EXCLUSIVE: Syria – Trump, the Kurds, and the U.S. Troop Withdrawal

by | Jan 7, 2019 |

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Get this in your head! President Trump didn’t abandon the Kurds… there’s a strategy… here is the real story of what really occurred….

In my previous article, I talked about how the President’s decision to pull the 2,200 U.S. forces out of Syria was a good idea. At this time, I’d like to discuss the behind the scenes strategy that is at play with Turkey, the Kurds and other nations, as well as the impact in the region.

As we recall, on December 19th, President Trump announced via Twitter; “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency” — and thus set in motion the process to withdraw the estimated 2,200 U.S. troops in Syria. Also recall, President Trump had stated back in March of this year that he intended to take this important step, but had apparently been persuaded by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other officials within his administration to refrain from implementation. However, the flurry of news reports that followed immediately, citing unnamed administration sources who said that a withdrawal was imminent, as well as indicating that a major reversal of policy was underway. For the most part, that was not totally true with regard to the President’s actual decision.

This was formally confirmed by the White House in a statement by press secretary Sarah Sanders, who said; “We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.” Following that confirmation, a U.S. State Department official noted that all State Department personnel in Syria would be evacuated in 24-hours and the U.S. troops were “expected to start being withdrawn within 60 to 100 days,” which was followed by a statement from the Pentagon that said; “We have started the process of returning U.S. troops home from Syria as we transition to the next phase of the campaign.” Focus on the word “phase,” which I will address at length in what that actually means in this article.

What most are not aware of, and certainly not privy to is the prior months of and current ongoing discussions, meetings, and coordination involving the U.S. national security community which has been working tirelessly behind the scenes in their dealings with the governments Turkey, Syria, Russia, Iraq, NATO, Coalition members, and of course the Kurds. Those discussions involved many questions that pertained to; what was at stake, the pros and cons, the consequences, and the impact and effect on the ongoing military operations of all nations and entities involved. Not to mention other factors, the ebb and flow of all regional threats, and the leveraging through negotiations between all sides. It is a complicated, time consuming effort involving diplomats, political leaders, military generals, and commanders and various warring factions.

Nevertheless, the move came as a surprise to many in the administration, and the President is reported to have had to overcome some internal resistance. As noted, there had been strong indications from officials in recent months that the U.S. military mission in Syria was being adjusted. However, as the conflict with Islamic State was moving toward an end, some believed the mission should be maintained in order to counter Iranian influence in Syria as part of the overall policy of keeping Iranian efforts in the region in check. But as to several drawbacks. For one, there’s not a lot that an operational special operations force can do to counter Iran advisers who are primarily advising Hezbollah units in the eastern and southern part of Syria and already has had extensive involvement with the Assad government for decades. Secondly, realize that Iran is also an adversary of ISIS and are opposed to efforts that ISIS was conducting in Syria. 

Understand that the second the biggest concern about the President’s Syria decision is that the move perhaps puts the Kurds in danger. President Trump is not backing down from his decision to pull troops from Syria. As I have painstakingly pointed out there are only 2,200 or so U.S. troops on the ground in Syria.  These forces are predominantly special operations forces, specifically trained and equipped for the mission of both training other foreign forces and conducting small unit direct action special operations type missions. They are not there to conduct larger missions such as maintaining and holding territory (occupation), conducting nation building, or keeping in check what Russian forces or the Iranian IRGC advisers are doing. They are not the force for that in terms of capability or numbers and are ill-prepared or are restricted from getting anywhere in close proximity to the locations where Russian and Iranian forces are located. Russia has approximately 63,000+ combat and combat support forces in Syria. Iran controls about 70,000 forces deployed in country made up of member of the Iranian military, IRGC troops, Shia militia and Hezbollah fighters.

From the standpoint of withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria was a decision advised by President Trump’s most senior national security experts and advisers. The advocates of this approach included President Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton who said on September 24th that the U.S. troops were “not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders.” U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey—who was in Turkey for three days of talks prior to the Trump-Erdogan call is reported to have attempted unsuccessfully to “slow-roll” Trump’s decision — stating on September 6th; “The new policy is we’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year…that means we are not in a hurry to pull out.” Again, this was in September. But since then significant progress has been made which allowed the President to reach the point we are at today as a result of his announcement last week.

