America’s Love – Hate
Relationship with Turkey
America’s On-Off relationship with Turkey once again took a 180 degree turn as President Trump moved several dozen US Special Forces from the Turkish-Kurdish controlled Syrian border so Turkish military forces could enter Syria in what Turkey calls “Operation Peace Spring.”
The Kurds, key US allies in defeating ISIS in Syria, guard thousands of ISIS fighters and their relatives in prisons and camps in areas under their control and it is unclear whether they will continue to be safely detained.
Although the fog of war is clouding what is happening, it appears that Turkey moved military units into Syria early Wednesday morning and Kurdish forces are fighting back.
In the politically supercharged atmosphere of Washington DC, politicians took sides, but not always down party lines. However, most of the Washington based politicians opposed Trump, while polls showed that American voters, including Democrats, favored Trump’s move to limit military operations in Syria.
Much of the Democratic response was less about policy and more about politics. The new face of the Democratic Party, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) attacked President Donald Trump’s proposal to withdraw remaining U.S. troops from Syria, tweeting Tuesday that a pullout could have “catastrophic consequences.” Ocasio-Cortez’s stance is a complete reversal of her earlier position on the war in Syria and other “endless wars” overseas. She ran in 2018 on a pledge to end the war in Syria and elsewhere: “Alexandria believes that we must end the “forever war” by bringing our troops home, and ending the air strikes that perpetuate the cycle of terrorism throughout the world,” her 2018 campaign website said:
In addition to the Democratic opposition, this move also found Republican opposition too. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s supporters, on Tuesday demanded a senators-only briefing on the Syria move, which he said betrayed the Kurds and would make it tougher for the U.S. to build alliances going forward.
“The President’s decision will have severe consequences for our strategic national interests and reduce American influence in the region while strengthening Turkey, Russia, and Iran,” Graham wrote in a letter also signed by Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.). “The decision also dramatically increases the threat to our Kurdish allies, who helped destroy ISIS’s territorial caliphate, and will impair our ability to build strategic alliances in the future.”
Trump has indicated he will support Senator Graham’s economic sanctions if Erdogan doesn’t abide by his prior commitment – which is looking more likely as the invasion progresses.
Other Republican opposition came from Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the third-ranking House GOP leader, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
The broad-based backlash left some in the GOP hoping Trump would reverse himself, something Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) on Tuesday raised as a possibility.
“I understand he’s reconsidering. I do not think we should abandon the Kurds,” he told a reporter for Politico.
Trump did find support amongst some Democratic politicians. Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is a veteran and says, “Honor our servicemen and women by only sending them on missions that are worthy of their sacrifice.” This is a controversial view within her party.
Gabbard blames both parties. “I call out leaders in my own party and leaders in the Republican Party (and all) who are heavily influenced by the military-industrial complex that profits heavily off of us continuing to wage these counterproductive wars.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) strongly supports the president’s move, even if the “neocon war caucus of the Senate” — Paul’s words — does not.
“We haven’t been able to find peace for 18 years in Afghanistan,” Paul told Fox News’s Neil Cavuto in a telephone interview on Monday. “So, I certainly don’t think we’re going to find peace in Syria. But I do think a couple of hundred people there is simply a trip wire for a bigger war or for a calamity for our soldiers.”
“You know, I’m kind of the belief go big — go big or go home. You know, 200 or 300 people are just a trip wire to get us drawn into something and a tragedy probably, but they aren’t enough to do anything.”
Despite Senator Paul and Representative Gabbard, most of Washington opposed Trump’s Syrian move. However, in another sign that Washington is out of step with the rest of the country, most American voters prefer to get out of Syria.
A Rasmussen Poll taken this week showed 58% of likely American voters agreed with Trump’s statement, “It is time for us to get out of those ridiculous endless wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. We will fight where it is to our benefit and only fight to win.” Only 20% of those polled disagreed with that statement.
Even 55% of Democrats agreed with the Trump statement, although the poll didn’t identify the statement as a Trump quote. 69% of Republicans and 50% of independents also agreed.
Forty-four percent (44%) of all voters believe that their political leaders send American soldiers into harm’s way too often. Only 4% disagree with that statement. Those who believe that US soldiers are sent into harm’s way about the right amount of the time was 38%.
This reflects the average American’s historical isolationist view.
