Ever since it was announced that US Defence Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis was to leave his post at the end of February, Donald Trump has gone on what can only be called “an offensive defensive” in respect of explaining the rationale behind his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria. By “offensive defensive”, this is to say that Trump is promoting the virtues of his Syria withdrawal with all the vigour of a top salesman but is nevertheless self-evidently doing so because of the decision’s unpopularity with many of his political opponents and members of his own government.
Donald Trump’s recent Tweets confirmed that which logic would have dictated in any case – namely that Turkish forces are going to essentially replace those of the US as the main military force in the parts of Syria form which the US is withdrawing. Specifically, Trump stated
“On Syria, we were originally going to be there for three months, and that was seven years ago – we never left. When I became President, ISIS was going wild. Now ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains. We’re coming home!”
I am in the White House, working hard. News reports concerning the Shutdown and Syria are mostly FAKE. We are negotiating with the Democrats on desperately needed Border Security (Gangs, Drugs, Human Trafficking & more) but it could be a long stay. On Syria, we were originally…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2018
….going to be there for three months, and that was seven years ago – we never left. When I became President, ISIS was going wild. Now ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains. We’re coming home!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2018
The key part of this statement is that Turkey “should be able to easily take care of whatever remains”. This essentially means that the US has entrusted to its NATO ally Turkey, the task of conducting anti-terror operations in north-eastern Syria. This could only be considered a bad things among those who either do not understand Turkey’s position or those who oppose it for reasons as devious as mislead.
The following are the reasons why Americans should trust Turkey to do what is needed in north-eastern Syria:
Turkey’s position on counter-terrorism is more comprehensive than that of the US
While every nation in the world technically condemns Daesh (aka ISIS), Turkey has realised that in respect of the theatre of conflict in north-eastern Syria, it is unwise to ally with one terror group in the battle against another. This is why Turkey was horrified when the US became a battlefield ally with the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK terror group that has killed over 40,000 since the beginning of its dirty war in the late 1970s.
Not only is the blood of the innocent that is on the PKK’s hands as tragic an affair as the blood on the hands of Daesh, but the YPG/PKK has proved to be “fighting Daesh” for entirely self-interested rather than ethical reasons. As YPG/PKK commanders have threatened to release thousands of Daesh prisoners if they are not given US style international aid from another foreign power, one can clearly ascertain that this organisation is not one that ever deserved trust let alone partnership from any major state.
With the YPG/PKK’s former US partner pulling out, Turkey now has the chance to comprehensively neutralise both YPG/PKK terrorists as well as what little remains of Daesh. As Turkey has the second largest military in NATO, there is every reason to believe that such operations will be a full success.
Turkey has far better relations than the US with the other major state players in Syria (except Israel)
Even before the creation and formalisation of the Astana trio of nations – the group of Russia, Turkey and Iran were always the most influential foreign powers involved in the Syria conflict. While each power approaches the conflict from its own perspective, the Astana format has proved highly successful in establishing mutually agreed and mutually enforced de-escalation areas while it is the Astana trio that is currently working to formalise a constitutional convention which will pave the way for fresh elections under a new Syrian constitution in-line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
While the US has incredibly strained relations with Russia and no formal relations with Iran, Turkey is on excellent terms with both Russia and Iran. Therefore, it is far more productive for NATO member Turkey to conduct operations in north-eastern Syria than for the US to do so as Turkey is in frequent contact with Russian and Iranian colleagues. This reality can help all three powers to coordinate de-escalation mechanisms as well as share vital anti-terror intelligence in a matter of fact, respectful and businesslike manner.
For all parties involved this is a win-win. The US gets to rest assured that one member of NATO is being replaced by another in the region, while Russia and Iran will be able to communicate with a valuable partner in north-eastern Syria rather than have to deal with a difficult one.
Russia will continue to “protect Israel” as before
One of the only things about which the US and Russia have agreed in respect of the Syria conflict is the need for Israel to feel “protected”. It might seem odd that Israel needs to feel protected from certain forces in Syria when the United Nations continues to name Israel as the illegal occupier of Syria’s Golan Heights, but nevertheless, Russia has agreed to protect Israel’s occupied territory from any forces in Syria that may have considered launching an operation there. In this sense, Russia is “containing” its Iranian partners in Syria in order to preserve a sense of regional balance that is crucial for Moscow’s overall concept of de-escalation. It is essential to remember that the US has fully supported Russia in this respect, in spite of substantial disagreements in just about every other matter in bilateral relations.
The fact that the US will largely be replaced by Turkey on the opposite end of Syria from the purple line demarcating the frontier between the occupied Golan Heights and the rest of Syria, will not impact the Russo-Israeli agreement in any way.
A regional or indigenous approach to fighting terror is objectively more effective than an international one
Of all the major state victories against non-state terror groups in the 21st century, all have either been the efforts of the indigenous state whose safety was threatened or through cooperation between a threatened state and a close regional partner. Because of this, it makes far more sense for neighbouring Turkey to participate in anti-terror operations in north-eastern Syria than for the far away United States to do so. While the US has a powerful military, its record in fighting terror (contrary to Trump’s boats) leaves much to be desired. By contrast, since 2016, Turkey has largely eliminated the operations of the radical religious extremist Fethullah Terror Organisation (FETO), also known as the Gülenist Terror Organisation. This alone marks an important milestone in Turkey’s fight against terrorism.
As a neighbour of Syria, Turkey brings with it a knowledge of the region based on historic ties and first hand present day experience. Even in the 21st century, this is something that technology cannot fully compensate for.
For Americans genuinely concerned with fighting all forms of terror rather than about projecting US power far away overseas, Trump’s move to essentially swap US for Turkish forces is not just common sense but it is prudent from a logistical, strategic and pragmatic perspective.
While the Israel lobby remains a powerful force in US politics that is becoming increasingly Turkophobic, as Israel will remain protected (according to its own definition of protection) by Russia, Turkey’s presence in Syria does nothing to directly impact Israel although it will stop Tel Aviv from ever realising its unrealistic goal of creating a “second Israel” in the region in the form of an illegal YPG/PKK ethno-statelet in north-eastern Syria (something opposed by every other nation in the region).
On the whole though, for Americans more concerned with fighting terror and bringing peace to Syria than those concerned with placating the most extreme elements in Tel Aviv, the US withdrawal from Syria will help to bring stability to the region and will help to kickstart the political peace process that all three Astana partners have been working so hard to consecrate.
Finally, while many have echoed the words of James Mattis and stated that Trump should be more supportive of his allies, by working with Turkey to bring an end to the chaos in north-eastern Syria, Trump is in fact supporting an ally. It is a pity that after Trump has learned the importance of Turkey in stabilising the region, others in the US still appear clueless.