I realized this week that for me, the Platonic ideal of a heartbreaking debacle is the sight of the US military high-tailing it down the road like scalded cats, fleeing the field, while the strike aircraft are called in to bomb their former outposts, destroying God knows what they had to leave behind in their mad scramble to leave. An unplanned, disorderly withdrawal like that is anathema to the professional soldiers who must have been fighting the dry heaves inside of those retreating Humvees, and it’s something I’ve never before seen American forces do. Sadly, they had their orders. Do you suppose the Kurds they were leaving behind either to die, or try to find somewhere to run, realized that it wasn’t their former comrades in arms who wanted to betray them? Do you suppose they cared?
The optics were so dreadful that even Trump, amid talking about how all of the indistinguishable players over there should be left to fight it out in their third world sandlot – “sand, they have a lot of sand they can play with”, he said, as countless acres of the stuff were saturating with Kurdish blood – realized that maybe he should put on some sort of song and dance to dupe people into believing this wasn’t all his idea in the first place. Part of the Kabuki theatre was to produce this extraordinary letter he’d sent to Turkey’s President Erdogan, imploring him to make a deal, a juvenile missive the likes of which nobody has ever seen in the context of formal diplomacy, and one which was so transparently unserious that Erdogan, having already been green-lit on his invasion, is said to have simply thrown it in the trash. Next came a diplomatic mission led by the two Mikes, Pence and Pompeo, whom Erdogan initially said he couldn’t be bothered to meet, but who arrived in Ankara and eventually brokered what Trump hailed as a “great day for civilization”.
So there was Pence, appearing even more like a 1950s era mannequin from the Sears men’s department than usual, standing next to the Turkish strongman, looking stern yet somehow feckless and diminished at the same time, announcing the grand bargain. The terms of this latest version of Peace in Our Time? Turkey would forgo slaughtering every Kurd its forces could find for five whole days, so long as the Kurds dropped their weapons, got out of all the territory Turkey intended to annex, and, essentially, vanished as a cohesive people. Tell you what, get the hell out and give me everything I want, and I’ll not have to bother killing you. How’d that be?
The comparisons to Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation over the Sudetenland were inevitable.
I guess you could call this a “deal”, if handing over your wallet rather than being stabbed is a “deal”, but it’s not clear what happens in the long run. The immediate effect seems to be that the Kurds can at least escape annihilation, if they decide to acquiesce to this foul bargain that was negotiated without consulting them, but if they decide to run, where should they go? Somewhere now controlled by Syria’s Assad, it seems, where they can give up on the dream of a safe space where they could govern themselves un-oppressed, and live ever after under the thumb of a brutal totalitarian with whom any bargain they might attempt will surely be meaningless.
Meanwhile, is Assad, backed by his Russian pals, party to some side deal under which he accepts a large swath of Syria under Turkish control? Or is he just expected to acknowledge the fait accompli and give up on it? Or perhaps after an interval the Turks will hand over control, on the understanding that the Syrian regime is no more sympathetic to the Kurds than Erdogan, and will keep them well and truly suppressed? Has Putin, who’s lately become quite chummy with Erdogan, promised to keep Assad in line, thus greasing the wheels of an operation that vastly suits Russia’s interests?
And what of ISIS? Erdogan never much cared about them, and didn’t do anything to impede the migration of ISIS recruits through Turkey to the battlefield over the past few years, since upon arrival they became a problem for both the Kurds and Assad, whom Erdogan despises in more or less equal measure. Probably he doesn’t now give a damn what happens to all those jihadists the Kurds had been holding. Assad might, though – maybe he’ll take custody of the imprisoned army? Or will they just break out and start another insurgency?
And what of the Iranians? They’ve had proxy forces and advisors in Syria for years, helping Assad. Their ambition is to create a “land bridge” to Lebanon, making it easy to support and supply their allies in Hezbollah, the mortal enemies of hated Israel. To the extent the removal of American influence from Syria helps them consolidate their position, this is bound to make the Israelis extremely unhappy, perhaps intensifying what has already been a protracted, undeclared war between the Jewish state and Iranian operatives in Syria, involving hundreds of air strikes. On the other hand, Iranians, who are Shia, despise ISIS, whose members adhere to the Salifi dogma of Sunni Islam; throughout the combat taking place all over Syria, Iranian forces have attacked ISIS with regularity. Maybe they’ll have something to say about what becomes of the warriors of the former caliphate?
None of this sounds like much of a recipe for long term stability, does it? Admittedly, establishing some sort of new, relatively peaceful status quo out of the rubble of Syria’s civil war was never going to be easy, if possible at all. I doubt anybody on the American side ever had a clear game plan on how it would all work out. My hope was that as Assad wound up his campaign of reconquest, taking back most of the country, American forces could remain in the new Kurdish zone as guarantors of the security of their allies, keeping both Erdogan and Assad at bay under some sort of fig leaf of purported Syrian government authority that amounted to Kurdish autonomy. After all, the Kurds made a point of never fighting with Assad’s forces, instead taking on ISIS, and there might be some respect for that. The Turks could be placated, perhaps, with the idea that the US would also guarantee Turkish security against any Kurdish insurgency originating in Northern Syria, while Assad might like the idea that the containment of ISIS would remain a Kurdish problem. Erdogan might even have been persuaded that an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, prevented by US leverage from serving as a base of operations against his regime, might be a great place for his own restive Kurds to migrate, curing to some extent his own ongoing headache of keeping them all down.
That would have been quite the high-wire act to pull off, but the dignity and honour of the United States, not to mention the obvious humanitarian imperatives, demanded nothing less than a strenuous attempt to make something like it happen. As to those who decry America’s “forever wars”, a position for which I have complete sympathy, I’d argue that this would have been different, not an ongoing, endless war going nowhere, but the planting of a garrison to ensure peaceful stability, something Americans do and have done all over the world, whether it’s in South Korea, Japan, or Europe. Yes, this sort of commitment is expensive and indefinite. That’s the price of shaping an entire global geopolitical environment to better suit your own interests and ideals.
Anyway, it’s all a pipe dream now. The biggest danger in the short term is that the Kurds, contemplating the choice between two tyrannies, will simply decide that it’s better to die on their feet than live on their knees any longer, and refuse to accept this rancid deal the Americans have made for them. There’s a risk, too, that Erdogan actually has no intention of adhering even to the five day cease-fire, figuring that the Kurds will never buy in to it, and means to continue operations while the Americans pretend to have achieved something. This could easily be blamed on Kurdish intransigence.
The biggest long term danger? You tell me.
At its best, what Trump’s “great day for civilization” amounts to is the throwing of a noble people into captivity, which is fine because after all, it’s just a bunch of sand over there, upon which none of the various local rabbles has any claim to America’s support and allegiance. Not even those poor, misguided naifs who were convinced to take up the cudgel and die by their thousands in support of America’s foreign policy.