intervene by providing air support (and pressuring Turkey to allow reinforcements from Iraqi Kurdistan) marked a turning point – not just in the Battle of Kobane, but in the broader war against ISIS. This direct intervention by the Coalition to prevent a massacre in Kobane inadvertently began the most successful “by, with, and through” partnership the U.S. has undertaken in recent history.

Fast forward to 9 October 2019. Just over five years since the beginning of Coalition airstrikes that helped break the ISIS siege of Kobane, the city is again reeling from intense aerial bombardment. In a cruel twist of fate, now it is Kobane’s defenders who fear the sounds of aircraft as the Turkish Air Force flies overhead and U.S. forces watch on impotently.

Despite the effectiveness and eventual success of the anti-ISIS partnership between the US-led Global Coalition and the YPG – later folded into the broader structure of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the YPG were by no means America’s first choice. Turkey, a NATO ally, considers the YPG to be a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish party that initiated armed struggle against the Turkish state in 1984 in response to Turkey’s policies of persecution of the Kurdish people which included denial of Kurdish identity and a ban on the Kurdish language. For the U.S., partnering with Turkey against ISIS would have been the obvious choice, avoiding the complicated internal politics in the region. Turkey, however, was more concerned with the presence of the YPG on its southern border than with ISIS building a hub for global terror. The flow of supplies and fighters across Turkey’s border with the Caliphate remained largely unrestricted. Turkey was happy to watch on as the extremist group swept through North and East Syria, subjugating or destroying all in its wake, and doing the dirty work of wiping out the YPG without the Turkish military having to lift a finger. The U.S., lacking an effective or willing alternative partner in the campaign against ISIS, made the decision to press forward with the YPG despite Turkish protests and sort out the contradictions of its policy later. Later has come. Rather than ensuring the security of North and East Syria (NES), the territory democratically governed by the SDF’s political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council, and bringing Turkey to the negotiating table, President Trump has unilaterally decided, for expediency or self-interest, to pay Erdogan with the blood of the people of NES.

In contradiction with virtually every recommendation of the Congressional Syria Study Group Final Report released in September, without consulting his advisors, the Departments of State and Defense, and without warning the SDF, President Trump announced the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from the NES/Turkish border and greenlit a Turkish invasion following a phone call with Erdogan. The U.S. have reluctantly found themselves in the most successful “by, with, through” partnership perhaps ever – an effective local partner force instituting a democratic, egalitarian governance structure open to compromise – and are throwing it away to maintain a relationship with an undemocratic, authoritarian regime manipulating a difficult U.S. position and the weakness of the U.S. President. In doing so, Trump has single-handedly thrown away one of the most effective local military partnerships in modern U.S. history and approve the destruction of a democratic, egalitarian success story in favor of an undemocratic, authoritarian regime that time and time again chooses manipulation, open threats, and brute force to exploit the weakness of the U.S. President and the difficulty of the U.S. position in the region.

The SDF were never under the illusion that the U.S. would stay in the region indefinitely – nor is this even their desired outcome. They did, however, hold the reasonable expectation based on repeated assurances by Pentagon officials that they would not be left out in cold. In good faith, the SDF committed to the security mechanism designed jointly with the U.S. and Turkey to help ease tensions along the border. This included the demolition of defensive fortifications and the removal of heavy weaponry from the border on the NES side. Although knowing it would put them at a marked disadvantage in any potential conflict, the SDF fulfilled their commitments. The U.S. and Turkey did not.

North and East Syria is home to a diverse population of ethnic and religious minorities who, due to Turkish aggression, find themselves in danger yet again. The cities of Tel Abyad and Qamishli were founded by survivors of the Ottoman committed Armenian and Syriac Genocides of 1915. Yazidi, Christian, and Chechen villages lay just south of Ras al-Ayn, one of the targets of current Turkish shelling. Tel Khatun, a Yazidi village to the east of Qamishli, has already been evacuated due to shelling. Turkmen villages to the south of Tel Abyad have been bombed and deserted. An elderly Yazidi couple was killed in Kobane when a shell struck their home. The Christian neighborhood of Qamishli has been the target of indiscriminate shelling, resulting in civilian deaths and casualties. North and East Syria is also home to hundreds-of-thousands of IDPs from all over Syria, many of the most recently arrived having come from Afrin, the target of Turkey’s previous operation of “peace”. The UN has stated that they are “preparing for the worst” with an estimated 100,000 civilians already displaced. Heyva Sor, the Kurdish Red Cross, puts these estimates even higher, at close to 200,000 displaced in just the first 48 hours of the attack.

The defensive forces of North and East Syria are as diverse as its population. The men and women of the Christian Syriac Military Council (MFS) have once again taken up arms at the frontlines, alongside the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and the Civil Defense Forces (HPC) – a reserve militia force comprised of citizens from all ethnicities and religious backgrounds. The entirely Arab Deir ez-Zor Military Council (DMC) has announced that they are moving units north to help repel the Turkish invasion. The diverse Manbij Military Council (MMC) made up of Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, and Turkmen, while not in direct conflict with Turkish Security Forces, routinely clash with elements of the Turkish-backed and directed Syrian National Army (SNA). Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (not to be confused with the SNA), along with the myriad of Iranian backed militias supporting the regime, have been more than happy to take advantage of the situation and try to exploit the weakened position of the SDF in order to reconquer Manbij and the rich oil fields east of the Euphrates.

Though they have fought alongside Coalition forces, particularly those of the U.S., the SDF and its predecessors have not fought on behalf of the U.S. They are not mercenaries. They are fighting for their families, for their homes, and for freedom. Freedom from the oppression of governments and groups who, time and again, have sought to pit neighbor against neighbor in order to establish power for themselves. Freedom from the kind of sectarian “divide and conquer” tactics that have empowered dictators and led to the rise of groups like ISIS. Although the threat to the U.S. and E.U. from ISIS is real, it poses an even greater threat to the people of NES. Despite being (hopefully temporarily) thrown to the Turkish wolves, the SDF has resumed joint patrols with U.S. forces south of the line of contact with Turkey and continues to guard the many prisons holding ISIS fighters and the camp of ISIS families at al-Hawl.

While the lack of capable or willing partners in the fight against ISIS precipitated the SDF – Coalition partnership, it was the earned trust and shared values on both sides that solidified the bond. The near unanimous condemnation of President Trump’s abrupt policy shift, and its characterization as a betrayal, reflects the strong connection between people in the U.S./E.U. and the people of NES. Both political aisles, people from all walks of life, the Pentagon from the bottom to the top: We all know what a catastrophic mistake and injustice is being committed. If we allow Erdogan’s Turkey to go through with its goals of ethnically cleansing a diverse and democratic region, we will have let it happen for the sake of one man’s greed and incompetence.

Over 11,000 men and women from North and East Syria, most in their early 20s or younger, didn’t give their lives to protect the interests of the U.S. Government. Roughly twice that number didn’t suffer debilitating wounds to safeguard the people of the U.S. or E.U. Nor did they forgo education and employment for conquest or religion or statehood. They fought, and still fight, for a chance at a dignified life and a lasting peace, one of tolerance, acceptance, and freedom.

And that is precisely why they are deserving of international support.

Mr. Mason is a MENA Expert specializing in North and East Syria. He can be reached at kevin@pillars.consulting