What did US know about Turkey’s Syria invasion plans?
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Almost a month after the momentous phone call that led US President Donald Trump to decide to withdraw from parts of eastern Syria many questions remain about what Trump’s closest advisors knew about Turkey’s plans to invade northern Syria. The October 6 decision by the President to withdraw took many by surprise and has been portrayed as a “betrayal” of America’s Kurdish allies that enabled Turkey and Turkish-backed extremists to attack a peaceful area, displacing more than 200,000 in a month.
The original US statement by the White House said that Turkey would be “moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria.” The US would not support or be involved. Trump claimed the US had defeated ISIS and that captured ISIS fighters would now be the responsibility of Turkey. We now know that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was, at that very moment being tracked to a compound just a few kilometers from the Turkish border in Idlib province. Twenty days after Trump’s phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan which caused him to decide to withdraw, Trump would sit in the Situation Room and watch the raid.
The raid, on October 26, would kill Baghdadi and several ISIS members. It would also reveal that the US did not trust Turkish intelligence to catch Baghdadi, even though he was found in an area where Turkey has observation posts. Trump watched the raid with Brig. Gen. Marcus Evans, the deputy of special operations on the Joint Staff, and Robert O’Brien, his national security advisor, as well as secretary of defense Mark Esper, chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley. Vice-President Mike Pence was also there. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was not present.
Pompeo and the State Department’s envoy for Syria James Jeffrey played a key role in working with Turkey in the lead-up to Turkey’s invasion of Syria on October 9. Yet Jeffrey told US Senators on October 22 during a hearing that he was not consulted by Trump regarding the October 6 decision. A survey of State Department official press releases shows that Pompeo did not speak appear to speak publicly about the Syria crises from October 6 to 9 and that after the Turkish invasion the US role was unclear.
The depiction of Jeffrey being kept out of the loop on Syria policy appears to dovetail with the December 2018 decision when he also wasn’t consulted by Trump before the President first chose to withdraw. But what about Pompeo during this crucial period. He spoke to the Iraqi Prime Minister on October 8 and the readout doesn’t mention Syria. But Iraq must have been worried about the fate of ISIS detainees that the US seemed to be saying the SDF or Turkey might release.
A key statement came on October 10, after Turkey and Syrian rebel forces it supports, invaded Syria and began killing members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the US had been working with.
The October 10 briefing with a senior official suddenly shows the US switch views of the SDF. The US described the SDF as a partner, but notes that a major component of it is the YPG “which is the Syrian offshoot of the PKK.” The State Department then says the PKK has conducted “horrific terrorist attacks” against Turkey. Has the YPG conducted any attacks from Syria? The US doesn’t say. Has the US worked to make the SDF into a different group, not conducting attacks? The US doesn’t say. The US describes the Kurdish population as having “their own concerns.” This is as they were being bombed. The US only has “security interests” in Syria. In this briefing the US says it worked with Turkey to allow it access to a depth of 30km into Syria and “Turkish air operations in accordance with our coalition air tasking order.” In short, the US worked with Turkey to establish what it calls a “safe zone” in which Turkey would then attack the SDF, America’s own partners.
The US State Department official then said that Turkey was going for its “maximalist position, and one that we thought we had negotiated them down from, that is, to push out 30 km to the M4 highway.” Turkey had a “new rationale besides the security of Turkey,” which was to move 3 million Syrian refugees into that area and that it would be based “upon very, very significant European Union financial support.” The US said that it was working on a better relationship with Turkey on “moving forward on military and financial and trade issues.” Turkey and the US were having a “good conversation because it’s a very good set of steps we want to move forward on with Turkey.” There was one caveat. “If Turkey acts in a way that is disproportionate, inhumane or otherwise goes beyond the lines that the President has in his own mind,” then there could be sanctions. The US insisted it did not give Turkey a “green light.”
In no statement did the US discuss IDPs or refugees being forced out by Turkey’s offensive. It also didn’t mention the Syrian National Army, a collection of Syrian rebel and jihadist groups that Turkey had brought to be part of its offensive. On October 11 when Brian Hook, the Special Representative on Iran, spoke, he did not mention Syria. This, despite the fact, that US policy had been to reduce Iran’s role in Syria.
