US Done Fighting Over 'Long-Bloodstained Sand' in Syria
By Jeff Seldin October 24, 2019
The United States is "getting out" of Syria, no longer willing to spend blood and treasure in a country ripped apart by civil war now that the Islamic State terror group's self-declared caliphate is gone.
President Donald Trump announced his decision at the White House on Wednesday, saying that with a U.S.-brokered cease-fire between Turkey and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria still holding, responsibility for peace in the region should be left to others.
"We have done them a great service," Trump said of U.S. efforts to end fighting between Turkey, a NATO ally, and the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have been a key partner in the U.S.-led campaign to defeat IS.
"This was an outcome created by us, the United States, and nobody else," he said. "Now we're getting out. ... Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand."
Trump's announcement came hours after he said Turkey assured the U.S. that the country's military campaign in northeastern Syria, aimed at clearing the Turkish-Syrian border of Kurdish fighters, whom Ankara regards as terrorists, was over.
The initial reaction from Syrian Kurdish officials was muted.
In a statement posted on social media, SDF Commander General Mazloum Abdi thanked Trump "for his tireless efforts that stopped the brutal Turkish attack" and for the promise of continued U.S. support.
But Abdi also said he spent time explaining "the Turkish violations" during the initial five-day pause in fighting that ended Tuesday.
As the hours passed, other Kurdish officials expressed increasing displeasure.
"This cannot be called a cease-fire," Ilhan Ahmed, the executive president of the SDF's political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council, told U.S. lawmakers late Wednesday.
"This is a continuation of the war," she said through a translator, adding, "This means that more people will be killed."
Officials with the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northeast Syria estimated that 250 men, women and children had been killed since Turkey launched its incursion following the withdrawal October 6 of U.S. special forces from near the Turkish-Syrian border.
Another 300 have gone missing, and there have been allegations that dozens more have been injured as a result of the use of white phosphorus or chemical weapons – a charge Turkish officials vehemently deny.
"We received promises from America," Ahmed said, explaining her sense of betrayal.
"We were told wherever [U.S.] forces exist, we won't allow any attack [from Turkey]," she said. "For this reason, we trusted the U.S."
Another Kurdish official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described Trump's Wednesday announcement in equally stark terms.
"It sounds to me that people of [northeast] Syria are being given up to the regime in Damascus," the official said.
Trump, though, mostly dismissed such concerns.
"We're achieving a much more stable area between Turkey and Syria, including a 20-mile-wide [30-kilometer-wide] safe zone," he said at the White House, adding it was time for other countries to "get involved."
"The nations in the region must ultimately take on the responsibility of helping Turkey and Syria police their border," he said.
Trump also said that while he was lifting U.S. sanctions on Turkey, the U.S. reserved the right to reimpose new and more devastating punitive measures against Ankara if it failed to live up to its commitment to protect minorities and civilians.
"We'll monitor the situation in Syria closely," a senior U.S. administration official said, adding that even with the continuing withdrawal of U.S. forces, "we have plenty of means and methods to do so."
The official also said that, so far, Washington had not detected any evidence of forced population removals or ethnic cleansing.
But the U.S. State Department's top official for Syria, Ambassador James Jeffrey, told lawmakers that there was evidence of war crimes at the hands of some of the militias that have taken part in the Turkish offensive.
"We have reached out to Turkey to demand an explanation," he said during testimony on Tuesday.
There were also questions as to what happens next.
While Trump on Wednesday hailed the U.S.-brokered cease-fire as a "great outcome," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a separate deal with Russia just a day earlier.
That deal, negotiated with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, calls for removing Kurdish forces from an even wider zone along the Syrian-Turkish border and for joint patrols with Turkish and Russian forces.
Video provided by VOA's Kurdish service showed Russian military vehicles Wednesday entering the Syrian city of Kobani, which is located on the border with Turkey.
There were doubts, however, that Turkey and Russia, which has long backed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, would be able to maintain any stability in an already volatile area.
"It's more dangerous," said Michael Pregent, a former U.S. military adviser who was embedded with Kurdish forces in Iraq.
"Turkey can't control the forces that it's introduced into northern Syria. Russia doesn't have enough of a ground presence to keep everyone quiet," said Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington research group.
A Kurdish official who has worked with U.S. forces in the region and who has ties to Kurdish leaders in both Syria and Iraq also expressed concern.
"It is a mess and Trump wants to try to get out of it like a hero," he told VOA on the condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the situation. "The 'safe zone' won't be safe. Mark my words."
Current and former U.S. intelligence and military officials were also wary, particularly of the impact the decision will have on the U.S.-led effort to defeat IS.
They said that while the terror group's physical caliphate had been destroyed, a resurgence was already underway, with an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 fighters across Syria and Iraq rebuilding capabilities and carrying out attacks.
Can anyone fight back?
And there were doubts as to whether any of the forces in Syria has the ability or the willingness to counter an IS insurgency.
"The [Assad] regime, not only has it not been very effective against ISIS, there have been times in the campaign where it might have even supported some elements of ISIS," said retired Colonel Ketti Davison, who helped lead U.S. intelligence efforts for the coalition to defeat Islamic State. "Russia has never prioritized the counter-ISIS fight, and neither has Turkey."
Trump on Wednesday said the U.S. would leave a "small number" of troops in Syria to help guard oil fields currently under Kurdish control, something defense officials said was necessary to keep the oil out of Islamic State's hands.
Multiple former officials raised doubts that such a small contingent would be able to have much of an impact.
"Even if we had the desire to continue to support the SDF, General Mazloum [Abdi] and the SDF have cut a deal with the [Assad] regime, and we do not support the regime," said Davison, now with the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
VOA White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.
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