Complex U.S. Diplomatic Maneuver to Keep Turkey Inline and Protect the Kurds

Again, I must raise the point and apply, so to speak, the parameters and strategy as it relates to the Trump Doctrine. A major aspect to understanding President Trump’s so-called ‘unexpected action’ was the result of the President’s decision that had come after the phone call between Trump and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on December 14th. But again, understand, as previously noted that the U.S. officials had been meeting and coordinating with Turkey prior to the phone call between Trump and Erdogan. While the U.S. official added; “Everything that has followed in implementing the agreement that was made in that call.” Of course, that was the icing on the cake to what was agreed to. According to a senior Turkish official, President Trump told Erdogan during the call that “he was planning to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.” In fact, Trump’s efforts came as long-standing U.S.-Turkish differences over northern Syria had once again threatened to flare up into a major dispute between the two countries. Further, also was keenly aware of Erdogan’s move toward more fundamental Islamic ideals and the U.S. President needed to sway the Turkish President’s nation’s responsibility and commitment to NATO, his responsibilities to the Coalition, and to respect the U.S.’s longstanding ties and support to the Kurds, particularly the Syrian Kurds – aka the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) who are the primarily fighters supporting U.S. efforts in destroying ISIS.

Nevertheless, on December 12th, Erdogan had once again denounced U.S. military engagement with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)—identified by Ankara as an integral part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey has been fighting internally for decades—in the context of the ongoing fight against the Islamic State under the umbrella of SDF. After registering his usual complaints about the U.S. supplying provision of the YPG and the SDF, and the failure of the U.S. to implement the June roadmap the two countries had agreed to in June 2018 involving the departure of Syrian Kurdish elements from the city of Manbij, Syria — positioned east of Aleppo and west of the Euphrates River. Erdogan threatened again to send Turkish troops into the area between the river and the Syrian-Iraqi border where U.S. forces were stationed “in a few days” to “cleanse it of terrorists.” Confirming that there would be “no hostility against U.S. soldiers in Syria,” Erdogan backed down and told Trump; “in spite of everything, we continue to see the U.S. as a strategic ally with whom we can advance together in the future if we can agree on the right basis.” President Trump had quelled the dispute and also received assurances that Turkish forces would target ISIS’s remaining elements in Syria and refrain from attacks against the SDF forces in Syria.

It should also be understood, that having privately conveyed his unhappiness over the emergence of “a terrorist belt” with the support of Washington in northern Syria many times during the past four years to both of his U.S. counterparts—Barack Obama and Donald Trump—to little perceptible effect, Erdogan was signaling that he was at the end of his patience. He emphasized his intention to act with another similar declaration on December 14th prior to his conversation with Trump. He said, “We are determined to establish peace and security east of the Euphrates. They should eradicate these terrorist organizations, or else we will do it. Turkey has already lost a lot of time to intervene in the terror swamp east of the Euphrates. From now on, we cannot afford even a one-day delay.” Addressing the United States directly, Erdogan said, “Either you clear them out or we will do it.” In line with Erdogan’s warnings, Turkish media sought to underline the seriousness of the developing crisis through constant live coverage of the military buildup along the border.

Despite Erdogan’s assurances that the planned operation would not target U.S. soldiers, U.S officials were clearly concerned by the potential threat. As a result, a series of follow-on meetings and discussions between December 13th and December 18th to ensure no action would be taken by Turkey against the Syrian Kurds. Further it was agreed that they would be afforded access to the west of the Euphrates and Both Turkey and the U.S. eventually agreeing to a roadmap and, after a long delay, to joint U.S.-Turkish patrols to monitor and observe Kurdish operations and maneuvers.

Despite the intense speculation in Turkey, the order to proceed with a Turkish military operation was not given as President Erdogan wanted to see if Trump would move to end the duality in U.S. policy following their conversation. There has not yet been a public response by Erdogan to Trump’s important gesture, which significantly came on the same day that the State Department approved after a long delay the possible sale of U.S.-made Patriot missile system batteries, there is little doubt that he welcomes it as a major diplomatic gain which clears the way for a third Turkish military advance into northern Syria, against remaining elements of ISIS. Note: The real reason was Trump’s effort to deter and counter Erdogan’s threat to purchase the Russia S-400 Triumf air defense missile system. That in and of itself creates serious problems for NATO that the U.S. was not going to have a part of. Beyond its impact on U.S.-Turkish relations, which is entering a new phase in which Erdogan will expect other long-standing issues on the bilateral agenda to be solved in a similar manner, Trump’s move will have a profound impact on the U.S. relationship with the Syrian Kurds and assurances to their safety and security, as well as on the U.S. limited interests and the military impact in the complicated Syrian regional and geopolitical equation. However, in the immediate future, all eyes will be on the details of the implementation of President Trump’s decision, as well as on the Turkish-Syrian border.

