Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan briefly met his US counterpart Donald Trump in New York, September 25, 2018. Photo: AA / social media
My interview with journalist Ashraf Binandeh from Kurds Press kurdspress.com in the aftermath of President Trump’s declaration to Turkey’s Erdogan that “Syria is all yours now.”
Q: How do you explain Trump’s decision regarding the U.S. exiting Syria?
There are various elements, which we must consider, while weighing President Trump’s decision to pull out the U.S. troops from Syria.
Firstly, it is very strange that President Trump would listen to one Islamic leader [Turkey’s President Erdogan] as opposed to his Secretary of Department of Defense, General Mattis, his senior military advisors, as well as senators, who submit the bipartisan letter asking him to reverse his decision.
Secondly, it is also very strange that President Trump would falsely claim that ISIS was decimated, while Operation Inherent Resolve [CJFTOIR] is still striking ISIS in Syria. Just a day ago, they published a video about their latest strikes on their Twitter account.
Furthermore, the terrorist group Al-Qaeda continues to preserve its stronghold in Idlib – since 2011 – under Turkey’s protectorate, while the Syrians, the Turks, the Iranians and the Russians all know this and haven’t campaigned against Qaeda. Why do they want to preserve terrorists in a Northern Syrian city? What is the purpose? Why didn’t Erdogan decimate Al-Qaeda? Was his plan since the beginning to use them against the SDF and U.S. troops?
These questions remain unanswered.
Fourth, President Trump’s timing, which is fully surprising to his own advisors [Mr. Bolton and General Mattis], the US envoy to Syria Mr. James Jeffrey, the Special US Envoy Brett McGurk and the many US Army generals, recently assured the Syrian Democratic Forces, that the U.S. troops are staying in Syria – not only till ISIS is defeated, but till Iran leaves. They [the SDF and the U.S, Army] were coordinating to execute plans to achieve this aim.
Fifth, the resignation of General Mattis, which ended with Trump even firing this Marines icon, leading to an extremely infuriated U.S. Army and Veterans. Other factors such as the resignation of Special US Envoy McGurk, the reaction of Israel, which feels endangered, and the coalition partners such as France, UK, Germany, who expressed their surprise and deception. All this is further proof that Trump’s decision is personal and spontaneous.
Moreover, this occurred at a time, when President Trump was insisting that he would do anything to get the wall funded, which he wants to build along the Mexican borders, in order to keep the promises he made to his base, because his support is shrinking. Also, during his electoral campaign, he requested the isolation of the U.S., based on information from dubious media outlets and senators. This could have been tantamount for his decision, as all his requests – as a President and Commander in Chief – were being rejected by his own advisors and environment.
Q: Is there any deal between Trump and Erdogan?
It may sound strange, but I personally think, that Trump’s decision was 1) spontaneous, 2) out of spite and rage, 3) due to lack of geopolitical background. Trump often takes decisions, which are not rational – see climate change. In this case, I think what happened is that at some point, the President was so angry and obsessed, that he is not getting his wall funded, that he decided to blackmail everyone around him, to achieve his goal: The wall. He often resorts to such tactics, also in his trade and tariff wars.
I doubt that there was any deal with Erdogan, because of multiple occurences, beside the above mentioned facts in question one. President Trump has often sanctioned Turkey and had imposed tariffs on Turkey’s metals. The United States was the top importer of Turkish steel, purchasing some $1.1 billion worth of the metal. If Trump was compromised or seeking financial deals, he would have not sanctioned Turkey. Of course, some may use such arguments as a demagogic tool to pressure him to retract his decision, but I doubt that Trump is engaged in any deal with Erdogan. The U.S. exit from Syria can be regarded as a defeat for the U.S. and in any case a win-win situation for Turkey, because Kurds would be thwarted, either by Turkey, or by surrendering to Assad and Russia.
Q: What will the situation look like for the Kurds? Can Kurds preserve their gains without U.S. and Russian help?
The U.S. Army does not want to leave the SDF and Syria. To support SDF, the U.S. Army has indirectly granted them 100 days to take a decision about their future in Syria. These 100 days are originally the 100 days, which the U.S. Army has claimed it requires in order to be able to safely pull out its troops from Syria.
