By Michael Isenberg.
Turkish warplanes are pummeling civilian regions in the northeast part of that country.
The president of Turkey, Islamist Recip Erdogan, explained the objectives for this operation two weeks ago. He stood up at the UN—whose mission, according to its charter is “the suppression of acts of aggression”—and announced his plans for an act of aggression. Specifically, he intends to forcibly carve off a 32 km slice of northern Syria which he described, in Orwellian tones, as a “peace corridor.”
Mr. Erdogan has wanted to seize this Syrian territory along his southern border for some time. He claims that the YPG, the Kurdish militia units in northern Syria, are allied with the PKK, the extremist Kurdish Workers Party in his own country, although most observers outside of Turkey dispute that.
The only thing that has been stopping Erdogan up to now is the presence of US troops in the region who are protecting the Kurds. President Trump tweeted today that there are only 50 US soldiers involved. Not a large deployment. Just enough to let the Turks know that war against the Kurds would mean war against the United States.
Until Monday. Following a weekend phone conversation with Mr. Erdogan, President Trump announced that he was removing the troops. He spun the decision as part of an overall strategy to keep his campaign promises. “I was elected on getting out of these ridiculous endless wars,” he tweeted, “where our great Military functions as a policing operation to the benefit of people who don’t even like the USA.”
But a press release from the Pentagon yesterday cast the decision in a very different light:
The Department's position has been and remains that establishing a safe zone in northern Syria is the best path forward to maintaining stability.
Unfortunately, Turkey has chosen to act unilaterally. As a result we have moved the U.S. forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety. We have made no changes to our force presence in Syria at this time.
It’s not hard to read between the lines here. On his phone call with Trump, Erdogan threatened to invade the “peace corridor” regardless of what the US did. Trump crumbled. He should have told Erdogan, "If a US soldier gets so much as a scratch at the hands of Turkish forces, we'll mine the f--king Bosporus." Nixon would have done it. But instead, brave Sir Donald ran away.
He really needs to stop having these phone calls with foreign leaders.
Pulling out of northern Syria is a terrible decision. As I wrote on Twitter, “The #Kurds allied with the US & fought & died in the front lines to defeat #ISIS. Now @RealDonaldTrump is throwing them under the bus. It's not right, and it's not good for the US. No one is going to ally with us if they see we don't stand by our allies.”
Let me be clear: I don’t advocate US troops forcing regime change in Syria. That ship has sailed. Nor do I advocate some vague open-ended mission to pacify the entire country. But I do advocate a limited, well-defined mission in the northern part of the country to protect the Kurds. They earned that much from us.
Trump compared the US role to a “policing operation” and I’d like to explore that metaphor. I agree that the US should never have become northern Syria's policeman. But it is unconscionable to take on that role, as we have done, and then, when a murderer and thief shows up on the stoop and starts kicking in the door, tell the poor homeowner, “We changed our mind. We don’t want to be the police anymore. Good luck to you.”
According to the BBC, which cited the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “almost 300 civilians were killed in the eight-week battle, along with 1,500 Kurdish militiamen…At least 137,000 civilians fled their homes.” The Turks’ name for the invasion, “Operation Olive Branch,” at first appeared to be yet another messed up bit of Orwellian Newspeak, but turned out to be singularly appropriate when reports emerged that the occupying army was stealing the olive crop from the people of Afrin.
Saleh Ibo, deputy chairmen of the Afrin Agricultural Council, says “80% of the people of Afrin made their living through olives and olive oil. The Turkish state already forced most of the people to migrate with their invasion. And now they are trying to get the remaining people to leave Afrin through violence and financial ruin to complete the demographic change.” He accuses the Turks of not only confiscating the olive harvest, but of taking processing equipment out of the district, and even cutting down significant numbers of the olive trees themselves, guaranteeing that the people of Afrin will not only not receive the payoff from their labors this year, but will have no way of earning a living there in the future.