The facts about the Kurds

U.S. Special Operations Forces wearing Kurdish Flag Patches

One extremely important aspect about the Kurds that seems for some reason or another seems to have been forgotten is that the Kurds are tough, capable fighters. Again, the withdrawal of 2,200 American forces from Syria in no way means we have abandoned the Kurds. Not in the least. Long before the U.S. presence in Syria grew to what it currently is, the Kurds have fought for decades against the Turks, Iraq, Iran, al-Qaeda, and ISIS among other groups and factions. They have a reputation as being some of the fiercest and best fighters in the region, and have fought alongside the U.S. during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, with U.S. forces against al-Qaeda in Iraq, Iranian militias, and IRGC-back insurgents and irregular forces in Iraq. And of course, the bane of the current situation with U.S. special operations forces in Syria – receiving U.S. training and in joint operations and tactics against ISIS.

Secondly, the withdrawal of U.S. forces will have little, if any impact, nor will it have any significant of impact in protecting the Kurds. Again, the Kurds don’t need U.S. forces to protect themselves. That justification is a grave and incorrect misnomer that has surfaced both in the mainstream media, with the neo-cons, and even Democrats — albeit as political criticism directed against Trump. It is a sound bite being pushed by those who really don’t know much about the Kurdish forces, or the U.S. mission in Syria. It has suddenly become a false rational since the announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from that country.

The strategic plan for the Kurds

Unfortunately, according to unsubstantiated and unattributed reports making the rounds, and the mainstream media obviously has run with — is that the President made his decision impulsively while on the phone with Turkish President Erdogan. If the media had done just a little research, they would have found the story isn’t accurate. The President’s decision is based on a plan, perhaps a brilliant one.

The Trump State Department, working with the Government of Saudi Arabia will provide security and other forms of support to protect the Kurds. In recent months, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have sent trained replacement military forces to areas controlled by the Kurdish SDF in north-east Syria. They will be stationed with U.S.-led coalition troops and will support its tasks with large military enforcements, as well as heavy and light weapons.

The idea of replacement troops has been in the works for nearly a year, and the Saudi Government and military and the U.S. State Department have corroborated and cooperated on this effort. Both the President Trump and the Saudi Crown Prince have communicated on this issue recently.

The Saudi’s stated that it has contributed $100 million to northeast Syria for “stabilization projects” in areas once held by the Islamic State group and now controlled by U.S.-backed forces. According to the Saudi Embassy in Washington said the money “will save lives, help facilitate the return of displaced Syrians and help ensure that ISIS cannot reemerge to threaten Syria, its neighbors, or plan attacks against the international community.”

It was a proposed plan by President Trump had promised during the campaign, and was in the planning for months. Initial discussions on this occurred during the President’s first meetings with the Middle East nations during his first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia in the spring of 2017. During followup on diplomatic discussions the Trump administration asked Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates to contribute money and troops to stabilize eastern Syria so that the U.S. could pull its 2,200-strong contingent out. This was in line with President Trump’s comment that “we’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” That was in April.

As a result, the President has leveraged his relationship with the Crown Prince, and he is doing what he planned to do for quite some time. At the same time, as has always been the case, both the U.S. NATO and Coalition commitment U.S. airpower are stationed minutes away in Turkey. Likewise, as the President note, there are 5,200 U.S. troop across the border in Iraq, as well sea-based assets in the Mediterranean, if our allies and partners in Syria need our support. Many say it won’t work, but they don’t think strategically, nor want to accept the options. That said, it’s not a catastrophe.

In the wake of this decision and the corresponding strategy by President Trump and his advisers, Turkey was furious at Washington for backing, funding, and the continued arming the Kurdish rebels in northern Syria. Despite, the fact that Turkey has often proposed its army as an alternative to Kurdish forces in fighting ISIS, but has consistently been rebuffed by the Trump administration, unless Turkey agree to  a strict U.S. posed ROE that served specifically to protect the Kurdish forces inside Syria. Nevertheless, they realized President Trump meant and means business and is serious in his decision and his commitment to the primary goal of destroying ISIS and subsequent pulling out the remaining U.S. forces from Syria. In turn, Turkey has now agreed to serve operationally to support Trump’s decision and the Pentagon’s demand to engage any remnants of ISIS in Syria. Understand President Trump engaged the Turkish President based on the position of his nation’s responsibility and commitment as a NATO member nation and partner, as well as standing bi-lateral defense agreements between the two nations.

