by Aldo Raine
It is a truth universally acknowledged in the realm of international relations that any gap left unchecked in a security vacuum will be filled by competing forces. This is exactly what is happening, and has already happened in northern Syria. With Donald Trump announcing the complete and total withdrawal of all United States forces from Syria, others, mainly Russian-backed Syrian forces will be poised to gain the most from the unfolding chaos. The United States backed Kurdish forces now left to fend off for themselves against the vastly superior Turkish military, have little choice but to align themselves with Syrian leader Bashar-Al-Assad’s forces in hopes of retaining any sovereignty. This abandonment of American leadership fits a growing trend long underway under President Trump’s leadership, that has seen America give up its position as the leader and a bulwark for stable international order.
The crisis in Syria was created late Sunday night on the 6th of October, in an abrupt White house announcement indicating that it was time for the American troops to get out of Syria. Apparently, after a phone conversation with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, President Trump was convinced to overturn the longstanding U.S. policy of supporting Kurdish allies. The call gave Turkey the green light to sort out their issues with the Kurds by force. Turkey had been long vying for the U.S. to give up their alliance with the Kurds. Washington on the other hand, had found no other group suitable or willing to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or against Assad for that matter, in a way that was palatable to American values. Kurdish forces so far had been the most successful at fighting and winning against the multitude of foes they’d faced on the battlefield.
In order to understand the complicated machinations happening in Syria, it’s important to understand the players involved. Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, different players in the region have tried to make the most of the situation by gaining territory and exploiting the oil fields to fuel their agendas. Among the most successful turned out to be ISIS, when they shocked the world with their rapid advance in Syria and Iraq, and took over vast amounts of land to establish a self-serving caliphate. This spurred Western powers into action, as refugees started reaching their doorsteps. Seeing the situation worsen for their Syrian ally, Russia joined the fray and sent in troops and mercenaries to support Assad’s regime. With the Russians fully behind Assad, America propelled the creation of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an amalgam of Arab, Syriac and most importantly Kurdish militias, to lead the fight against ISIS, maintaining regional presence to gain leverage in future peace negotiations. This meant arming, supporting and training these militias into something that resembles a coordinated force.
Turkey has long seen the American-allied SDF as being mostly composed of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it sees as a threat to Turkey’s security and stability. Turkey sees the YPG as being closely allied with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organization designated as a terrorist group by both the U.S. and Turkey. This incongruity, of supporting a force allegedly aligned with terrorists, has been a point of boiling contention for United States-Turkey relations for some time now. Multiple times between 2014 and 2015, America asked Ankara to do more in combating ISIS. Repeated requests by Washington failed to spur Turkey into taking proactive measures to make sure the Turkish border with Syria was secured, to stop the flow of resources to ISIS. Failures on these requests by Turkey played a role in the United States’ alignment with YPG forces, ensuring that ISIS was dealt with in a definitive manner. Despite Turkey being a NATO member and an American ally, its repeated concerns and protests against YPG had largely fallen on deaf ears when it came to America’s support of YPG. This was until President Trump came into office. After seemingly being threatened by Erdogan over a phone call, Trump acquiesced to the Turkish demands of having free reign to expel the Kurdish forces from northern Syria. Since the Kurdish forces were mostly reliant on America’s security umbrella for protection— fearing a massacre at Turkish hands— retreated from the advancing superior Turkish military, and sought out other patrons for protection.
Since the United States joined forces with the YPG, the Russian advance alongside their Syrian allies halted just west of the Euphrates. This culminated in the formation of a “deconfliction line” along the Euphrates river. American backed forces would control the area east of Euphrates, while Russian-allied Syrian forces would control areas to the west of it. Seeing oil-rich areas fall under American-backed control was a matter of no satisfaction for either Russian or Iranian proxies, who also support Assad.
To disrupt this status quo, Russians had at times tried to prod and seek American weak points for exploitation. As a result perhaps, the Syrian forces led by Russian mercenaries tried to attack and take over a SDF controlled outpost east of the Euphrates.The Russians and their proxies at the time knew well in advance that the outpost was on the other side of the Euphrates and under American protection. The ensuing skirmish, saw 300-400 Syrian troops along with Russian mercenaries armed with tanks, clash with SDF, along with a handful of U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force operatives supported by Marine artillery. In the conflict that followed, the air support called in by the U.S. forces decimated Russian and Syrian fighters, resulting in their retreat. It is unclear if this attack was approved by the Kremlin, and the incident did not gain international media attention as it was in both Washington and Moscow’s interest to not escalate the situation before it got out of hand.
It is interesting how the situation in Syria— before the White House withdrew its troops— resembled the numerous cold war instances where American and Soviet forces faced each other through proxies in the battle for global supremacy. Putin, himself a spy from the Cold War era, perceives the existence of NATO and the international rules based order as a threat to the rise of a resurgent Russia. For Putin, seeing America stumble out from a position that leaves its allies defenseless must be like cherry on top, after seizing land and the oil fields left behind by the retreating forces. As a matter of fact, Russia has already started to make America’s loss into its own gain. To make matters worse, President Trump insisted that abandoning Kurdish forces is not that big of a deal given their compensation for the cooperation. This view of seeing alliances as nothing more than transactions is something that President Trump has received intense criticism for. Advocating that the concept of alliances and treaties is based not on shared goals and values, but on monetary assessment alone is something one could imagine Putin advocating for, not the President of the United States.
It is surely much harder now to convince people to pick up arms and fight alongside the United States, now that the world sees how America treats its allies. The historical narrative of American support to those who would resist aggression, to hold the aggressors accountable no matter the odds, is being tarnished by its strategies in foreign policy. Though once heavily reliant on America’s military support, Trump’s backing out has not deterred Kurdish forces from trying to form new alliances to survive. Already, facing a Turkish onslaught that they could not hope to survive on their own, Kurdish leaders have started reaching out to Russian and Syrian forces.
One might find it hard to blame the Kurds for seeking protection through new, perhaps unconventional alliances. It is reasonable however, to lay the blame on this administration’s strategy of turning our back on those who shed their blood fighting alongside our troops on the battlefield. Indeed, Putin could not have hoped for better fuel to his message against allying with the United States. For years America’s foes have been trying to convince the world that all our nation’s leadership cares for is oil, not allies. Now, most recent developments report the administration announcing a return of small contingent U.S. forces to protect Syrian oil fields, so the propaganda almost writes itself.