October 7, 2019

TWO TAKES ON THE SYRIA DECISION THAT DISAGREE WITH THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: (1) Security Studies Group: The Syria Decision.

As we warned at the time, the American position was much more exposed and much less tenable than was commonly understood. . . .

Just as allowing Iran to run wild hurts China much more than it hurts the United States, China is harmed by our allowing the Turks to provoke an insurgency that will bedevil the stability of the very region where China intends its massive investments. The wars that China’s own allies are starting are going to be the biggest tax on China’s growing power and influence, which means it will become China’s problem — and not America’s — to stop those wars. That means that China and Turkey, and not America, will end up paying the cost of Middle Eastern security. The danger they face is that they will overextend themselves, and provoke fights they cannot walk away from in the process. It may be a bigger burden than Erdogan or Xi imagine that they are taking on here.

It is unlikely that President Trump thinks so strategically or so ruthlessly. More likely he is simply convinced that these wars drain American blood and treasure in an unacceptable way, and he just intends to stop doing it whatever it costs.

(2) Trump’s Syria withdrawal bravely puts America First, the establishment last. “His decision will stop risking American lives and wasting taxpayer dollars on policing Middle East politics. This is long overdue, seeing as our security goals in Syria have already been accomplished. To recap, the U.S. military first intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2014. Our goal was to destroy the Islamic State Caliphate, as the terrorist group had built up territorial control of much of the conflict-ridden region. Mission accomplished.”

Well, I’m fine on reducing our commitments to the region. Trump’s diplomatic approach has the Arab world allied with Israel, and Saudi Arabia liberalizing internally. And thanks to fracking, the mideast isn’t that important to us anymore. On the other hand, the Kurds are good people, and I don’t like leaving them hanging, which is what this looks like to me. On that point, I’m in general agreement with Tom Rogan: “We relied upon the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and other Kurdish militias in order to substantially degrade ISIS. Yes, Western special operations played a crucial role in this effort. But the Kurds took the brunt of the casualties. And the Kurds kept fighting alongside us even after their northern heartlands had been retaken. Their tenacious courage saved American lives by denying ISIS the space and time to plot attacks against Western homelands.”

UPDATE: Two more: Walter Russell Mead: Trump’s Jacksonian Syria Withdrawal.

Explaining his decision to pull U.S. troops away from the Turkish-Syrian border at the cost of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and open the way for Turkish forces to create what Ankara calls a “safety zone,” President Trump tweeted early Monday that “it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.” . . .

Mr. Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to try to hold America back from a Middle East conflict. President Obama made a similar, and similarly hasty, decision in 2013 when he chose not to respond to Syria’s violation of his chemical weapons “red line” with a military strike. Many of the same people criticizing Mr. Trump today criticized Mr. Obama then, and the subsequent course of the Syrian war underlined both the humanitarian and the strategic case against Mr. Obama’s decision. Mr. Trump’s Syria decision may also prove to be a mistake, but it should give the establishment pause that two presidents as different as Messrs. Obama and Trump reached similar conclusions about the political risks in the Middle East.

The U.S. may be the most powerful actor in the region, but it can’t resolve the economic and social conflicts that destabilize the Middle East. As long as this is the case, those who want presidents to commit to long-term military engagements, however limited and however advantageous, must expect a skeptical hearing in the Oval Office.

Plus: Syria Could Be Turkey’s Vietnam. “Erdoğan may talk about a terror threat emanating from northern Syria, but he has yet to prove that one exists. Quite the contrary: Not only were Syrian Kurds the most effective indigenous fighting force against the Islamic State, there is also overwhelming evidence that Turkey cooperated, profited from, and at times coordinated with Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic State. . . . Erdoğan may be cocky, but he could be falling into a trap. Turkey’s drones may give it a qualitative military edge in mountains and rural regions but may be of substantially less utility in the northern Syrian cities if limiting collateral damage is any concerns. The Kurds have extensive experience fighting on the ground. Meanwhile, recent political purges of the Turkish military make the Turkish Army a shell of its former self. With Kurdish insurgents voluntarily going into Syria at Turkey’s request as part of the previous peace agreement, Syrian Kurds simply have no place to go. A century ago, Turkish forces slaughtered the Armenians by marching them into the desert to their deaths; the Kurds refuse to be the sequel. Turkish invasion and ethnic cleansing—Turkey’s stated purpose is to settle a couple million Arabs in the region—will spark insurgency in northeastern Syria and across Turkey.”

Things have changed in the mideast, but when your decisions about Syria are compared to Obama’s, it’s not a good sign.

Plus, it’s a NATO thing.

I am speaking, of course, of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is, increasingly, Turkey’s effective dictator. But it’s crucial to emphasize that these are Nato forces. This not only means they are supplied with state-of-the-art weaponry; it also means those weapons are being maintained by other Nato members.

Fighter jets, helicopter gunships, even Turkey’s German-supplied Panzer forces – they all degrade extremely quickly under combat conditions. The people who continually inspect, maintain, repair, replace, and provide them with spare parts tend to be contractors working for American, British, German or Italian firms. Their presence is critical because the Turkish military advantage over Northern Syria’s “People’s Defense Forces” (YPG) and “Women’s Defense Forces” (YPJ), those defenders of Kobane that Turkey has pledged to destroy, is entirely dependent on them.

That’s because, aside from its technological advantage, the Turkish army is a mess. Most of its best officers and even pilots have been in prison since the failed coup attempt in 2016, and it’s now being run by commanders chosen by political loyalty instead of competence. Rojava’s defenders, in contrast, are seasoned veterans.

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