At the same time, President Trump understands that the Kurds, who have demonstrated impressive effectiveness in the Syrian Civil War, not only serving a vital military function, but also from the standpoint that the Kurds were also instrumental serving as a critical partner in support of our military efforts in Syria against ISIS. They also served us in giving the U.S. a foothold in the diplomatic process and negotiations with the Coalition, Russia, and Damascus to end Syria’s civil war and establish a new government. Many see the effort as an opportunity to leverage President Erdogan to continue to moderate its position with both NATO, and turn its sights on helping to eliminate ISIS in Syria. For Syria, it is also an opportunity for Bashar al-Assad to do the same in Syria — and perhaps set-up the National Liberation Front – comprised of Syrian militias including the Free Syrian Army – to gain military and diplomatic leverage in Syria. The Trump administration used the Kurds leverage for the same diplomatic and military purpose – with part of their function being to ensure that U.S. interests are upheld in the future as well. Again, highlighting the fact that the Trump administration has not abandoned the Kurds.

Further, understand that despite Erdogan’s announcement — that his country had intended to send Turkish forces even deeper into Syria to liberate the city of Manbij from Kurdish control — that was for his national audience and consumption. This would violate his agreement with Washington under which the U.S. and Turkish forces would jointly patrol outside the city. Thus his announcement presented Washington with a dilemma – continue supporting the Kurds or acquiesce to Turkey’s demands? Again, to this end, as previously noted, the U.S. plan is to establish and set-up joint U.S. – Turkish patrols and observation posts in Syria near the Turkish border to warn of and deter any Turkish effort to conduct any assault on the Kurds. Also understand and consider the fact Trump’s national security advisor that John Bolton is in both Israel and Turkey this weekend to discuss the mechanism for the U.S. withdrawal, as well as Turkey’s request for additional U.S. weapons to finish off ISIS.

Further, while the many opponents and critics of President Trump have emphatically stated that Trump’s decision to withdraw the 2,200 combatants and advisers – from Syria shows that Turkey won this round and that the U.S.’s Kurdish allies have been abandoned, left with no American protection except diplomatic pressure. During President Trump’s visit to Iraq over Christmas said; “We’ll be watching ISIS very closely … We’ll be watching them very, very closely, the remnants of ISIS.” The President also said he had no plans to withdraw the 5,200 U.S. forces in Iraq. Trump said that after U.S. troops in Syria return home, Iraq could still be used to stage attacks on the small number of remaining ISIS elements.

Let me close by making and offering some final points … and I’ll be blunt and direct:

FIRST, Get this in your head. Here’s the real facts, “protecting the Kurds” is somewhat of a baseless cliché, a misnomer, not grounded in any policy, ever. The reality, the Kurds as a nationality and a culture, are a dominant and powerful force in the region, across Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Turkey, and Syria. The difference between them and other powerful groups, such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, or Hamas is that they are not an aggressor or belligerent force. They’re strength and power in there is in their ability and capability to defend and protect their culture, religion, and nationality. They have existed as a people, long before the U.S. got involved in the Middle East defending themselves against the likes of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey going back to the 10th Century. Our relationship with the Kurds as an ally is notable, has been beneficial to our efforts, perhaps even more than they need us. We needed them somewhat more to support or missions and we as a nation and certainly our armed forces worked well with them. Having been part of that, I can attest to it. But the Kurds by no means need us. To be blunt, they don’t need us… at all!

SECONDLY, let’s also be realistic, our 2,200 special operations forces on the ground in northeast Syria are not a protectorate force the Kurds, that was never the intent, was never the mission and never our responsibility. Our mission was to provide them advanced training in tactics, leadership, planning, and weapons. Likewise, it was a joint-combined military partnership to engage and fight ISIS.

THIRD, once again, neither are the 2,200 special operators in Syria the right military compliment and nor the right mission-set to counter and keep the 63,000+ Russians military and 70,000 Iranian forces that are spread across Syria, in check!  Also understand that the Iranians have been in Syria for decades, so for it to suddenly become a mission priority for the U.S. forces to monitor and surveil their movements and operations is ridiculous. It’s totally out of context! That said, as I previously noted, the Kurds will continue to be supported militarily by the U.S. with air support, intelligence, and by U.S. forces stationed and deployed across the border in Iraq and Turkey, as well as those afloat in the Mediterranean.

