President Donald Trump saw harsh criticism from leaders on both sides of the political aisle earlier this week when he gave the order to remove U.S. troops from a number of “safe zones” in Northern Syria, opening up Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces to attack from the Turkish military. The president has made a number of statements defending this decision, including the suggestion that removing these troops was a move toward ending America’s “forever wars,” and claiming that America’s Kurdish partners that now find themselves under attack by one of America’s allies didn’t help the United States “with Normandy.”
However, statements from within Trump’s own administration contradict the idea that this decision was motivated by reducing America’s deployed workload, as the White House has since claimed that the troops that were previously serving in Northern Syria will simply be relocated to other nearby regions. Further, the presence of U.S. troops in the region was largely as a deterrent. These troops were not engaging Turkish forces, as Turkey would not launch an offensive in the region with American troops present, further dismantling the claim that their relocation will have any appreciable effect on the nearly twenty years of fighting that have gone on in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Former U.S. Central Command commander and now-retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the man who oversaw America’s fight against the Islamic State in the region until his departure from service earlier this year, took to the media this week to voice his disappointment in the president’s decision. In a piece he co-authored with Middle East Institute non-resident fellow Elizabeth Dent published in The Atlantic, Votel called Trump’s decision an “abrupt policy” that appeared to “abandon our Kurdish partners.”
In northeastern Syria, we had one of the most successful partnerships. The Islamic State was using Syria as a sanctuary to support its operations in Iraq and globally, including by hosting and training foreign fighters. We had to go after ISIS quickly and effectively. The answer came in the form of a small band of Kurdish forces pinned up against the Turkish border and fighting for their lives against ISIS militants in the Syrian town of Kobane in 2014,” he wrote.
The retired general, who also commanded both the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), went on to point out that the Syrian Democratic Forces, comprised largely of Kurds, saw the real brunt of the fight against ISIS throughout the region, taking on far more casualties than their partnered American troops.
Over four years, the SDF freed tens of thousands of square miles and millions of people from the grip of ISIS. Throughout the fight, it sustained nearly 11,000 casualties. By comparison, six U.S. service members, as well as two civilians, have been killed in the anti-ISIS campaign.”
He then went on to offer perhaps the most damning accusations levied at Turkey by a U.S. Defense Official thus far: that the Turkish government was so eager to attack America’s Kurdish partners that they even threatened to do so with American forces present. Turkey, as President Trump has pointed out, is a member of NATO and an American ally. Under Turkish president Recap Erdogan, however, Turkey has become a sort of diplomatic opponent to the United States, with his increasingly friendly relationship with Russia even interfering with longstanding plans to sell Turkey America’s most capable fighter jet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Erdogan has also been accused of imprisoning his political rivals en mass as he works to accumulate more power.
It didn’t have to be this way. The U.S. worked endlessly to placate our Turkish allies,” Votel wrote.
But Votel points out that the removal of a small group of U.S. troops within the region isn’t just bad for America’s partners that now find themselves under attack, it’s also bad for the ongoing efforts to root ISIS out of the region. Votel, like many others, points out that anti-ISIS operations have all but ceased as the Kurds and the Turks turn toward fighting one another.
This policy abandonment threatens to undo five years’ worth of fighting against ISIS and will severely damage American credibility and reliability in any future fights where we need strong allies.”
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