Before the Turkish offensive in Northeast Syria on 9 October 2019, the United States and its allies had already undoubtedly suffered a series of defeats in Syria: the man they had seek to remove, Bashar al-Assad, was still in place; the countless crimes perpetrated by his regime and supporters had gone unpunished; declared opponents of the West – Russia and Iran – had seized Syria; as a result, Russia had made a dramatic return to the region and Iran felt encouraged to stand up to the Westerners.
In any conflict, within each side, there are always supporters of continuing the fight and advocates of abandoning it – appeasers, defeatists or simply realists, depending on one’s perspective. The supporters of a “hard” line in the Syrian case could claim a won battle – against Daesh – and a maintained position – Northeast Syria – controlled by American special forces (as well as French and British) allied on the ground to the Kurdish YPG (forming with its Arab allies the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF). This territory represented at least a trump card for a possible future political settlement. A Western military presence alongside the SDF was also a guarantee against a resurgence of Daesh. This was in particular the policy defended by the Trump administration’s team entrusted with the Syrian dossier and led by Ambassador Jim Jeffrey.
Why this American Withdrawal?
The supporters of the abandonment thesis, in think tanks or elsewhere, put forward other arguments: why should the US continue to take risks in these distant and dangerous countries, when Daesh has been defeated? Was it not obvious that maintaining an American military presence (even with a French and British support) was not sustainable in the long term? To this was added another element: it was time to reconcile with Turkey, even if it meant sacrificing the Kurds. The local ally of the West, the YPG, highly appreciated by our soldiers and haloed with the sympathy of our countries for the Kurdish cause, is nonetheless a branch of the PKK, a Kurdish movement considered by Ankara to be a terrorist threat that must be fought in Syria as well as in Turkey.
Considerations about regional equilibrium beyond the Syrian scene could have tipped the balance in favour of the first thesis. As indicated only a few weeks ago in a report prepared by a bi-partisan group of experts mandated by the United States Congress – the Syria Study Group -, the option of maintaining an American military presence in Northeast Syria was cost-effective in an unparalleled way, from a strategic perspective: a thousand special forces, supported by high-performance air cover, would block the Shiite corridor linking Iran to the Mediterranean along the Euphrates River.
Admittedly, Donald Trump himself has always sided with those who support abandoning the fight, for obvious reasons of respect for his electoral promises (withdrawal of all operations in external theatres). He had shown it for the first time, on 20 December last year, by deciding on a complete withdrawal of American forces from Syria – already following a conversation with President Erdoğan. However, he had been convinced by his Republican allies in Congress and by his own collaborators to leave a residual force behind. This summer, a compromise was also reached between Turks and Americans on a limited “security zone” in Syrian territory, with joint Turkish-American patrols – thus reducing Turkish frustration.
All this was swept away in a few days at the beginning of October 2019. On the 6th, in a telephone conversation with Mr. Erdoğan, Trump gave the green light to a Turkish offensive against Northeast Syria. He ordered the withdrawal of American special forces stationed at the border. On the 9th, the Turkish army began bombarding Kurdish positions and entering Northeast Syria into areas of Arab settlement (the cities of Tall Abyad and Ras al-Ain). As it is now the modus operandi in the region, bombardment does not spare the civilian population. Hundreds of families fled, the Turkish army deployed Arab militias grouped under the name of the Syrian National Army, which represent little more than mercenary bands. These auxiliaries immediately began to commit acts of violence and murders.
A Defeat for the West
One could have imagined, during the first 48 hours, that Washington’s ignominious abandonment of the Kurds would not be total. However, the scenario of a lesser evil – failure by the Turks to cross a line 30 kilometres from the border, maintenance of Western protection of Kurds in the rest of the territory – very quickly vanished. On the 13th, the White House and the Secretary of State for Defense, noting that the attackers were assailing the lines of communication and even American positions, announced a complete recall of American special forces. The next day, the YPG, while seeking the protection of the Russians, called on Bashar al-Assad to have his forces take up positions in certain cities it had controlled until now. An agreement was reached, under the auspices of Russia, “inviting” FDS fighters to join the ranks of the Fifth Syrian Army Corps, which includes militiamen who had joined the regime.
