Defying Pentagon, Trump Endorses Turkish Operation in Syria

The move caught senior defense officials by surprise.

A Syrian boy watches as Turkish military vehicles, part of a U.S. military convoy, take part in joint patrol in the Syrian village of Hashisha on the outskirts of Tell Abyad town along the border with Turkey on Oct. 4.
A Syrian boy watches as Turkish military vehicles, part of a U.S. military convoy, take part in joint patrol in the Syrian village of Hashisha on the outskirts of Tell Abyad town along the border with Turkey on Oct. 4. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Defying the advice of top defense officials, U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday endorsed a Turkish military operation into northern Syria, paving the way for a bloody assault on the Kurdish minority population there and a possible resurgence of the Islamic State.

U.S. troops have now left the border area after the abrupt shift in policy, which came after a phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this weekend. U.S. defense officials had sought to maintain a small American presence in the region to continue operations against the Islamic State terrorist group and safeguard the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against repeated threats of a Turkish invasion. 

But their recommendations seem to have fallen on deaf ears. 

“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area,” according to a White House statement.

The decision to move U.S. troops out of the way is broadly seen as Trump giving Erdogan a green light to move into Northern Syria. But administration officials pushed back on the characterization that the White House statement endorses Turkish military action.

“The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey–as did the President–that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria,” said Chief Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, noting that Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley “reiterated to their respective Turkish counterparts that unilateral action creates risks for Turkey.”

But officials say the decision caught the Pentagon by surprise. Just last week, Esper told reporters the U.S. and Turkish militaries were making progress setting up a security mechanism on Turkey’s border with northeast Syria, continuing joint patrols that began last month. 

Senior Pentagon leaders were unanimous in opposing the move, said one senior administration official who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive discussions.

“We were concerned, but we didn’t think [Trump] would give in,” said the official. “The entire DOD leadership was opposed to the endorsement and the withdrawal.”

The move also caught the Kurds off guard. Ahed Al Hendi, an analyst close to the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the SDF, said the State Department reassured the group’s leader in a phone call ahead of the White House announcement that Turkey would not attack the Kurds. Now, U.S. troops have left the border area from Tell Abyad to Ras al-Ain, and Turkey is “on the ready,” Hendi said.  

“It was surprising for everyone,” he added. “All the U.S. monitoring points were evacuated.”

In a series of tweets Monday, Trump doubled down on the decision and promised to bring U.S. troops home. He acknowledged the Kurds’ role in the Islamic State fight but said they “were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so.”

“It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home,” Trump tweeted. “We are 7000 miles away and will crush ISIS again if they come anywhere near us!”

A DOD official said Esper and Milley were in contact over the weekend with the president and the White House national security team, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. Esper will be reaching out to affected allies and partners, including lawmakers, the official said. When asked if those allies include the SDF, the official declined to provide an answer.

But officials fear Trump’s impetuous decision will open the door for the Islamic State to stage a comeback. Indeed, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali reportedly said Monday following the announcement that the group has been forced to withdraw some of its forces guarding ISIS detainees “to face the Turkish invasion.”

“Turkey has just overturned two years of effort to defeat ISIS,” the administration official said.

Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Carla Gleason said Monday that the Combined Air Operations Center, the command-and-control center for Middle East air operations, has pulled Turkey off the air tasking order and halted Ankara’s access to surveillance information. This means Turkey is effectively cut out of the air space along the border with Syria, making a coordinated attack difficult.

U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds has been a major source of tension between Ankara and Washington since the U.S. military began arming the group in 2014. The military arm of the SDF is led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a mostly Kurdish militia that Ankara views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey. 

Erdogan has long pushed for the establishment of a Turkish-controlled “safe zone” along the Turkish-Syrian border to drive back the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which makes up the backbone of the U.S.-backed SDF responsible for liberating the country from the Islamic State. U.S. officials have in recent weeks worked to implement a security mechanism designed to both satisfy Turkey and reassure the Kurds against Erdogan’s repeated threats of a military assault. But Erdogan has recently expressed his frustration with efforts to implement the agreement. 