By October 14, with tens of thousands fleeing the Turkish offensive and in the wake of the murder of Kurdish activist Hevrin Khalaf by Turkish-backed forces, the US imposed sanctions. Khalaf had been killed on October 12, dragged from her car and machine-gunned. Turkey called it a “successful neutralization.” She was unarmed and had struggled for peace and coexistence with Turkey. The US said Turkey had endangered civilians and its acts led to the deterioration of peace. When Pompeo spoke on a podcast on October 15 he didn’t mention Syria, an indication it didn’t seem to be a priority. 160,000 people had been displaced already from areas where they believed US patrols would keep them secure. On October 16 Pompeo spoke with Turkey’s foreign minister and said the US had called on Turkey to stop its invasion. He then flew to Ankara on October 17 and then to Jerusalem where he expressed support for Israel in its struggle with Iran.
James Jeffrey met with Turkish officials on October 17 and sought a “ceasefire,” but he Turkey refused to use the term and berated Jeffrey to call it a five-day pause. According to Jeffrey Turkey would be allowed a “safe zone” inside Syria up to 30 kilometers and the YPG would be removed. Turkey would get the M4-M10 highway, “also the road” in his notes, and Turkey would “focus on taking care of humanitarian issues in the zone, protection of religious and ethnic minorities, take care of civilian, humanitarian issues, managing and monitoring human rights.” The SDF would have to withdraw and the US would be handing over control of the airspace and ground to Turkey. The 200,000 people forced to flee would not be able to return and the US did not insist on their return or mention the Turkish-backed forces that had been filmed murdering people and calling for the beheading of “kuffar” or “infidels.”
On October 18 Pompeo met NATO leader Jens Stoltenberg. NATO had supported Turkey’s invasion as part of a “security concern” even though there was no evidence of any attacks on Turkey from northern Syria. Instead it was the Syrians who had concerns about being forced from their homes and bombed. But Pompeo said that NATO allies, the US and Turkey, had a way forward and that the situation in Syria was “fragile” but could be “de-escalated.”
In a speech on October 22 Pompeo spoke about the “Kurdish forces” in Syria and “the Arab fighters that were part of the SDF were great warriors.” Then he said that Turkey had legitimate security concerns and that the PKK are terrorists. “So we were working, the State Department in the lead, along with our brethren at the Department of Defense, to build out a safe zone in the region, to try to mediate between the two.” While he mentioned Turkey numerous times, he mentioned Kurds once, and then linked them to the PKK. He did not mention the 200,000 people displaced by Turkey’s invasion, only that it had some ramifications on the anti-ISIS campaign. Meanwhile America’s ambassador for religious freedom Sam Brownback travelled to India on October 28, ignoring the Christians fleeing the Turkish invasion in Syria. The US congratulated Turkey on its national day.
On October 31 the US released a statement about the Geneva peace process and Syria, including a constitutional committee that would include representatives from Syria. The US excluded the SDF and all Kurdish groups from the committee, making sure that none of the groups the US had worked with in eastern Syria would play a role. The next day Pompeo spoke with Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and emphasized bilateral relations with Turkey. For the first time the US mentioned the “Turkish-supported Syrian opposition forces” in the safe zone. The US and Turkey discussed “mutual interests.” The same day the US released a statement about protests in Iraq, noting the “legitimate demands of the Iraqi people” and noting the restrictions on freedom of the press in Iraq. The US released no statements about any legitimate demands of Syrians in eastern Syria, neither the refugees forced from their homes by the Turkish invasion or the members of the SDF, Kurds or Arabs, who live in eastern Syria. By this time Trump had said the US would be staying in Syria to secure the oil.
On November 2 the only critique during the month of Turkey on human rights issues was released. The State Department had to acknowledge its NATO ally was “among the worst offenders” in imprisoning journalists. It was also the only member of NATO doing it.
