Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told journalists in Abu Dhabi he was optimistic an agreement will be met between Ankara and Washington which will protect Kurdish groups without undermining Turkey’s ability to defend itself.
These statements came during a tour of the Middle East to alleviate concerns over President Donald Trump’s announcement in December that the United States would withdraw troops fighting the Islamic State in Syria.
Trump delivered different rationales to justify the withdrawal, claiming first IS has been sufficiently crippled and later asserting it was to save American lives and dollars.
The departure from Syria would leave the U.S.–backed Kurdish troops to defend themselves against IS and the Turkish government who considers these groups terrorists.
Kurdish allies described the decision as a blatant betrayal. Syrian Democratic Force, trained and armed by the U.S. to fight IS, stated, “the war against Islamic State has not ended and Islamic State has not been defeated,” as reported by The Guardian. “Any withdrawal would create a political and military vacuum in the area leaving its people between the claws of hostile parties.”
The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (SFP) is predominantly comprised of Kurds who are members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Ankara officially recognizes the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which they label a terrorist organization. Without U.S. presence, the Turkish government is faced with the fear of a Kurdish breakaway state.
Washington is stuck with its obligation to protect its Kurdish allies after the withdrawal. National Security Advisor John Bolton attempted to facilitate the withdrawal process in a meeting with Turkish officials. He proposed terms for the pull-out which included the complete defeat of IS and the assured security for Kurdish fighters. Bolton aimed to ensure the protection of Turkey’s southeastern region and Syria’s northern borders, where many Kurdish troops have quelled IS.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejected Bolton’s proposal as “unacceptable.” Turkey has long threatened an attack to subdue Kurdish groups in the south, and the U.S.’s withdrawal from Syria would leave the Kurds vulnerable to this possibility.
Pompeo claimed he spoke with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, telling journalists in Abu Dhabi he was confident a consensus could be met that would offer protection to the Kurds while allowing Ankara the right to “defend their country from terrorists,” although he gave no details as to what this protection would look like.
Kurdish journalist Arin Sheikmos told Associated Press the Kurds “have every right to be afraid. If the Americans pull out and leave us to the Turks or the [Syrian] regime, our destiny will be like the Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991. Neither the regime nor Iran nor Turkey will accept our presence here.”
The decision seemed to blindside military officials and experts. Jennifer Griffin, Fox News’ national security correspondent, tweeted “I am told that [U.S. Central Command], in particular, Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, feels ‘punched in the gut’ by the decision to withdraw troops from Syria. U.S. military commanders were shocked by the President’s decision but now are making plans to withdraw.”
Many foreign policy critics and specialists assert Trump’s decision would pave the way for a foreseeable IS comeback while handing Syrian territory to Russia and Iran on a golden platter. Trump has dismissed the criticism, claiming the U.S. is leaving Russia, Iran and Syria to deal with IS. Trump tweeted, “Why are we fighting our enemy, Syria, by staying & killing ISIS for them?” European allies weren’t conferred with before the decision, and many have contradicted Trump’s claims that IS has been defeated.
Vladimir Putin praised Trump’s decision to withdraw, stating U.S. troops were not needed and that IS had been subdued. The Russian military intervened upon request in Syria in 2015. Syria has long been Russia’s reliable foothold in the region. Putin has been a close ally and supporter of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and has sought to secure Assad’s regime throughout the Syrian crisis so as to maintain Russian influence in the region.
On the Russian TV station Dozhd, Konstantin von Eggert, a political commentator stated, “For now, it is really good news for Putin. Putin’s main goal from day one of his intervention was to establish himself as the global authority and to prevent regime change. In this, he has succeeded.”
“This was a decision that was made with lots of consultation between all the senior-level officials, including myself, with the president. So yes…I had more than a heads-up,” Pompeo told a radio show, despite Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s abrupt resignation.
Concerns about the repercussions of the U.S.’s withdrawal range from humanitarian crises, to a resurgence of terrorists, to Iranian empowerment. As reported in The Guardian, the SDF summarizes the widespread sentiment that Trump’s decision would have “dangerous implications for international stability.”