Quicklook: Trump’s statement on Turkey and the Kurdish safe zone in Syria

Quicklook: Trump’s statement on Turkey and the Kurdish safe zone in Syria
U.S. troops work with Kurdish forces in Syria in 2018. YouTube , AP video

Trump issued a statement Sunday night that Turkey would shortly be “moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” and “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial “Caliphate,” will no longer be in the immediate area.”

The safe zone depicted on the map is the area affected by this declaration.  It is area that has been majority Kurdish for centuries, and has been held by the Syrian Kurdish forces for most of the last several years during the Syrian civil war.

A depiction of the safe zone (“buffer zone”) to be patrolled in cooperation by the U.S. and Turkey (dating to July 2019). This is where Turkey proposes to deploy forces. The proposal is for east of the Euphrates, which runs between Kobani and Manbij. Map graphic credit: The Times (UK).

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The U.S. and Turkey have had an agreement in recent months to patrol it cooperatively for stabilization.  U.S. forces have been there since 2014, in fluctuating numbers, to combat ISIS – filling for the most part a supporting role to Kurdish troops.  Turkey’s level of patrolling has not involved major troop formations in the buffer zone; there are Turkish forces massed at the border and continuous surveillance across it.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan was dissuaded (by Trump) from moving Turkish troops into the safe zone en masse as recently as early September.  However, Trump has just clearly signaled that he will no longer be making that pushback to prevent Turkey from moving forces into the safe zone.

Commentators online tonight are certain this means an immediate invasion by Turkey and a mass slaughter of Kurds.  There is no pretending that any sort of brilliant stroke by Trump is going on here, but I believe the critics may be overstating the case.  I also see what I suspect Trump does, which is that a Congress wracked by a quasi-formal but all-consuming impeachment process is an impossible partner for any U.S. policy that involves opposing Turkey head-on in Syria.

Regarding the practical outcome of this move, I suspect it’s far more likely that others who get a vote – Kurdish factions, Russia, Assad – will work out with Erdogan what Turkey is going to do.  While the U.S. was there making it an issue to be decided by Turkey, the U.S., and the Kurds, there was one dynamic in play.  That dynamic effectively sidelined Russia and Assad, which both annoyed them and did them a favor.  They got stability for their other priorities at no cost to themselves.  But they couldn’t order things as they pleased.

Now they’ll have the opportunity to deal with Turkey, but without a U.S. priority – the freedom to annihilate ISIS – setting limits on their options.  Neither Assad nor Russia wants Turkey running riot in Syria, not even to crush the Kurds.  Nor do the Kurds want to be crushed.

If Putin is smart (and he has shown a disposition to be, in this regard), he’ll see what he can do to broker something between Erdogan and the Kurds.  It may involve some Turkish forces moving into the safe zone.  My guess is that it will.  But if Erdogan knows that Russia will seek to exercise a jealous veto over what Turkish forces are doing – and Russia, with strategic reach over and around Turkey, is more than capable of that – he’ll be more careful than not.  NATO is not a prompt and enthusiastic backer of any Turkish move into Syria.  Erdogan vis-à-vis Russia, in this matter, is on his own.

Don’t mistake this analysis for complacency.  It’s not complacency; I hate to see this happen, in part because there’s no way to change its appearance of precipitate departure by the United States.  It’s U-G-L-Y and it ain’t got no alibi.  Only time will establish what level of fighting it takes for Turkey and the Kurds to “work things out,” and some of the Kurdish factions will probably fight to the death.

But one thing no one is looking at is the position Trump is in, with no prospect of support or even reasonable collaboration from the House of Representatives.  For the sake of the Americans in uniform on the front lines in Syria, and in the rest of the Middle East, Trump can’t afford to wrangle the policy of force on an unprecedented premise and an overstretched tether.  He can’t let Congress hold his policies over a barrel by turning U.S. troops into congressional-approval hostages.

That could very well be the outcome if Trump tried to shift from a policy of collaboration with Turkey – a NATO ally – to a policy of confrontation.  Such a move would be uncharted territory for everyone involved.  None of us looking at this problem has been alive long enough to have sentient memory of the time before the Truman Doctrine, and the incorporation of a secular, Western-oriented Turkey in a Eurocentric security scheme.  It would be hard enough to navigate this trackless wilderness with an enthusiastic, focused, supportive Congress.  But that’s not what Trump has.  He has a Congress one chamber of which is dedicating itself entirely to putting him out of office, or at least making his and the country’s political life hell for the next 15 months.

That was a big factor in America’s failure to support South Vietnam during the North’s invasion in 1973, and our subsequent ignominious departure from Vietnam in 1975.  The U.S. had not been overcommitted when the accords were concluded with Hanoi in 1972.  But paralysis enforced by Congress rendered first Nixon and then Ford effectively overcommitted, at the point where operational support was needed to keep the South in a fight in which the Soviet Union finally had a freer hand to support the North than it had had for half a decade.

Trump naturally has no intention of resigning his office in order to facilitate a transition to a policy of confrontation with Turkey, so as to guarantee a Turk-free safe zone for the Kurds.  No American president would or should do that.

We don’t know if Erdogan would be pressing as he obviously is for his move into Syria, if Trump were not under such intense political assault domestically.  We also don’t know what appetite or vision Trump might have to seek an adaptive form of continued engagement with the Kurds’ safe zone in northern Syria, if Erdogan were pressing a bit less and Trump had more leeway.  We don’t know that because Trump never tells us those things – and that’s on him.  It’s one of my chief criticisms of his policy posture.  In geopolitics, a superpower can hold things too close to the vest.  Statements of national interest can obviate years of unnecessary conflict if deployed intelligently.  Obama never did this at all, much less well, but it’s a shortfall for Trump too (if for a different reason).

But to the extent that Erdogan has been emboldened by Trump’s political woes at home, it is not too much to say that what we saw Sunday night was the wages of impeachment, settling like a cloud of locusts on foreign policy.  Trump would be stupid, under these circumstances, to set himself up for holding the bag on a force policy he can’t write the checks for.  Feel free to assume he’s thinking only of himself; that’s up to you.  There is good reason to believe he’s thinking about the troops.

One more thing.  As much as I hate this development in Syria, it’s not the most important, existential national security crisis facing America.  The most important is the continuing effort to undo by foul means the due-process election of 2016.

Trump must not be impeached, or “impeached,” based on anonymous complaints that don’t even check out when the transcript of a phone call is promptly released.  Nor can we allow him to be impeached on any similar basis regardless of how wearying the continued effort is.  The life of the Republic, as we believe in it and know it is supposed to be, depends on not being railroaded in this manner in our public decisions.

Nothing matters more to our future than defeating that effort.  If it is not defeated, everything else – everything else – will be in vain.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.