A review of the timeline of official US statements, including Trump’s tweets and Department of Defense statements, reveals that the US State Department played a key and leading role in working with Turkey on the safe zone concept. It is also clear that much of the details about where Turkey would invade and take over was already presented in July or August. In fact maps had been circulating by that time. Turkey took its concept to the UN in September. The US knew that Turkish artillery and tanks were deployed and that Syrian rebel groups, many of them extremists who openly took videos saying they would ethnically cleanse, behead and murder local people, were on the way to the invasion.
It only took Turkey three days after Trump’s decision to begin bombing. This shows that the plans were in place and the forces ready. The US knew this because it referenced the “long-planned” operation. Turkey had been provided with joint patrols and flights over the area it intended to take over in August and September. The US had urged the SSDF to withdraw and also to remove any defensive positions. The US had thus paved the way to make the invasion as easy as possible, while paying lip service to opposing it. But Washington knew Turkey’s plans. It knew which groups were involved. It could have warned the SDF. It could also have warned Turkey against harming civilians and warned Turkey against using unregulated and extremist Syrian rebel groups. Instead the US did less than Russia and the Syrian regime to prevent Turkey from attacking the US partner forces among the SDF. The US didn’t warn or provide any humanitarian aid for those like Hevrin Khalaf, who were murdered. Children bombed in Qamishli received no US diplomatic support, in fact the US has never even acknowledged them or any of the estimated 300,000 people displaced.
In contrast the US issues statements about Lebanon or Iraq or other countries and the protests in them. The US has expressed concern about people being displaced in Idlib, but not eastern Syria. Up until October 6 the US had forces working side-by-side with the people who would be displaced. It had bases and posts among them. And yet, it did and said nothing after October 6, only worrying that Turkey’s invasion might distract from the anti-ISIS campaign.
The US State Department says it took the lead on the safe zone. It also says that it knew Turkey was aiming for a maximalist invasion up to 30km to the M4 highway. It also says that the YPG is the PKK, yet the same US voices never asked the SDF to remove PKK elements, nor did they affirm that the YPG was ever involved in anti-Turkish security threats from Syria. The US is in a catch-22 here because if it said the YPG conducted such activity from Syria then that would mean the US was working to train people threatening its NATO ally. Therefore it appears the US knew the YPG and SDF were not involving in any attacks. That means the US did not think they were a threat. However the Trump administration saw Syria as a “mess.” Now it wants only the oil. Yet it never communicated with its own partners, the SDF, about its concerns or about Turkey’s goals and how the US would respond. After October 6 the US appeared to freeze out the SDF and express no interest in its casualties or civilians in eastern Syria. The US also worked to exclude the SDF and civilian Kurdish groups in eastern Syria from Geneva talks, indicating that the US knew it would leave eastern Syria and didn’t want to be burdened with having any long-term connections to groups there. That is why there was no ceremony or thanks given to the SDF or even much acknowledgement of their efforts and sacrifice, or the community they came from.
In the end the picture that emerges from October is that the US never saw the SDF as anything more than as tool against ISIS, a cynical partnership to be maintained as a fiction until the US could figure out what to do with the oil and ISIS detainees the SDF continue to hold. Even the rhetoric about removing Iran from Syria now seems hollow as the US says it will use diplomacy to do this, without having much leverage. Since the first days of November the US has sent forces back into Syria, including armored vehicles, to hold oil wells near Hasakah and Deir Ezzor. But the overall pattern that emerges after October 6 is a State Department that saw in Trump’s decision a final decisive action in line with its own views that the US should focus only on bilateral relations with Turkey and big power politics such as NATO and confronting Iran with sanctions. The US was also concerned about Israel and Saudi Arabia’s reactions, and sought to assure them. The Pentagon’s adventure in Syria of training almost 100,000 members of the SDF, was almost totally forgotten. The civilians in eastern Syria were expendable. In fact, they weren’t even mentioned once by US officials in October as hundreds of thousands of them fled their homes. Despite a commitment to religious freedom, US officials also ignored Christian minorities forced to flee the Turkish bombardment and the threats of being beheaded by extremist groups taking over the “safe zone.”