By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
In a December statement US Secretary of Defense sought to portray the SDF as seeking a Kurdish state as a way for the US to assert that it did not support the SDF’s agenda. This was largely a straw man and misleading argument, since the SDF never advocated a “Kurdish state” and because the SDF’s creation was a US goal, so it hewed its views to channel Pentagon narratives about being a multi-ethnic Syrian force.
So what was Mark Esper saying? It came in response to a question from Representative Elissa Slotkin on December 11, 2019:
“Elissa Slotkin presses Esper on whether US allowing Turkish incursion vs Syrian Kurds makes future mil partnerships harder. Esper: It ‘was a handshake that we would ensure the defeat of ISIS. It was not a handshake that said we would help establish an autonomous Kurdish state.”
The statement is part of a developing pattern of US statements that seek to distance the US from the SDF and portray it as almost an unwanted partner, certainly not an ally, and ignore the fact the US helped create, arm and train the SDF and encouraged it to take Raqqa and defeat ISIS in the middle Euphrates river valley.
For instance on November 14 the State Departments envoy for Syrian engagement and anti-ISIS envoy AmbassadorJames Jeffrey said “This is a temporary, tactical & transactional agreement with the very important goal of defeating ISIS…“It says nothing about the future of that or any other organization inside of Syria.” Jeffrey has said the words “temporary and transactional,” more often over the last six months. The origin of this can be found back in 2018 by Jeffrey’s statements. On December 18 he had said it was “tactical” and “transactional.” In May 2017 “The relationship between the United States and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) is a temporary, transactional and tactical one, a U.S. State Department official has said amid Turkey’s vociferous opposition to the ties.” Also inDecember 2017 Jonathan Cohen described the relationship with the YPG as “temporary, transactional, and tactical.” Dana Stroul used the same term in a USIP report in September2019.
“Although U.S. officials describe the relationship as “tactical, temporary, and transactional,” there is no publicly articulated policy for transitioning the nature of the U.S.-SDF relationship following the liberation of Syrian territory from ISIS.88 The United States never explicitly pledged support for Kurdish autonomy or self-rule in Syria. However, the YPG has leveraged the strategic and tactical support it received from the United States to establish civilian governance led by its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), across areas liberated from ISIS. The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the civilian counterpart to the SDF, has sporadically explored a settlement with the Assad regime, but the announced U.S. withdrawal in December 2018, while temporarily accelerating these efforts, simultaneously undercut the SDF’s negotiating position.”
Jeffrey also says “Our vision for the future in Syria is consistent with UN Resolution 2254, beginning with free and fair elections covering all Syrians in or outside of Syria…That’s the package we put on the table for the various groups – we deal w/the Syrian opposition groups in Istanbul, Cairo, and elsewhere, the SDF and other groups inside northeastern Syria…”
The reality is that the US worked to exclude the SDF and all Kurdish groups in eastern Syria from any participation in Geneva.
However on November 20 Ahval reported that the SDF and Kurds felt betrayed, a view that was common in both Syria and in the US regarding events. “Jeffrey made repeated public promises that US would protect SDF if they were attacked by Turkey…Not only did Jeffrey keep SDF in the dark, but he persuaded them to dismantle defence structures.”
The defense structures refer to the “security mechanism” of August and September where the US asked the SDF to remove defensive obstacles in areas near Tel Abyad that Turkey would subsequently target it in its offensive. In retrospect this looks like an obvious way to pave the way for Ankara’s operation. Ankara claimed that these were “security threats,” but Ankara had already planned its invasion. The US worked by Turkey’s timetable as Turkey prepared its SNA proxies to attack. It’s hard to believe in retrospect the US wasn’t aware of these plans, especially that Mike Pompeo, the former CIA head and Jeffrey, were not aware.
Many understood this at the time. Julia MacFarlane tweeted “SDF this AM reminding that the US persuaded them to draw down from key positions in NE Syria to appease the Turks in exchange for security guarantees. Now the SDF have no defences, this move allowing Erdogan to move in being seen as nothing less than a complete betrayal by the US.”
After the US withdrew on October 6and Turkey invaded on October 9, the US appeared to give new guarantees on the 17th. ” Dilshad Othman tweeted “The agreement covers the the current war zone area only. We at #SDF are ready to achieve anything to keep the ceasefire and the U.S gave us guarantees.”
Back in March 2019 the US had also given guarantees, the SDF said. “In the document, the Pentagon decided to sustain $300 million in US backing for the SDF, which is seeking the Trump administration’s guarantees of protection after leading the counter-IS fight.”
US diplomat William Roebuck thought the US had misled the SDF, he wrote in an earlyNovember leaked memo.
“They are a relatively small, largely local non-state actor. In some ways we, seeking a local partner to fight ISIS with us, may have inadvertently put a target on their back that did not exist before we came on the scene. At that time, while Turkey might have looked upon the PYD and its YPG militia as affiliated PKK organizations, it did not view them as an existential threat, the way Turkey has increasingly viewed them since they partnered with us. In 2015 senior PYD officials like Saleh Muslim and Elham Ahmed visited Turkey, meeting with senior GOT officials. They were not labeled terrorists or subjected to the language of extermination or other harsh rhetoric. But our military partnership with the SDF, never accepted by Turkey, over time seriously riled the Turks and seems to have caused them to see the YPG militia, the backbone of the SDF, together with the PYD political party, as an existential threat.”
He specifically mentioned Afrin in January 2018 when the SDF first saw signs of how the US would walk away.
“When the attack on Afrin occurred last winter, we told people, based on Washington’s guidance to reassure our partners ‘We can’t do anything about Afrin (which Turkey and its jihadi mercenaries attacked last year, dispossessing 170,000 people) because we aren’t there; no troops or air power. But we are here in the northeast. We are your close partner. Afrin can’t happen here.’”
Turkey had not made a secret of its intentions, warning for a year of the invasion. People had predicted that the US would do this.
Indeed, US guarantees were never written down.
On October 21 Pompeo said theUS had fulfilled its obligations to the SDF. “We jointly took down the threat of the Caliphate of ISIS,” Pompeo added. “It was to the benefit of the SDF, it was to the benefit of the United States of America, and indeed, to the benefit of the world. The commitment that we made to work alongside them we completely fulfilled.”
Pompeo had claimed that he always worked to “verify everything.” But he never verified this claim, “Our allies see it the same way. We had — got real commitments to protect ethnic minorities throughout the region from the Turks in the course of negotiating that statement. I think the work that we did saved lives.”