December 9, 2018

American envoy: US Support to Syrian Kurds is "temporary"

Arabic media coverage of Ambassador Jeffrey's statement

In a recent press conference after a Turkish-U.S. working group meeting on Syria in Ankara, U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey said the Manbij roadmap requires a series of additional steps, and that American support to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the mainly Syrian Kurdish force acting as the U.S.-lead anti-ISIS coalition's boots on the ground, is "temporary and tactical."

I understand that the ambassador was speaking in Turkey to a group of reporters composed mainly of Turkish journalists, but this either borders on "tell 'em what they want to hear" or is a slap in the face of the Syrians Kurds who have proven to be among the most effective forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), making a much more significant contribution than the Turks the ambassador appears to be trying to appease.

I have made no secret about my disappointment in the actions of our nominal NATO ally Turkey when it comes to the fight against ISIS. There are analysts who believe that Turkey at best turned a blind eye to the undeniable virtually unabated flow across the border with Syria of thousands of Middle Eastern, North African, and European believers that became ISIS fighters.

Others are not so kind, accusing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of supporting the terrorist group in return for a tacit agreement not to attack Turkish interests. I have no doubts about the former, but remain hopefully unsure of the latter.

My interpretation (not a translation) of a report* published in an Arabic-language media outlet widely read in the Kurdish area of Syria:

James Jeffrey - American special envoy for Syria

Washington will soon take some additional steps to guarantee the implementation of the roadmap for Manbij, which will ensure the removal of SDF personnel from Manbij, including their presence on the local council, and as local military officials in the city. Manbij will become the model for peaceful solutions throughout Syria. Regarding [our] cooperation with the SDF, it will be temporary and tactical.

For those not familiar with Manbij, some context based on my assessment of the continuing unhelpful and unnecessary actions by the Turks since Erdoğan ordered Turkish troops to move into northern Syria in August 2016, ostensibly to fight ISIS.

While they did take the fight to ISIS, the Turks also began a series of engagements with the newly formed SDF, comprised mainly of Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units, or YPG in Kurdish. The Turks believe that the YPG is nothing more than a Syria-based extension of the outlawed Turkish-based Kurdish Workers' Party, known more commonly by its Kurdish initials PKK. The United States, NATO and the European Union have designated the PKK a terrorist organization, possibly in deference to Turkey's status as a NATO member.

The operation was technically a success - the Turks and their Free Syrian Army allies did clear the area northeast of Aleppo of ISIS, but they also started a long and deadly battle against the Syrian Kurds.

We all understand that the Turks have an ongoing armed confrontation in Turkey against the PKK. Those same Turks seem to have forgotten that the focus of the anti-ISIS coalition - the fighting in Iraq and Syria - is to eliminate ISIS, not the Kurds. Perhaps they did not forget - some will argue that the main focus of the operation was to open a front against the YPG, the Kurdish contingent of the SDF. The map shows the situation in 2017.

Erdoğan publicly claimed that Operation Euphrates Shield was the precursor to the eventual coalition assault on ISIS's self-proclaimed capital in the Syrian city of al-Raqqah, an assault that he said must be led by Turkish troops.

This claim was ludicrous - since his forces had begun military operations against the SDF, arguably the most effective ground units in the fight against ISIS - the Kurds were not going to allow Turkish forces to traverse over 100 miles of territory under their control, territory they had taken at great cost from ISIS. In his typical petulant style, Erdoğan ordered a series of border attacks along the length of the Syrian-Turkish border. Again, more unhelpful distractions from a nominal NATO ally.

For a more detailed analysis of Operation Euphrates Shield, see my article, Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on?

Turkish forces eventually fought their way to the city of Manbij - not by taking it from ISIS, but from the allied SDF. It was only the direct intervention of American special operations units and Russian military police that the inter-coalition fighting was halted. It was a necessary step to refocus the fight on ISIS; many SDF units stopped operations against ISIS and returned to the Manbij are to resist the Turks, again, a distraction no one needed.

Manbij remains on the edge of the Turkish and SDF lines. The United States has had to divert time and resources to assuage the Turks' anger at being marginalized in a pocket and basically taken out of the fight against ISIS. The Manbij "roadmap" is an attempt to give the Turks a voice as to what happens in northern Syria. The two countries now run joint patrols outside the city. It is useless and serves no purpose but to allow the Turks to believe they are part of the coalition on the ground in Syria.

The U.S.-led coalition perpetuates this myth. Here is a tweet from Combined Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTFOIR), and my response. Their use of the hashtag #DefeatIsis is insulting to those actually in the fight.

Back to Ambassador Jeffrey's statement. It was the last sentence that got my attention and raised my concerns. He said that our cooperation with the SDF will be "temporary and tactical."

These are words the Turks, undoubtedly the intended audience, wanted to hear. Unfortunately, this is a zero-sum game. If you side with the Turks about the future of northern Syria, you do so at the expense of the Kurds. The Kurds have been, if not the best ally in northern Syria in the fight against ISIS, then among the top contenders. It has been the Kurdish-majority SDF that has taken the most casualties in the fighting on the ground. They are dedicated, courageous, and relentless fighters. The ambassador's words must have cut deep.

Here is what the Turks heard: When this anti-ISIS fight is over, we are going to repair the current rift between Washington and Ankara - the NATO alliance is critical to both of us, and despite what the Syrian Kurds have done for us in the fight against ISIS, you are the more important ally. In the end, you will have most of what you want in northern Syria. Just wait a while longer while we clean up the remaining ISIS pocket in the Euphrates Valley, then you can deal with the Kurds with minimal U.S. interference.

Here is what the Kurds heard: When this is all over, we have to act in what are our larger national interests. We both want to defeat ISIS, but once that it done, we will again focus on the major American national security threats in the region - Russia and Iran. For that, we need Turkey more than we need you. We will try to help where we can, but our interests do not include you.

Again, the Kurds are left standing alone.

* Although the ambassador made his remarks in English, those remarks were translated into Arabic and reported. The translation is not exact - my interpretation of the translation is what people in the Kurdish area of Syria are reading.