A senior administration official told reporters late Monday that the president learned of Turkey’s intended actions in Syria, including a military operation and possibly efforts to resettle Syrian refugees, on Sunday. The president decided to move the “50 to 100” U.S. special operators near the border out of the area so they should not be in danger if fighting breaks out between the Turks and the Kurds, the official said.

“This does not constitute a withdraw from Syria,” the official stressed. “We’re talking about a small number of troops that will move to other bases within Syria.”

Without a U.S. presence at the border, the Kurds fear the Turks and their proxy forces will sweep into northeast Syria and massacre civilians, as they did last year in a bloody campaign in the northwest town of Afrin. 

“If they can, they will go to Damascus,” Ilham Ahmed, a co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, told Foreign Policy through an interpreter in a recent interview in Washington.

The senior administration official told reporters that Trump has warned Turkey not to attack the Kurds, and referred to an earlier presidential tweet saying he is prepared to “obliterate the economy of Turkey” if such an attack occurs. “I don’t have any information that would suggest” that Turkey will take such such action, the official said.

But in a sign of a coming humanitarian crisis, the United Nations on Monday called on Turkey to spare civilians. The United Nations currently delivers aid to 700,000 people in northeast Syria. 

This is not the first time Trump has signaled he would abandon the Kurds. In a move that prompted the resignation of then-Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, then-envoy for the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State, Trump in December 2018 announced that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, a decision he has since partially reversed. In a January tweet that officials later walked back, Trump even promised Erdogan control of a 20-mile safe zone on the border. 

Since the tweet, the U.S. military has drawn down from about 2,000 to roughly 1,000 forces in Syria, the DOD official said, including approximately 150 troops at the al-Tanf garrison, a remote base in southeastern Syria near the border with Jordan, and the rest throughout the northeast part of the country.

“Our ultimate goal is to get American troops from the Middle East and to let the parties in the region determine their own future,” said the senior administration official speaking to reporters on Monday. “But this is not the time for any such move right now.  We’re moving 50 troops within Syria.”

McGurk slammed the latest decision in a withering Sunday tweet. 

“Donald Trump is not a Commander-in-Chief. He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation. He sends military personnel into harm’s way with no backing. He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call,” McGurk wrote. 

More than anything, the U.S. move allows “Trump to return to his original decision of completely withdrawing from Syria,” Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, told Foreign Policy

“He does not see Syria as having any strategic value for the U.S. He also did not want to risk totally alienating Turkey at a time when the containment policy towards Iran has reached a critical stage. Ultimately, Trump was forced by Erdogan to choose between Turkey and [Kurdish party] PYD,” he added. Trump, it appears, has chosen Turkey.

Since the security mechanism—which involves joint U.S. and Turkish ground and aerial patrols between the Syrian border towns of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain—was established earlier this month, officials say the SDF has kept to its side of the bargain. YPG fighters have surrendered the area to local security forces, removed fortifications and tunnels on the border, and withdrawn heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery 12 miles, according to Ahmed. 

In a statement, the SDF accused Washington of betraying its ally: “Despite all the efforts we did to avoid conflict, our commitment to the security mechanism agreement and taking necessary steps on our end, the US forces did not carry out their responsibilities and have withdrawn from border areas with Turkey.” 

In the Sunday statement, the White House also announced that Turkey will now be responsible for Islamic State fighters in northern Syria captured in the wake of the defeat of the caliphate. Until now, the SDF has been guarding the overflowing prisons, which contain fighters from all over the world who traveled to Syria to join the militant group. For the most part, European nations have refused to repatriate their citizens. 

Officials are also concerned that camps across Syria overflowing with refugees who have been displaced by the fight against the Islamic State and the Syrian civil war are hotbeds for extremism. 

“Turkey has neither the intent, desire, nor capacity to manage 60k detainees in al Hol camp, which State and DoD IGs warn is the nucleus for a resurgent ISIS,” wrote McGurk.

Update, Oct. 7, 2019: This article was updated to include statements from U.S. President Donald Trump, the SDF spokesman, Chief Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, and comments from a DOD spokesperson.

Update, Oct. 8, 2019: This article was updated to include comments from a senior administration official. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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