President Trump’s critics have regularly blasted his style of diplomacy, in which he combines bad cop, good cop rhetoric with the use of sanctions and tariffs to exert maximum economic pressure on the party he is trying to influence. This style was on display again this past week as President Trump tried to navigate the outbreak of conflict between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds that the president’s critics blame on his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeast Syria. Before President Trump proceeded with completing the troop withdrawal, he sent a letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan strongly encouraging him to make a good deal with the Kurds while threatening Turkey with economic devastation if it persists with its military operation against the Kurds. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed up with a visit to Ankara, where they secured an agreement to end the violence for now between Turkey and the Kurds in Syria pending the establishment of an expanded “safe zone” that Turkey has been seeking. While Turkish forces and allied Syrian insurgents halt their offensive, the Syrian Kurd forces would be expected to surrender their positions 20 miles from the Turkey-Syria border. As part of the deal, the U.S. will not put new sanctions in place and end the current sanctions if a real ceasefire endures.
Turkey is referring to the negotiated deal as a “pause,” not a full-fledged “ceasefire.” Vice President Pence used the term “pause” in his own remarks. He declared, “The Turkish side will pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow for the withdrawal of YPG forces from the safe zone for 120 hours,” referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces’ People Protection Units, a primarily Kurdish militia. “All military operations under operation peace spring will be paused, and operation peace spring will be halted entirely on completion of the withdrawal. Our administration has already been in contact with Syrian defense forces, and we have already begun to facilitate their safe withdrawal from the nearly 20-mile wide safe zone area South of the Turkish border in Syria.”
The Kurdish leadership is spinning that it has not agreed to cede an expanded safe zone to Turkey, even though Vice President Pence claimed that the U.S. had obtained “repeated assurances from them that they’ll be moving out.” In any event, the Kurds may have little choice, particularly if Russia and the Syrian government no longer are willing to play interference for the Kurds near the Syria-Turkey border. “There’s no doubt that the YPG wishes that they could stay in these areas,” U.S. Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey told pool reporters traveling with him. “It is our assessment that they have no military ability to hold onto these areas and therefore we thought that a ceasefire would be much better … for trying to get some kind of control over this chaotic situation.”
Some critics are already complaining that Turkey is getting everything it wanted, forcing the Kurds from their homes and expanding Turkish territorial control within Syria. Their concern is that Turkey is achieving what it set out to do with its offensive without paying any significant price. At the same time, there is the concern that the U.S. is being seen as abandoning its Kurdish allies who fought with the U.S. against ISIS and lost thousands of lives in the process. These concerns have merit. However, the counter-argument is that if the pause holds and turns into a full-fledged ceasefire, the Trump administration will have helped avert a possible massacre of civilians as well as the potential loss of American troops caught in the crosshairs of a decades-old conflict between Turkey and the Kurds. History shows how brutal Turkey can be in dealing with civilian populations. In addition to Turkey’s killing, torture, and imprisonment of Kurds themselves for decades, we cannot forget the Armenian genocide of more than 100 years ago in which, by the way, Kurds participated alongside the Turks.
After the massive deployment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, both the Obama administration and the Trump administration have avoided sending any significant number of troops to the Syrian battlefields despite the massive number of killings and displacements that the Syrian people have suffered since 2011. After defeating ISIS, the only reason for any of our troops to stay in the region is to prevent a resurgence of ISIS, not to get involved militarily in a decades-long battle among Turks, Kurds and Syrians that we have no vital interest in solving even if we could. The American people surely have no appetite for sacrificing more American lives in yet another Middle East quagmire. The number of U.S. troops positioned in northern Syria even before President Trump’s decision to relocate them was too small to serve as an effective long-term deterrent against Erdogan’s unrelenting determination, by whatever means necessary, to neutralize what he regarded as a grave security threat posed by the Syrian Kurds on the other side of the border from Turkey.
Moreover, while it is undeniable that the Syrian Kurds sacrificed thousands of lives in the fight against ISIS, it is inaccurate to claim that they did so for purely selfless reasons. Beginning in 2014, ISIS threatened Kurdish control of a city on the Syrian-Turkish border known as Kobane. As described by Vox, “At the start, ISIS was better equipped, and the Kurdish militias in Kobane were essentially surrounded by ISIS. Thousands were displaced as ISIS threatened mass slaughter.” The U.S. and Kurds joined forces in the fall of 2014 to serve their mutual interests in turning back the ISIS threat. “But this partnership was never really sustainable,” as Vox put it. “Both the Obama and Trump administrations partnered with the Syrian Kurds to achieve a very narrow goal: defeating ISIS.”
The United States has a vital interest to prevent the resurgence of ISIS as a byproduct of the conflict between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds. President Trump is banking on a successful ceasefire to help restore conditions on the ground conducive to hopefully prevent such a resurgence. According to Vice President Pence, the deal includes a renewed agreement between the U.S. and Turkey to “coordinate efforts on detention facilities and internally displaced persons in formerly ISIS-controlled areas.”
In short, President Trump decided to use his brand of diplomacy to get the best result he thought he could without putting any more U.S. troops in harm’s way. It’s too early to say what direction the deal will take. It could certainly fall apart, in which case we will be back to square one. Nevertheless, Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been highly critical of President Trump for his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria and has taken a very strong stance against Turkey’s military operation, sounded a note of cautious optimism. He tweeted, “Sounds like we may have made real progress regarding a cease-fire and hopefully a sustainable solution that will prevent the reemergence of ISIS and the abandonment of our ally, the Kurds.”
We will know soon enough whether the progress is sustainable and the deal pans out.