Under these conditions, the Westerners have not only lost a series of battles in Syria, they have now lost the war. Their defeat, already well under way, is now consummated. A truly incredible video shows Syrian army vehicles crossing US army vehicles on a road leading to Kobane. Russian troops set up in the evening in camps hastily abandoned in the morning by American soldiers. For now (the future may still hold surprises), the main beneficiary of this situation is none other than the regime of Bashar al-Assad – and perhaps Daesh, who can only take advantage of the chaos surrounding the recent events.
Donald Trump’s statements reached the height of surrealism when he accused the YPG of treason, since he submitted to Assad, and, contradictorily, threatened to impose the worst economic sanctions on Turkey to encourage it “not to go too far”. On this last point, he promised to work with Congress, as domestic politics never loses its rights (the Turkish offensive and Trump’s approval are largely due to domestic political motives). The American President triumphantly tweeted the “End of endless wars”. As a result, an air of moral disarray and unworthy hysteria floats in Washington around a strategic defeat that he himself has planned.
Neo-authoritarians: Winners of the Syrian Chaos
The image of a defeat of the West may seem excessive from Paris, Brussels or New York. Yet it permeates the reactions of the various actors in the Middle East. A remarkable article by Martin Chulov written on 14 October from Northeast Syria for The Guardian bears witness to this. “The public handover on show was that between the Assad regime and the Kurds, but the real power shift was between Washington – whose fighting troops have all but left the region, 16 years after invading Iraq – and Moscow, whose reach and influence across the Middle East has now been cemented”. It so happens that Mr Putin has been welcomed, on 14 and 15 October, with the greatest respect, in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. I myself have been in Abu Dhabi in recent days for the Beirut Institute Summit, which brings together a number of Middle East leaders.
The reading made by all the participants coincided exactly with Martin Chulov’s assessment. On the condition, however, that one point is added: for the Gulf countries in particular, the American debacle in Northeast Syria only confirms the devaluation of the American security guarantee already illustrated by the Trump administration’s weak reaction to the 14 September attack, commonly attributed to Iran, against Saudi oil installations. Many participants at the Beirut Institute Summit considered that a US military withdrawal from Iraq is now only a matter of time.
What preliminary conclusions can we draw for Europeans? The first priority for them is to try to recover as many foreign jihadists as possible, whose nuisance capacity is suddenly (but predictably) reactivated. In the long term, Mr Trump’s attitude reinforces the urgency for Europe to invest in its defence and security capabilities. On a more political level, America’s allies in the Middle East will not suddenly stop considering their security in terms of an American guarantee. However, while Russia is now being courted by the Gulf States, their attitude towards Iran is also changing: the search for a dialogue with Tehran is now on the agenda. This is a (rather positive) development to which European diplomacy must adapt.
Finally, the question of Turkey, already difficult before the Turkish offensive in Northeast Syria, is even more complex. The Europeans cannot fail to mark the occasion following the latest developments, but must not lose sight of their long-term interest in finding a modus vivendi with Ankara. In what has just happened, we can recognize the “new authoritarians”’s touch in handling geopolitics: Putin, Erdoğan, and Trump all excel in the art of arguing and then reconciling; they understand each other and conduct business much more easily than with actual democratic leaders. In fact, on 17 October, Mr. Trump sent his Vice-President, Mike Pence, to Ankara to discuss with Erdoğan. An agreement was quickly reached between the two men, suspending the Turkish offensive for five days in order to give the Kurdish forces time to withdraw from the area coveted by Turkey. Then Erdoğan went to Sochi on the 22nd and met with Putin for several hours. Once again, an agreement was found, which will allow the Turks to control part of Northeast Syria, when in other parts of the “security zone”, Syrian and Russian forces will handle pushing the Kurdish forces away. As incredible as it may seem, Turkish-Russian patrols will be set-up to monitor the new line inside Syria where Turkey has decided to stay. It is very likely that in exchange, Putin obtained from Erdoğan a free pass for Assad’s regime to launch the long delayed offensive against Idlib. One could not have imagined a more complete fiasco for Western powers.