What is remarkable is that unlike ISIS, Turkey, Iran and many Arabs, the Kurds of SDF enjoy a culture of life, despite the fact that they have sacrificed a lot of their human resources, their time and future to save the world from ISIS. At no time, did the Kurds intend to deliberately die and operate in demographically Arab-majority-cities, like Raqqa, Tabqa, Deir Ezzor, AlBouKamal, but they did finally agree, because they partnered with the United States of America and trusted the U.S. Army, Bolton, Mattis and many others, who made promises that the US troops are staying in Syria until a political process is achieved – and till Iran and ISIS are thwarted.
Trump’s withdrawal decision was of course extremely shocking and a great backstabbing, but the Kurds are smart enough to manage out of this situation with the least damage — and the greatest deception. I anticipate that a deal will be struck with Assad, and in return YPG will engage in liberating Idlib and Afrin. For Assad, it is important to return every inch of the Syrian territory under his rule. This means, the territory under the SDF, its border crossings and its resources (equivalent to ca. 65% of Syria’s economy due to oil, gas, agriculture), which are worth billions of dollars, will become under Assad’s rule and will strengthen him internationally. It is however unclear what will happen with the Tanf base, located in the south of Syria. It seems that U.S. will surrender it in a deal with Russia in favor of the SDF.
Yet unfortunately, this means that the YPG will continue to sacrifice its fighters, but would be saving the SDF areas from undergoing a Turkish genocide – and in return may be able to free Afrin, and eventually Iskandaroun, which Turkey annexed in 1939 in the aftermath of a fraud referendum similar to the one done in Crimea.
I also see the lives of the YPG and SDF leadership at risk. Assad has assassinated all his opponents, after surrendering and cutting deals with him, once he felt threatened, unobeyed, or just wanted to dispose them or use them as a lesson for others. What YPG should avoid is to give intel and data to Russia and Assad at this point, but keep them as a card they could later play to ensure their safety and rights. I doubt that Russia is interested in giving Kurds any leverage over Assad to ensure any kind of privileges for Kurds right now. This would have been possible before – not after – Trump’s withdrawal decision, which weakened the position of the Kurds. However, they are weakened, but not weak. They still have strong cards to play. The oil and gas fields, the ISIS prisoners, the Tanf base and border crossing, the intel they have, are all great cards. Besides, France criticized Trump’s treatment of allies and may give Kurds the protection required till a deal is achieved as Turkey cannot reach Al-Tanf.
Also Egypt is mediating between Kurds and Assad, as GCC and Egypt want to grant a balanced regional future, if Assad remains in power despite UN resolution 2254 – which will be the case now that the U.S. decided to withdraw.
Q: What can Turkey and Assad get from the U.S. departure?
If the Kurds cut a deal with Assad, Turkey will not benefit a lot from the U.S. departure. It will gain that the Kurds would stop being strengthened, but Turkey will be under a huge threat and a new war from Idlib, Afrin, till Jarablus.
I also am certain that the U.S. Army will not exchange any intel information, which could benefit Turkey in any way. The U.S. is just pushing back Turkey from attacking the SDF till they have decided whether they cut a deal with Assad and let the Syrian Army deploy to the borders between Turkey and the SDF areas or engage in a war with all elements: Iran,Turkey, Russia, Assad and Hezbollah. This scenario is not favorable at all and rejected by SDF.
It is also crucial to currently protect Manbij from falling to Turkey, in order to be able to engage in Afrin and Idlib later on. If Turkey’s psychological warfare achieves its aim, I see Manbij falling to Turkey, while Kobane and Tal Abyad will be engaged in a war with Turkey. This is a very bloody scenario and would lead to an escalation between Turkey and its proxies on the one hand and Russia-Iran-Assad on the other hand. Although Russia is coordinating with Turkey, the latter will not easily give in to Russia and will attempt to take Manbij, Kobane and Tal Abyad by all means, to ensure a buffer zone with Syria and gain territory to bargain the return of the Syrian refugees, and other reconstruction deals. Whether this will enfold in a war depends from Turkey and Russia.