In December of 2018 when Donald Trump announced a US troop withdrawal from Syria, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham became one of the most vocal critics of the move. On 18 December, Graham wrote a series of Tweets which included the following statement:
“As to the status of our Kurdish allies, the Administration has yet to tell the American people what happens to the Kurds – who fought so hard for us – when we leave. Is there a plan to protect our allies post withdrawal? Need answers now”.
In a further Tweet from 30 December, after Graham held a private meeting with Trump, the Senator said that the US President guaranteed that “our Kurdish allies [YPG] would be protected”.
Now though, it would appear that Graham has changed his tune whilst on a visit to Turkey where he held talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other top Turkish officials. Speaking as though he had a revelation about the threat to Turkey’s security posed by the YPG – the Syria based arm of the PKK terror organisation, Graham said the following:
“I knew what arming the YPG/PYD meant for Turkey when I learned about it. Here is the promise I made to President Erdoğan: I’ll try my best to fix the problem we’ve created for your country”.
Graham further stated that the YPG is “clearly tied to the PKK”, something that is widely known in Syria and Turkey but something which some US officials still deny, even when YPG terrorists were photographed in Syria under a giant image of PKK terror kingpin Abdullah Ocalan in 2017. The American Senator then blamed Barack Obama for “creating a nightmare” for Turkey by establishing contacts with the YPG/PKK that eventually led to Washington arming and organising the group in north-eastern Syria.
While Graham is known to be deeply hawkish on Iran and far more hawkish than Trump on Russia, when it comes to Turkey, Lindsey Graham has long standing relations with important figures in Ankara which is what made his previous defence of the YPG/PKK all the more bemusing. Turkish political analyst Yusuf Erim offered the following explanation for Graham’s apparent conversion on the matter:
“Lindsey Graham knows the realities on the ground, who the YPG are and Turkish security concerns better than any Senator. The only problem with him is he’s a politician. Knowing something and doing what’s right are completely different things”.
This appears to be the most logical assessment of what transpired between Graham’s meetings with Trump in late December and his meetings with Erdoğan this week. Against this background, it now appears as though Lindsey Graham is not only now a supporter of Trump’s phased Syrian withdrawal but that he seeks to help coordinate the pullout with Turkey so that the YPG/PKK can be disarmed or otherwise pacified by the US so as to ensure Turkey’s security. Regarding these issues, Graham stated:
“If we leave without thinking about this and dealing with the YPG problem that we’ve created, things in northeastern Syria are going to be far worse”.
Therefore, as someone who has spoken to both the US and Turkish presidents about a pullout favoured by both Ankara and Washington, Graham has transformed himself from an opponent of the pullout to someone who seeks to help foster ever more coordination between Turkey and the US in Manbij and other parts of northern Syria currently under YPG/PKK occupation.
This is all the more important because Graham is widely seen as part of the US political establishment that is often at odds with the new style of politics that Donald Trump has brought to Washington. By both endorsing a phased pullout with the crucial caveat that it must happen simultaneous to close cooperation with Turkey, Graham has gone from a potential stumbling block to the US withdrawal process to someone who appears to be engaged in behaviour that will help to promulgate a win-win outcome in the aftermath of a US pullout that will be done in such a way so as to strengthen rather than worsen the security situation on the Turkey-Syria border.