What happens next depends on the understanding between presidents Trump and Erdogan. Trump has made it clear that if the Turks go too far, the US will impose heavy economic sanctions, something Turkey can’t afford.
On Thursday, Trump said he’s prepared to “wipe out” Turkey’s economy if the Kurds were targeted. He also called Turkey’s operations a “bad idea” and said he hoped Erdogan would “act rationally.”
Although Washington politicians have made much of Trump abandoning the Kurds, there is still the covert American support, some of which goes through Israel.
The Kurds have been receiving US training and equipment for about 30 years. The American Special forces have developed a warm relationship with them and respect them as accomplished fighters.
The fact that Trump only redeployed a few dozen Special Forces soldiers from the Turkish border means that most of the security is already in Kurdish hands.
No doubt, there are US Special Forces working with the Kurds elsewhere in the Middle East.
The US will undoubtedly continue to send arms to the Kurds. And, although they may not be able to go “head to head” with the Turkish Army, they can still hurt the Turks if Erdogan pushes too far. This has been proven when Turkey carried out operations against Turkish Kurds or Kurds in Iraq.
The US has also trained Kurds in calling in tactical air support. That means if Erdogan goes too far, the Kurds can ask for American air power to support their operations.
It’s also important to remember that the Turkish Army, despite its size has many problems. A Washington Institute analysis published in March 2019 looked at Turkish operations in Syria and found many operational problems. These included lack of discipline, obsolete equipment like tanks, inability to disrupt of Kurdish forces west of the Euphrates, and the inability to generate “desired operational outcomes.”
Although Turkey can push back Kurdish forces in Syria, the question is if they can control the territory for an indefinite period. Past performance says no.
Polling shows that Trump has a better measure of American voters outside the Washington area than most politicians or media analysts. He opposed the invasion of Iraq and during his campaign made a quick victory over ISIS and withdrawal of forces from Syria a campaign promise.
The biggest problem for Trump would be if the move would allow the resurgence of ISIS – an unlikely event given the fact that there are still US forces in Syria that could quickly respond to such a situation.
Don’t be surprised if the Erdogan visit to Washington suddenly gets cancelled. It appears at this early stage that Erdogan and Turkey may be exceeding what they promised Trump. In that case, expect more economic sanctions too.
However, in the world of presidential politics, troops in Syria fall far below other considerations like the economy, illegal immigration, gun rights, impeachment, etc. Most Americans don’t know who the Kurds are and are more concerned about their sons and daughters in the military that may have to go to war to defend them.
Trump can point to the defeat of ISIS and withdrawing forces out of danger in Syria – a political promise kept (Something of a political rarity in America).
It’s not enough to win reelection, but it will not hurt.
Is Trump Serious About Syria? Here’s What You Must Always remember
By James Jay Carafano
October 10, 2019
Can anything President Trump touches not become an occasion for beating our breasts and rending our garments? Voices in Washington on the right and left are hyperventilating over the president allegedly giving a green light to military operations in Syria. Maybe they should catch their breath first. It is always a bad idea to measure U.S. foreign policy based on Trump’s tweets, on speculative reporting, or on imaginative interpretation of what the president meant. For starters, why not start with the actual policy? As a Department of Defense statement clarified, “The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey — as did the President — that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria. The U.S. Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation.” So, for starters, let’s be clear about the fact that the United States didn’t do anything.
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Time for a Collective Defense in the Middle East
By James Jay Carafano
September 23, 2019
Trump has delivered on most of his foreign-policy initiatives, but there is one big exception: his proposal for a Middle East security architecture. The idea never got off the ground. If it had, then the recent attack on Saudi oil production might never have happened. Iran could have been deterred from messing with its neighbors. Perhaps the time has come to put the initiative back on the agenda. The Middle East desperately needs a sustainable framework to ensure long term peace and stability. When the fledgling Trump administration suggested something that sounded like a NATO for the Middle East, there was plenty of skepticism. The last time a president tried anything like that—Eisenhower, during the height of the Cold War—it did not end well. But times have changed. Trump came into office with the right instincts. The United States can’t babysit the Middle East. On the other hand, American cannot turn its back on the region.
For one thing, there’s oil. Sure, the United States has plenty of energy, and the whole world is enjoying cheap oil. But, Middle East oil is pivotal to global energy markets. Major disruptions of production there will hurt our friends, allies, and trading and business partners around the globe.