In the end, after weighing all the factors, understand — President Trump has made the right decision! Having essentially won the war against ISIS, he understands the critical remaining risks to U.S. forces — he does not want to lose the peace by getting into a military conflict with the Bashar al-Assad’s forces, with the Iranians, nor the Russians — or even with the Turks for that matter.

When President Trump took office, he was assured that the reason we sent troops into Syria in 2014 was to assist local Kurdish SDF forces in destroying the ISIS, he soon realized that was not the case. He revised and approved the continuation of this limited mission – to training the Kurds – the SDF and to destroy ISIS. With few remaining ISIS elements, this mission is now complete. The Islamic State no longer exists as a territorial entity. To be sure, scattered bands of ISIS forces — numbering perhaps 500 — still operate in parts of eastern Syria. Again, as I stated previously, the mopping-up operations can be done by the Saudi’s, the Turks, the SDF, or by the Syrian army, or even by the Russians. It certainly does not require a continued U.S. presence, and President Trump can declare; “mission accomplished.”

In addition one other note, again, consider the concerns that President Trump had to and must deal with…if we stay in Syria much longer, we risk the possibility that could wind up fighting not ISIS, but the Syrian government forces, the Iranians, and or perhaps the Russians as well.

Looking back, understand that in early 2018, U.S. forces operating east of the Euphrates have already destroyed a Russian armored column that was advancing on them in a hostile manner. That battle, which resulted in over 200 hundred Russian casualties, could easily have escalated into a wider conflict. Of course, now Russia’s Putin is happy to see the U.S. pull out of Syria, but so what? What do they gain? Syria has been a client state of Russia for a long time, as it has that of Iran. I will offer this … let Russia pour the blood of its young men into the desert sands of the Middle East for a change.

At another level, President Trump has been criticized for making the decision to withdraw after consulting with President Erdogan. Again, Turkey is a legitimate sanctioned full blown NATO member nation. So why shouldn’t we be working with our NATO ally, which has its own concerns about terrorists on its southern border? The same people who love to attack this president for not working more closely with our NATO allies have now turned on a dime and are criticizing him for coordinating with Turkey. WTF!  Yes, the neocons, Establishment, and now even Democrats – always hypocrites and now new members of the perpetual war opportunists.

Finally, again, for the Kurds. Much of the angst in the Pentagon over the U.S. withdrawal has to do with the perception that we are abandoning our Kurdish “allies.” One other point, the Kurds fought alongside us not because they had any particular affection for America, actually they do — but it’s because the ISIS caliphate was occupying their towns and villages. That was about survival, not U.S. friendship.

As a career senior military officer who served in the Middle East, as well as alongside the Kurds, I can understand the loyalty that some American foreign policy wonks and even some commanders on the ground, including now former Secretary Defense Jim Mattis, feel for their Kurdish battle brothers in arms. I get it! … and fully understand it. But there is a less visible plan and strategy as I address. To that end, I am glad that President Trump understands that one of the commitments he made and to which he was elected, was to keep Americans safe – unfortunately he did not intend that to mean the Kurds, not Syrians, Iraqis, or Afghans either, for that matter. Hence, as I have I covered in-depth, there is no reason to keep U.S. forces in Syria. In fact, there is no reason to keep American forces in harm’s way anywhere, unless it directly benefits the United States and its interests in direct, tangible ways.

And oh by the way, Turkey is now building a massive border barricade to secure its border and keep those fleeing the conflict in Syria and refugees from other parts of the Middle East…what logical reason would cause them to do that?


Jim Waurishuk is a retired USAF Colonel, serving nearly 30-years as a career senior intelligence and political-military affairs officer and special mission intelligence officer with expertise in strategic intelligence, international strategic studies and policy, and asymmetric warfare. He served as a special mission intelligence officer assigned to multiple Joint Special Operations units and with the CIA’s Asymmetric Warfare Task Force and international and foreign advisory positions. He served as Deputy Director for Intelligence for U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) during the peak years of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Global War on Terrorism.

Waurishuk is a former White House National Security Council staffer and a former Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C. He served as a senior advisor to the Commander U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and served as Vice President of the Special Ops-OPSEC.

Currently, he is the Chairman of the Hillsborough County (FL) Republican Executive Committee and Party and serves on the Executive Board of the Republican Party of Florida.

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