The Turkish government isn’t even trying to hide its looting. It admits to taking at least 600 tons of olives back to Turkey. Speaking to Parliament, Bekir Pakdemirli, the agricultural minister, fessed up. “We do not want revenues to fall into PKK hands,” he explained. “We want the revenues from Afrin... to come to us. This region is under our hegemony.”
President Trump’s decision to pull out US troops now exposes all of Northern Syria to the looting and ethnic cleansing that the Turks inflicted on Afrin.
Upon tweeting my opposition to the US pullout, I was instantly under attack, and received a number of tweets calling me names, including this one from a woman in a military family: “Then you go, or send your kids. My family sacrificed enough. All you people calling for war never fought or had a family member fighting there and won’t in the future either. Then the troops come home sick and you bastards give illegal aliens better treatment. SFTFU”
Well, at least it wasn’t as insulting as another tweet I received. That one called me a leftist.
Despite her indulgence in the ad hominem fallacy, the woman from the military family does make a serious point, which I’d like to address: that US foreign wars are causing severe hardships on our soldiers and veterans and it’s time for the US to put down its burden as the world’s policeman and bring our troops home.
I freely acknowledge they’ve made more sacrifices than I ever did. I have the greatest respect and admiration for this woman and her family, and all of our fellow citizens who sign up completely voluntarily to go to the worst s—tholes on earth in the service of our country. But it’s because I respect and admire them that I think it’s a mistake to pull out of northern Syria. Because the pullout is going to cause much greater hardships for our soldiers down the road.
Polonius may have been a “foolish prating knave,” but he got one thing right: “Beware of entrance to a quarrel,” he said, “but being in, bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.” Sadly, in Syria, the US did neither.
The best way to get out of “ridiculous endless wars” and keep US troops out of harm’s way is not to enter them in the first place (Beware of entrance to a quarrel). That's why I opposed US intervention in Syria when the Obama Administration stepped up our entanglement there back in 2013. But once you’re in, things get complicated, and if you walk away, instead of seeing that the opposed may beware of thee, there are serious consequences.
Anyone who’s lived through the last fifty years of history has seen these consequences unfold in front of their eyes. In 1975, the US walked away from its commitments to South Vietnam in the face of a renewed North Vietnamese invasion. During the next four years, encouraged by what it saw as weakness on the part of the United States, communist insurgents overran the nations of Indochina, and seven additional nations in other parts of the world. A hundred million people lost their freedom, and, in the genocides and massacres that followed, some five million people lost their lives at the hands of their new rulers.
Perhaps more significant for our current Middle East involvement was the 1993 decision by the Clinton Administration to pull US forces out of Somalia in the wake of unexpected casualties in the “Black Hawk Down” incident and the Battle of Mogadishu. Our opponent there, warlord Muhammad Aidid, received material and training from al-Qaeda. What happened in Mogadishu wasn't lost on al-Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden. In a 1998 interview with ABC News’s John Miller, he said that the Mujahideen veterans fighting in Somalia,
were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the America soldiers are paper tigers. After a few blows, the Americans ran away in defeat. After a few blows, they forgot about being the world leader and the leader of the new world order.
They left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat, and stopped using such titles.
They learned in America that this name [i.e., God] is larger than them. When this great defeat took place I was in Sudan, and it pleased me very much, just as it pleases all Muslims.
Like the communists, bin Laden was encouraged by what he saw as the weakness of the United States. The deaths of 3,000 people in the September 11 attacks three years later were the tragic consequences.
Osama bin Laden is dead, but the US still has enemies. The next Osama bin Laden is out there, watching the US run away in defeat from northern Syria without even a few blows, and drawing his own conclusions. I hope he will not be encouraged by Trump’s foolish withdrawal to launch future attacks against the United States, attacks which once again will require us to put American troops in harm’s way.
But sadly, history tells us otherwise.
Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com
Photo credit(s): BBC, Twitter