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The Implications of a Turkish Intervention in Northeastern Syria
By Will Todman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
October 7, 2019
Late on October 6, President Donald Trump spoke to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and said he would no longer oppose a Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria against the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The estimated 100 to 150 U.S. military personnel who were deployed to the area have begun to withdraw from U.S. military facilities near the Turkish border, although some U.S. troops are expected to remain in eastern Syria. The White House announced that Turkey would assume responsibility for all Islamic State group (ISG) fighters in the area. Late on October 7, Turkish shelling reportedly hit a Syrian border town.
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Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
October 4, 2019
The current crisis in Iraq is partly the result of the failures by its current leadership and political figures, the legacy of the fighting against ISIS, and the result of short-term policy decisions. It is also driven, however, by a range of civil forces that are the result of long-term structural problems that have led to major political upheavals and conflicts throughout the region, that lead to the rise of extremism and terrorism, and that affect every aspect of Iraq’s present and future. Iraq is scarcely the only case in point. The same long-term civil challenges have limited U.S. success in its other “long wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria — as well as in more limited involvements in nations like Libya and Yemen.
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Iraq Pushes Back Against Iranian Influence
By Ilan I. Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
October 8, 2019
Suddenly, Iran’s clerical regime doesn’t seem quite so powerful. In recent weeks, Iran’s increasingly aggressive regional behavior (including its involvement in the September 14th attack on Saudi oil facilities), and the tepid response to this activity from the United States and its allies, has conveyed the unmistakable impression that Tehran is on the march. But now, Iranian leaders are experiencing some unexpected problems closer to home, in neighboring Iraq. Over the past week, mass protests have spread throughout Iraq, with thousands of citizens taking to the streets in a widening – and increasingly bloody – grassroots revolt. The fury of the protestors is directed at a lot of things. It is a response to the notorious mismanagement and disfunction of the Iraqi government, which current Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has failed to tackle resolutely. It is likewise about the country’s endemic corruption and graft, which watchdog groups like Transparency International have ranked as among the worst in the world. But the protests are about something else as well: Iran’s pervasive political interference on the territory of its western neighbor. The spark that ignited the current ferment was the Iraqi government’s decision, in late September, to sack the country’s deputy counterterrorism chief, Lt. Gen. Abdul Wahab al-Saadi. A decorated military commander, al-Saadi had become a folk hero of sorts for his leading role in the Iraqi fight against the Islamic State terrorist group.
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Syria Study Group 2019:Final Report and Recommendations
By Michael Singh and Dana Stroul
In this report, the members of the Syria Study Group (co-chaired by Washington Institute fellows Michael Singh and Dana Stroul) make the case for why Syria matters for U.S. security and why the American public should care. While some argue that it is too late for a reinvigorated U.S. approach to Syria, the study group’s members conclude that the United States can still influence the outcome of the war in a manner that protects U.S. interests. They argue that the United States has meaningful tools of leverage to prevent the reemergence of ISIS and counter other terrorist groups, stop Iran from turning Syria into a forward operating base, provide relief to displaced Syrians and hard-pressed neighbors, and advance a political outcome that stops Syrian territory from serving as a net exporter of terrorism and instability. Achieving these outcomes will require a long-term commitment to a sound strategy, the careful balancing of ends and means, and—most important—political support at the highest levels.
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Shifting Landscape: Russia’s Military Role in the Middle East
By Anna Borshchevskaya
POLICY NOTES 68
In September 2015, Moscow made its first push outside former Soviet borders when it authorized airstrikes in Syria. More pertinently, the move—and Russia’s broader intervention in Syria—constituted a step toward reshaping the whole regional balance of power, taking advantage of a diminishing U.S. footprint. According to the Russian defense minister, the military has since learned to fight in an entirely new way. Establishing long-term bases on Syria’s Mediterranean coast has made the Kremlin’s regional bid more credible still, and arms sales are fortifying its position. In this study, Russia expert Anna Borshchevskaya interweaves rich historical context with detailed military knowledge to explore Moscow’s aspirations, capabilities, and constraints in an area stretching from Turkey to Libya. She makes clear that the United States and the West still hold the edge in this vital strategic region. But without a coherent policy to counter Russia, Washington will flounder in safeguarding its interests, values, and credibility.
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